Thursday, February 7, 2013


At forty-five I am tougher than I ever was. On balance, this is no shame. For my survival it was essential that I develop skin, and so I have. Once I was no more than a raw, jangling nerve. If you'd brushed your hand by me, I would have felt for days the heat of contact, the hairs on my arm standing up at attention, bracing against unnamed threat.

As a toddler I punched a housekeeper in the stomach (an ample stomach, to be sure) because she had a habit of pinching my cheek hard and wriggling in one fat fist the skin of mine she'd collected.

If you imagine that for me the daily ritual of elementary school might have been akin to wrapping myself around a cactus, you imagine right.

The boys who pulled on the back of my dress, a blue woolen dress with a white Peter Pan collar and three daisies embroidered on the front, must have been flabbergasted to elicit such guttural howls from me. I never wore the dress again, after that day. I was not a child who made the same mistake twice.

The virtue of my youthful condition was that I was as exquisitely tuned to your pain as to my own. I cared for you when you were hurting, all of you outcasts as damaged as my own small self.

I was the kid who volunteered to sit with the unpopular girl on the ride to the hospital after our classmates, freshly arrived at a farm on a field trip and thinking themselves funny, had pushed her off of the barn's hay loft and broken her leg. Third grade. This choice of mine, to side so obviously with a victim, served only to make me unpopular, at least for a time, but I never did suffer fools lightly.

With no small effort I cultivated my shell, and now I am safe. It is about time, I know. But I sense the loss of some of my outsized empathy, for you, you, and you. Oh, I talk the talk. Yet in order to save myself I had to abandon you, didn't I?

Time stops for no man, I think they say. Over the years I collected the weak and weary, and I faithfully inscribed your particulars in my little book. It occurs to me that I have lost that book, and that somehow I never even took note of its absence.

Is this adulthood, then? I'll take it - I don't have a choice - but not without a passing glance at all the victims, all the snot-nosed children shoved out of the hay loft and landing limp, limbs akimbo -- so many Raggedy Annes and Andys. It may seem so, but I haven't really forgotten you, even if I've misplaced your names and addresses.

What else is it that they say?  This: Takes one to know one.  And so I do, yes I do.


alejna said...

I love this so much, Sarah.

V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios said...

And this is why I sometimes have to detach from social media and mainstream news. I can feel too much, be asked to carry more than I can, be crushed by the heavy weight of hopelessness. If I'm too help ANYONE, if I'm to be strong enough to carry my own burdens, I have to put something down first. My hands and heart get too full. My head reaches capacity. I don't think of this as Adulthood. I think of it more as Survival.

Nicole said...

People who pinch children's cheeks SHOULD be punched in the stomach.

I was always a high strung, anxious, emotional child. I still am, but tougher, I think.

Kathryn said...

I think that you use that empathy in your job now, with all those first graders.

I had a childhood cut abruptly short by my parent's divorce. I remember distinctly, life before and then the aftermath my childhood and adolescence became. It was ugly, confusing, bereft.

Beautifully written, Sarah.

Christine said...

Sarah this is me. I could have written this. PLEASE go read the book The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron. Please. Do it soon. We need to talk. xo

Liz said...

As someone whom (it could be said) works with the 'weak and the weary', this post explores a question that fascinates me both in both a professional and personal sense - what level of detachment is 'healthy' (in terms of allowing empathy while warding off burnout or despair)? During my first social work job, in a palliative care ward, I decided that a 'healthy' level of detachment was achieved when I managed not to cry in front of any patients/clients (as to do so would distract from the focus on their needs and potentially make them feel even more burdened), but still needed to take time out occasionally to have a little weep in my office. Years later, I realise that I can't remember when I last had a 'little weep'. I'm not sure if this means I've developed better coping mechanisms or if it's a sign that I've become rather too detached. During my years at the hospital I was proud to be part of what I regarded as a 'crack team' of social workers - feisty, skilled professionals all. I remember looking round our lunch table one day and realising that, despite being a diverse group with widely differing 'styles', we all seemed to share an inherent bias towards optimism. I have often thought since that this kind of personality may be crucial to surviving long-term (and thus achieving a genuinely useful level of experience) in the front line helping professions. In these roles, if your glass ain't half full it'll be empty by the end of an average working day. A shame, as people with particularly acute empathy and sensitivity (such as you describe) would have so much to offer in these roles - but often need to develop the shell you describe in order to survive emotionally. Don't know if I'm making sense - sorry for rambling - in short, a most thought-provoking post!!