This is a question that many people ask themselves. It is a subject that comes up with many individuals in counselling sessions. I have written elsewhere about ‘validating emotions’ but here I would like to talk more about a related topic, ‘sensitivity’. This is, excuse the pun, a sensitive and slightly nuanced topic so one must get back to fundamentals about human nature to understand it. A great place to start for understanding these fundamentals is Aristotle who some have referred to as ‘the father of psychology’ (1).
The Merits of Sensitivity:
Aristotle noted that those with a high degree of sensitivity also tended to be highly intelligent. To perceive, respond to and organise sensory information in the world in a quick and logical fashion requires heightened senses. In this life, we are reliant on our body, i.e. our sense organs, to gather sensory information from the world, while the intellect, i.e. a faculty of the soul, organises and makes sense of this information. Some people’s bodies are more responsive to information coming in through the senses. These people are more likely to feel bodily pain more intensely and be more susceptible to information overload. It is more likely that those who are highly sensitive will end up going to see a mental health professional. Now, while some of us may bemoan our sensitivity, being highly sensitive is not necessarily a bad thing. It is linked to higher intelligence and sensitivity also has some higher endorsements than this. Our Lord, Jesus Christ, had the most sensitive skin, as emphasised by many Doctors of the Church, e.g. St Bonaventure, and due to this, He was subject to the most painful and excruciating physical pain in His passion. Our Lord’s example shows us that having a high degree of sensitivity is not a bad thing. Many of the saints also had a high degree of sensitivity. This includes the likes of St Francis Xavier, who has been described as ‘vibrantly sensitive’ (2) and St Terese of Lisieux, who has been described as ‘super sensitive’ (3). As I have argued elsewhere, sanctity and insanity are incompatible, and the model of the saint should be our model for normal. Many saints were able to combine a high degree of sensitivity with a high degree of sanctity. The temptation today, when we feel overwhelmed by life, is to try to numb the sensitivity of our body. As Carol Robinson points out in ‘My Life with Thomas Aquinas’ (4), this can be particularly tempting for Catholics who know and love the Faith and see how much our societies are rejecting Christ and His teachings: ‘There is that wide gap between religion and daily life…which is creating a terrific tension in our lives. This is probably the root reason why lay Catholics have mental breakdowns. The more penetrating and sensitive they are the more sharply they feel the contrast between the nobility of their religion and the sordidness of the economic aspirations; between the intensity of their spiritual life and the dullness of mechanical work and play.’ The toxicity of the world can get in at individuals, especially sensitive ones. There are many substances which can take some of the sensitivity away, e.g. alcohol, drugs, psychiatric drugs/medications. These drugs can have a numbing effect on our senses. These can be useful at times to ‘take the edge off’ and help us to relax or unwind but these substances are not long-term solutions to our sensitivity. So, what is the solution? Well, before we look for solutions, we must make sure we have an accurate diagnosis. This is where the great Angelic Doctor of the Church and most sensitive of men, St Thomas Aquinas, whose ‘flesh, according to William of Tocco, was the delicate and sensitive flesh which Aristotle says is peculiar to those endowed with great power of intellect’ (5), comes in.
Understanding the Passions:
In St Thomas’ treatise on the passions in his masterpiece, ‘Summa Theologica’ (6), he provides the fundamental foundation for understanding and evaluating whether passions, i.e. the sensitive appetites, are right or wrong in their expression. In this treatise, St Thomas challenges the philosophy of both Cicero and the Stoics who saw the passions as ‘diseases’ and ‘disturbances’. St Thomas notes that their philosophy is built on a misunderstanding of passions. (Note: St Thomas says that ‘passions are not called “diseases” or “disturbances” of the soul, save when they are not controlled by reason.’ For further insight into St Thomas’ refutation of Cicero’s and the Stoic’s interpretation of the passions, see: http://summa-theologiae.org/question/14302.htm). While St Thomas acknowledges the dangers of the passions he also notes how, in and of themselves, the passions are neither good nor bad. He acknowledges how passions are bad if they are not in accordance with reason and good if they are in accordance with reason. For example, hating God, who is the supreme good, is against reason, while loving God is in accordance with reason. St Thomas acknowledges that passions can lead one astray. Reason must be their master. ‘The passions of the soul, in so far as they are contrary to the order of reason, incline us to sin: but in so far as they are controlled by reason, they pertain to virtue.’ He goes on further to show how passions that are controlled by reason and rejoice in the things of God are a sign of moral perfection. ‘Just as it is better that man should both will good and do it in his external act; so also does it belong to the perfection of moral good, that man should be moved unto good, not only in respect of his will, but also in respect of his sensitive appetite; according to Ps. 83:3: “My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God”: where by “heart” we are to understand the intellectual appetite, and by “flesh” the sensitive appetite.’
