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(Painting by Liza Ezhevskaya)

(Painting by Liza Head)

A one, a two, a one, two, three…

The day begins, unfolding in a geometric progression of regular plans, emails to write, things to do on a flat screen of the computer, everything is two-dimensional.

These are the days when I feel strongly the frailty of other people. That elderly gentleman walking up to the store in slacks and an off-white, starched dress shirt when it’s 98 degrees outside. He is honoring tradition, a sense of decorum, hearkening back to a time and place where you dressed up to go out, even to the nearest mercado. It hurts to see the shirt hang straight down off his spare shoulders.

Every one of us carries a certain burden, a certain doubt. Standing at a light with the windows down, the chain-smoker in the next car over hollers, “Cheer up, kid, it can’t be that bad!” Thanks, lady. I wish you wouldn’t kill yourself slowly with those cigarettes. But really, I appreciate the sentiment.

Then at the next light – “Hungry, every bit helps”. C’om on, guy, why won’t you get a job? He can’t get a job, he has no permanent address, no clean pants to wear for the interview, no toothpaste, no quiet evening at home to get his paperwork together. He is living the permanent vacation. Doesn’t even know what he wants, but every bit helps. I pull out a sock stuffed with soap, deodarent, hygiene items and the other sock, and flag the homeless man. “Thanks,” he says, “I’m wearing a pair of those right now.” And he sure is. “I’m sorry we’ve collectively failed you” I murmer and thank God for the green light.

Some of us – brave and powerful, some – meek and barely looking up. Slinking through life on our bellies, it’s like for a very brief moment I am given insight to all of the hurting.

At the gas station, I pay and cannot help notice her hands: just regular hands but ones that someone has loved, someone has kissed tenderly. These hands that wring out clothes before drying them, that peel potatoes and soak to the elbow in dishwashing detergent. Many years ago, they might have been the tiny baby fingers that a mother gently caressed, or maybe they had perpetual fingernail dirt and no love at all.

People are strange, when you’re a stranger, faces look ugly, when you’re alone. I want to pull in and hide inside my shell, but it is transparent and there is no place to shield yourself from all of the faces, the hands, the carefully tucked-in shirts, the buffed shoes, the frailty, the vulnerability. This is what Jim might have felt. They are so painfully familiar, and yet, you feel strange.

And when you’re strange, faces come out of the rain. No one remembers your name…

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A few months ago Gri and I went to see Safe House, a gritty action thriller with lots of up-close sequences of hand-to-hand combat, choppy video and audio, and night-time shots with cameras presumably mounted on shoulders of running men puffing through the darkness. For most of the film I felt like I was in a remake of the Blair Witch Project, but with more gut spillage. When the thing finally ended I came out feeling emotionally adulterated, dizzy and somewhat nauseous. Life looked grim and threatening. Gri, on the other hand, smiled cheerfully and proposed to go grab a bite to eat.

Thing is, I don’t go to the movies a lot. For this exact reason: the surround-sound is way too loud, the spinning, spectacular camera angles make my dizzy, and I feel aggressed by the overwhelming intensity of it all. I understand that it’s a matter of being too easily affected by sensory inputs. If I wanted to, I could train myself slowly, gently cranking up the volume and cruelty meters, dulling my sensitivity to LOUD!!! and GORY!!! and IN YOUR FREAKEN FACE AMAZING!!! This is what typically happens in childhood, isn’t it? A six-month old might feel uncomfortable sitting at a screening of Mortal Combat 3. A four year old might cry when he sees heads blown off, or might instinctively duck when a huge space ship flies off the screen and right into your face in 3D. By the time you’re eight or nine, especially if you’ve been playing video games and watching this kind of stuff, you’re immune to it all.

This, to me, is devastating.

If  major sensory overload does nothing for a thirteen year old, how will they be able to sense and appreciate the subtly nuanced hues of an Old Master painting? Where will they find the attention span to read about the lazy, melancholy South in Faulkner’s Light in August? If they, or we, make Law and Order:Special Victims Unit and Zombie Apocalypse movies household names, how are we going to be able to perceive *anything* that is less black and white, ethically?

I wish it was all that simple: protect your sensitivity to sensory and negative emotional stimulus as much as possible, all the time. Does this mean we should avoid pornography? Yes. What about detailed descriptions of Nazi experiments on humans during the 1930’s and 40’s? Should we read Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom? The answers seem to be in the affirmative, but being “sheltered” is also frowned upon. The issue becomes even more complex when you realize that, as a parent, it is up to you to introduce painful, difficult truths to your children, thereby inadvertently dulling their sensitivity, or causing them pain. “I know it’s unfair, but that’s the way it is” and “Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad people in the world…” are deeply unsatisfying responses that I find myself giving to my kids for lack of anything better.

But this is not a new issue. After all, I am not the first person speaking up for preserving one’s sensitivity. I made a decision a while ago to consciously guard it, so as not to lose it completely. Thankfully, I am still able to marvel at beautiful color combinations in the sunset clouds, and to be totally blown away by movies like Avatar and Life of Pi. Thankfully, I have not lost my hearing. And yet, I wonder if the close attention I’ve paid to my exposure to ethically questionable stimulus has done more harm than good.

By becoming used to violence, crime, immorality, cruelty on TV, we are not as traumatized when we encounter it in real life. Yeah, just another nutcase that murders twenty children…just another story about three girls being held captive for ten years. There is nothing new under the sun, and suffering is an inextricable part of the human experience. In a twisted sort of way, we are protected from it all by a thick wall of abstraction. And, if we do have a moral compass about us, we can calmly help rescue abuse victims, or fight poverty, or combat drug trafficking without getting bogged down by the depravity of everything we encounter.

Recently I got involved in an anti-sex trafficking organization. In order to work with human trafficking victims, all of the volunteers have to go through a training course and read several books on the issues of abuse, poverty, exploited children and human trafficking in the US. The books came in the mail a few days ago, and I peered inside to preview what we’re going to be learning during the training. After a few minutes of reading, I had to put the books down. I was feeling dizzy and nauseous, just like after Safe House: totally unprepared to process the information coming at me. I chose to know it, to learn it and to work in this sphere because here is truth about the world we live in – truth you have to know. And yet, having no preparation in terms of emotional endurance, I feel incapacitated. As a result, I cannot help.

So I start thinking: maybe I should be watching Law and Order too? Preemptively.

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