As I sat in the library waiting for my computer to boot up the other day, I opened the book I’d just picked up from the “New Releases” shelf on my way in. Titled “In Pursuit of Silence,” it was about noise in our society, the reasons for it, and the history behind why we’re so noisy. As I read the first paragraph, a guy in flip-flop sandals walked to the cubicle beside mine and started to unpack his bag. I noticed him mostly because his shoes made such a loud and distracting sound, particularly in the otherwise mostly quiet library.
I chuckled to myself at the irony, and continued reading. A page later, after the flip-flop guy had made two or three noisy trips past me as he settled in, I read this in the introduction:
“I reached a point a couple years ago when I’d had it. I was as tired of hearing myself complain about noise as I was about the noise itself. I was time to do something. I wanted to understand whether my sensitivity to sound and longing for silence was ridiculous….”
Like the author, I’m constantly in search of quiet. I know my sensitivity to sounds is more acute than most people’s, and I really really really wish I could ignore all the things that I find so grating in the world, but it seems to be something hardwired into me. In some ways I feel it’s a disability, because I often avoid places and activities that “normal” people enjoy when I know from experience that I’ll be too preoccupied with the irritations to enjoy myself. That’s the worst part, really. I even skip my beloved weekly knitting group occasionally when I know I can’t deal with the noise of 8 or 10 women all talking at once for 2 hours. Sad, huh?
Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading this book very much.
I’ve had two other instances in life of reading a book and having that moment of realization that there are other people who deal with some of the same issues I do. I know it reeks of self-absorption to say this, but I feel I’m alone in my feelings so much of the time that any chance I have to feel less alone is a reason to celebrate.
The first “aha” moment was about 10 years ago, when I discovered the book “The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You,” by Dr. Elaine Aron. I actually cried as I found myself not only described perfectly in this book, but was told that my “disabilities” were really wonderful gifts that should be cherished rather than suffered through. And even more importantly, about 15% of the general population is like me in this way. So I’m not alone after all! That book changed my life and I always keep it handy for the times I find myself being overwhelmed by the world.
The second time this happened was only a few weeks ago when I read “Refuse to Choose,” by Barbara Sher. I’ve been frustrated my entire adult life because of my inability to identify a single career path and stick to it like I was “supposed” to. This book labels people like me “scanners”, and puts forth the theory that we’re genetically programmed to be like this, having interest in everything under the sun and wanting to try a little bit of this, a little bit of that. The author, like Dr. Aron, claims that there’s nothing wrong with being like this, and people like me shouldn’t feel pressure or judgment from the rest of society to conform to their idea of what we should do with our lives. Sounds simple, but it was so liberating to hear someone else describe us in such depth and make suggestions for how to live our lives happily.
Our society has lots of words to disparage people like me: “Jack of all trades, master of none”, dabbler, superficial, fickle, shallow, self-indulgent…. and I could go on. Here’s what the author said about the letters she got upon publication of this book:
“The people who wrote me were unbelievably grateful to hear themselves described in positive terms — usually for the first time. For years they had struggled to understand why they were so different from everyone they knew. They had spent years of their lives bewildered and frustrated. Many had gone to therapists for help but couldn’t follow the program they were given to choose one path and stick to it.”
She goes on to talk about famous people who were Scanners, like Aristotle, Ben Franklin, and Leonardo da Vinci. Yes, yes, I think this book will be good for my self-esteem….
I’m not used to baring so much of my soul here (it’s scary), but I hope somebody out there will find something useful in all of this. Who knows, maybe one of you is a “scanner” or a “highly-sensitive person” too, and will be helped by knowing there are others like you out there.