Many examples of this perfection of moral good are apparent in the lives of the saints and holy men. For example, St John Vianney sorrowed at offences against God: ‘He was a saint, that is to say, he loved God with all his soul, and they scarcely told him of anything except offences committed against God. This lacerated his heart, and in his most intimate conversations he could not repress the grief it caused him. ‘Ah! It is here one must come, to know all the harm that sin of Adam has done to us’, he repeated time after time. ‘My God!’, he exclaimed one day, ‘how weary I am of sinners! When shall I be with saints!’ And another day: ‘The good God is as much sinned against, that one is almost tempted to ask for the end of the world. If there were not, here and there, some beautiful souls to repose the heart, and solace the eyes for all the evil that one sees and hears, we could not tolerate each other in this life.’ While sorrowing at the offences against God, he rejoiced in the honour given to Him: ‘When he preached from the altar, his eyes never rested on the Tabernacle without his being seized with a kind of breathless transport. He never spoke of the Mass without being moved to tears ‘Oh, my friend,’ he said one day to a seminarist, who was speaking of the grandeur of the priesthood, ‘when I carry the Blessed Sacrament to the right, It remains there, I carry it to the left and it remains there also. One will never understand the happiness there is in saying Mass until one is in heaven.’ (7).
Another remarkable saint, St Dominic, showed how his heart and his flesh grieved at offences against God: ‘Day and night he was in the church, praying as it were without ceasing, God gave him the grace to weep for sinners and for the afflicted; he bore their sorrows in an inner sanctuary of holy compassion, and so this loving compassion which pressed on his heart flowed out and escaped in tears. It was his custom to spend the night in prayer, and to speak to God with his door shut. But often there might be heard the voice of his groans and sighs, which burst from him against his will.’ (8).
The following piece on the saintly Cardinal Merry del Val, Secretary of State to St Pius X, shows how sensitive a truly pious and God loving soul reacts to offences against God: ‘Free at last from diplomacy and politics, in his solitary and silent home of Santa Marta, he could give full freedom to the longings of his holy soul: to that delicate and sensitive piety which made him suffer when he saw God’s law broken. To hear any profane language on the street used to horrify him, and even upset him physically. Once, in a country town, he saw some porters loading sacks of grain on to a waggon; one of these was torn, so that the contents ran out on to the road; the porter broke out into the vilest language, even in the presence of some boys. The Cardinal was affected for the whole day, and in the evening, in addition to his usual visit to the Blessed Sacrament, he made another and a long one. Going out for a walk one day, he met a carriage-driver in the piazza, who was uttering blasphemous words against Our Lady. He went up to him, reproved him, and, taking his number, said that he would report him, all the more that the offence was punishable by law; he was only prevented from so doing by the man’s entreaties and promises. The same delicate sensitiveness made him feel for dumb animals, which he could not bear to see ill-treated, and more than once he intervened to hinder such treatment, or cause it to cease.’ (9). These passages illustrate how great men in the Church were highly sensitive. They also show how their hearts and flesh rejoiced in the goodness of Our Lord and sorrowed at offences against Him and His creatures.
An Objective Standard:
So, where does this leave us in relation to evaluating whether somebody is ‘overly sensitive’? First, we must recognise that to judge whether somebody is ‘overly sensitive’ we require examples and an objective and rational standard to base this off. Where do we find these examples? There is no better place to look to than the examples of Our Lord and His saints. These provide Divine and holy examples of sensitive reactions. They show us how to direct and manage our sensitivity. Where do we find an objective and rational standard to evaluate sensitivity? For those who wish to have a sound scientific footing for understanding sensitivity and the passions, there is no better place to look than St Thomas Aquinas.
