(RNS) — This summer, I learned — quite accidentally — that I’m a Highly Sensitive Person. I had never heard of such a thing. I was reading a book about another subject altogether, and the book mentioned this trait in passing.
Now, it’s not a big deal. Lots of people, I learned, are HSPs. Even so, upon reading more about it and taking the test, a great deal of my life suddenly made sense, even parts that I didn’t know could make more sense.
The people in my life have long made peace with my aversion to bright lights, synthetic material, and long trips away from home, for example. But what I now better understand is my constant feeling of being overwhelmed, especially over the past few years as my life has grown increasingly public in the midst of, and in part as a result of, ongoing controversies within my denominational and professional life.
I’m not in any of this alone, of course. The church at large and my denomination specifically are going through a reckoning unlike any that has taken place for generations, so it makes sense that many of us are distressed, disoriented or deconstructing.
Everywhere we turn — on social media, in the news, in our own families, among friends and in the church (especially in the church) — wounded people are crying out, voicing hurts and revealing pains that often have been carried and hidden for years.
This airing of wounds breaks longstanding, often unspoken, rules of an American culture characterized by a stoic stick-to-itiveness, one often translated by the church into a façade of happy-clappy, shiny people.
But, while I’m glad to see this new and brave vulnerability, bearing witness to these walking wounded brings wounds of its own — in the way a stone cast into the waters ripples out into eternity.
It hurts to see others hurt. It hurts to feel helpless, or worse, unwittingly complicit in another’s pain.
It hurts to see the long effects of abuse, of racism, of misogyny. It is painful to witness brothers and sisters fighting one another instead of serving, helping and loving one another. The polarization and division both in the church and out of it that we see played out in the news and on social media deliver fresh pain daily as the demonization of and by each side seems to ever intensify.
It’s hard at times not to despair.
My deepest desire on most days is simply to retreat. Yet, I can’t make myself not care. (Empathy is also linked to Highly Sensitive Persons.)
A close friend recently urged me to read Henri Nouwen’s “The Wounded Healer,” which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and is now a classic work of Christian literature.