As I get closer to my second wedding, I have begun to think a great deal about the first. I’ll be honest, I don’t remember much of the ceremony. It felt like a blur… and my feet were killing me. I do, however, remember part of the homily that was given that afternoon. There were two, actually. We got married at my former in-laws church who had a policy that required couples to use one of their pastors in our service. We also wanted someone who knew us to say something, so we invited our supervisor to give the second one. This was a man we had been working, whom we both respected tremendously, and who knew us both very well. During his homily, he did said some things about the both of us. He did some unpacking of the etymology of my first wife’s name. I remember a round of “Amens” when he made a comment about her being a precious gift to me. Funny what the mind holds on to. Then he turned to me. And then he turned to me and said “Derrick, you are sensitive. A lot of people will tell you that that sensitivity is a weakness, but I want to tell you that it is a strength”. To give a little more context, this man was my supervisor when I was doing outreach to middle school kids on the North Side of Pittsburgh. I had worked in a team, including my former wife, that would plan activities, outings, and events for kids all while helping them with homework and attempting to teach them a little bit about God. I was often the one who in the middle of planning would stop the process and ask the question that I had been sitting on for ten minutes about how what we were doing would affect the kids. Some times that would lead to “objection noted… moving on” but often times it would lead us to totally change our plan of action. I guess it was in the numerous conversations and planning meetings where that part of me came to the surface where the sensitivity he spoke of shone through.
I think I’ve always felt things deeply. There was a time though where that “feeling” was disguised as “thinking” and I’m pretty sure that was the way I wanted it to be. I wanted people to think of me as analytical and intellectual. I was fine with being perceived as a little cold as long as people thought I was smart. The truth is that intellect was just a mask to cover deep sadness and insecurity. I never wanted people to see my sadness. I remember escaping away from my family after my grandfather’s funeral to go off and cry by myself. They, of course, found me and I felt weak. Sadness was weakness and I would much rather bury those feelings than have anyone perceive me as weak. Even when the pain of existing got too much for me in high school, it felt much more logical to end my own life than to express the sadness I was feeling to another person.
A shift happened in my life at some point and there is only one person to blame: Thomas Weston. When my son was born, there was no intellectual construct to hold what was inside of me. Rational thought had no place in this new paradigm. There was nothing logical about him, his existence, our relationship, or the utter joy I felt at being his father. I began to allow myself to feel more depths of my feelings. I felt deep wells of love that I didn’t know existed inside of me. Love, pride, joy, happiness… it was all unleashed. Unfortunately, it also gave me the ability to feel the depths of pain that I had kept buried as well. Inadequacy, failure, anxiety about my ability to be what this tiny person needed me to be. Pandora’s box was open. It may seem like I am being overly dramatic, but I can give concrete indicator here. From 2003-2010 I consistently tested on the Myers Briggs as an INTP. Since 2011 I have consistently tested as an INFP. I’m telling you, that kid wrecked me in the best possible way!
Over the last few years, my sensitivity has felt like a huge weakness. It often leads me down the road to depression. It has caused me to interpret things as insults that weren’t meant to be so. It has made me emotionally needy, far needier than I want to be and that neediness has made me toxic at times. My insecurities hang out closer to the surface than they once did. I, at times, will joke about being dead inside simply hoping that it could be so. I find myself pulled between strong emotions. I get easily discouraged. I haven’t always felt safe to feel what I do, so I retreat into places where it may be safer to feel or I retreat into numbness. My sensitivity makes me feel world events on an uncomfortable level. I sometimes find myself feeling totally overwhelmed by the news in a way that feels juvenile.
Of course, feeling things deeply is not all curse. I am sympathetic and compassionate. I am present for my kids, my friends, and my partner. I anticipate when things might be hard for others and try to mitigate that pain. I have a great capacity for love. I think my sensitivity has helped me to raise sensitive children and I love to watch them feel their big feelings and know that it is safe to do so. Feeling comfortable with my feelings has freed others to feel their feelings at times when they’ve needed to express them and I am grateful to provide that for people.
Sensitivity, the way that I experience it, can be a strength and it has taken some time for me to reframe that. In a world run by toxic masculinity, I think it is important that men talk about the depths of our feelings. I think we have to find healthy spaces to feel and healthy spaces to express the depth of our feeling. I think we need to be more comfortable with tears. That it is still a place where I struggle. I don’t cry nearly as much as I think would be healthy for me. We need to teach our sons that it is okay to feel. Our daughters tend to be more emotionally intelligent than we are, so we need to learn from them, but we also need to teach them that they should not let themselves be on the receiving end of men’s unprocessed emotions.
When I first started with my current therapist, she told me that I didn’t have the infrastructure for feelings. It was one of the funnier things I had ever heard, made funnier by how true it was. As I have been building that infrastructure over the last few years, I find new pains, fears, and anxieties. I also find new joys, new peace, and new wells of compassion. It is a a strength to feel so deeply, a strength and a privilege. In Ephesians 4, the author speaks against the hardness of heart of those who do evil (vs.17-19) and commands that we be tenderhearted (v.32). There’s a risk there. We risk being hurt, being taken advantage of, and looking weak and foolish. It is the risk of vulnerability. It is the risk of love. In God’s economy, we are at our strongest when we are weak.
So I carry that lesson from my first wedding into the life that lies ahead of me. My sensitivity is my strength. May it be so.