The Solution to this Sensitive Topic:
If mental health professionals are to help people cope with life, they must understand what a human being is and what an ordered life looks like. To define ‘disorder’ one must know what order looks like first. Our Lord provides the Divine example of a perfectly ordered life and His saints provide holy examples for us to intimate. St Thomas provides the philosophical foundation for the understanding of psychological order. Since Protestants detached themselves from the infallible guide that is the Catholic Church in the 16th century and since scholastic philosophy, e.g. St Thomas, has been ridiculed and rejected by many in the 19th and 20th century, the mental health ‘experts’, i.e. psychologists, psychiatrists and psychotherapists, have come up with their own subjective understandings of what a disorder is. In our modern times, there is much more understanding of the neurology of the brain and increased awareness of the biological processes operating throughout our body that affect our senses than there was during the times of St Thomas. For example, we know more about the essential vitamins and minerals that are necessary for the healthy functioning of the senses. However, more importantly at a deeper philosophical and theological level, there is less understanding about what one should do with one’s sensitivity. There is even less understanding about one should be sensitive to. We live in a time where we can fix many sensory issues or problems that we may have, e.g. glasses for eyes, hearing aids for ears, yet, many of us have no idea of how we should use the senses God has given us. Today’s apparent ‘experts’ on these matters seem even less enlightened than the average citizen with many encouraging or condoning the use of the senses in activities that are offensive to God, e.g. abortion, contraception, fornication, homosexual behaviour, etc. If placating guilty consciences does not work, oftentimes, the reaction of mental health professionals and apparent mental health ‘experts’ to particularly sensitive individuals is to sedate and numb them with drugs.
It is no wonder that sensitive individuals, who fail to find answers from modern mental health professionals/experts, struggle to understand and cope with their sensitivity and engage in various means to numb their sensitivity, e.g. drink, drugs, or try get a hold of them of their sensitivity, e.g. New Age practices, yoga, mindfulness, or try to satisfy their sensitive appetites, e.g. fornication, food, sentimental religious practices such as the Charismatic/Pentecostal movements. None of these will provide the answers people are looking for. The solution to one’s sensitivity is not a bemoaning of one’s sensitivity as you try to numb it or a glorification of one’s sensitivity as you try to feed its insatiable appetite. Nor is it a flight to New Age gurus who pose as peaceful enlightened beings. It is a return to what St Thomas and the Catholic Faith teaches us. It is a mastering of one’s sensitivity and a habitual training of one’s passions so that they rejoice in that which is virtuous and true and sorrow over vice and toxic falsehoods. There are natural methods, e.g. fasting, exercise, penances, that help one to master one’s sensitivity. All these efforts must be directed by love of God, who is Truth, Goodness and Beauty Himself. Ultimately, grace, through the Holy Ghost, is the most powerful force for ordering oneself and one’s sensitivity in the right manner so that, through this ordering, one can experience the spirit of liberty that St Paul speaks about (‘Now the Lord is a Spirit. And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty’ – 2 Corinthians 3:17) and that Our Lord promises to those who follow Him (‘And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’ – John 8:32).
So for 2020, may God bless you in your efforts to find peace, freedom and happiness. May He take a hold of your heart as well as your flesh and may your heart and flesh both rejoice in Him.
- For example, see: https://intelltheory.com/aristotle.shtml
- ‘C. C. Martindale, S. J. (1934), ‘What are Saints?’ – Sheed & Ward: London
- Amabel Du Coeur de Jesus (1953) ‘To Love and To Suffer’. Newman Press
- Carol Robinson (reprinted – 1992). ‘My Life with Thomas Aquinas’, Angelus Press: Kansas.
- Maritain, J. (1947) ‘St Thomas Aquinas’, The Catholic Book Club: London.
- See: http://summa-theologiae.org/T13.htm
- Vianney, Joseph (1906) ‘The Blessed John Vianney’
- Drane, A. T. (1891) ‘Life of St Dominic’
- Monsignor Dalpiaz, V. (1937). ‘Cardinal Merry del Val’ Burns, Oates & Washbourne: London