The table’s have turned.
I asked quite a few men (more than appear here, but frankly, I got too impatient and too excited to share with you*) in my life to define a couple of words. Sensitivity. Strength. What the words mean to them, and shoot me a picture. A picture that they felt expresses strength or that they’re proud of. Some included a description with that photo. Some defined both words. Some are so simple and beautiful. Some are longer and academic. All are lovingly thought out. Some weren’t given them at once to define, so don’t think as some as more anything. I didn’t push, because I’m thrilled with what they’ve given me, what they’re giving you. I’ve cried a few times just reading through these. I’ve done a tiny bit of editing because foster parents have hard lives, but mostly you’re getting the raw thoughts of a bunch of pretty damn incredible men.
*Thank you to those who shared with me. For being vulnerable. Thank you to those who wanted to, but are bad with deadlines.
“With an attempt to avoid waxing poetic, I might describe sensitivity as an open posture to foreign feelings. Reflected in my photo with my oldest daughter, the sensitivity emerges as I enter into her joy and experience of love. Maintaining a posture of sensitivity can be truly life giving! But it is costly. Not everything is baby giggles and rainbows with sensitivity. It threatens pride,status, and cultural expectations to be a sensitive man. Other times, it invites us into the pain of others. I think that being sensitive, when explored, is discovered to present a lot of risk. I think fear stifles sensitivity.
Strength, to me, always centers around motion – the ability to move or to resist movement. That’s why “strength” can simultaneously be both a positive or a negative depending on the context. ”
“Honestly, I don’t think of sensitivity much. Which is weird, I’m either in/over that stage in life where you stop to think about who you are and what you believe and what values are important to you. I’m not sure I’ve ever really personally defined sensitivity, so here goes.
Sensitivity to me would be the ability to be aware of another’s emotions, mood, feelings, etc., without them being directly communicated.
Strength, now, that’s a little easier. I believe strength is the ability to exert.
Strength matters deeply to me and how I live my life. Strength to me isn’t about how strong I am, but my ability to give myself to make others stronger.
In one sentence strength is pulling two toddlers in a wagon up and down a steep driveway for a half hour while the baby you’re carrying is mastering the art of pulling out your beard and chest hair at the same time.”
“I really like this headshot I have. It’s calm, confident, and honest, without feeling like I have to be an over the top clown. There’s balance, an easy ability to be comfortable in your own skin in that:
Sensitivity to me is understanding another person (or group of people’s) emotional reasoning and motivations without letting it affect your own mindset and emotional space. It’s the ability to remove your own identity from another person’s.”
“Sensitivity starts with awareness and ends with action-oriented care. To grow in sensitivity means first to grow in awareness of the world around you and in you. The more you learn about both of those things, the more your sensitivities are expanded. And, in a perfect world, the more you are aware of something, the more opportunity you have to care for it, to change because of it, to do something in response to it. They say that higher education develops a person’s “feminine qualities,” their appreciation for art and for many other nuances of the world. I think it’s better explained that education brings new things about ourselves and the world into awareness. And from that point on we either have to deny what we now know about it or we can choose to embrace what we know and do something about it – we care.
Strength is the other side of discipline, its result. Be it physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, as we practices the disciplines related to each, our strength increases. At a more basic level, strength is about dealing with burden, again whether that is physical weight, or emotional and mental weight. When I think of strength, the first thing that comes to mind is strength of character and magnanimity. For me, the most important strength to have is strength of character, or integrity. This is about doing what is right against all odds, even in the face of personal loss.
And here’s the cool thing, the more you grow in sensitivity – awareness of self and world – the more opportunity you have to grow in strength (of character), they go hand-in-hand. How will you respond to what you now know? Caring about people, places and things takes a tremendous amount of strength of all kinds.”
“Sensitivity is being open enough to observe the world around you, to see people in the moment as they are, and to listen to both of those things. It is difficult for me to quiet my mind or life enough to be observant, and also difficult to be present enough to truly see, listen and respond. Sensitivity isn’t just an instinct; it is a practice. I really think it’s just a combination of observance and empathy, or at least the attempt at empathy.It’s strength as support as opposed to force.”
“Sensitivity: Knowing what needs to be done and when it needs to be done.
Strength: Doing what needs to be done when it needs to be done.”
“In my life right now, everything is about family. My job, my downtime, my everything is my family. Unlike most people though, my family is not my own. As a foster parent, it is my job to be sensitive to the needs of the kids we take in. It is my job to not track down and beat the shit out parents who have no taken patience and time with their children, to understand them and gently care for them. It is my job to be sensitive to the fact that I have to hold it together if children we bring into our home to keep safe doesn’t feel understand just how safe they are. On top of this, it is my job to be sensitive enough to be able to cry with my wife and love these kids for the days, weeks, or months we have them before sending them back home. I’m like the Dobby of foster care. At the moment, I’d like to think that I can be as sensitive as my wife needs me, but some days I’m not strong enough to be unselfish. Most days I am, but not always. Lucky for me though, I have an awesome, understanding wife who knows that the situation we chose to be in isn’t always the easiest.”
“To have sensitivity is to have a willingness to appreciate other peoples’ perspectives without the need to impose your own on them. It requires patience and outward perceptiveness. There’s peace in not thinking you have all the answers, or even need them.
Strength to me is more inward; it’s a willingness to look inside yourself and discover your own values and what makes you tick, and despite any fear or pride, go ahead and be vulnerable anyway.
There are those who try to make people think like themselves and coerce others to accept their values, while others keep themselves to themselves, even putting on masks to avoid conflict or pain. Still worse, I suppose, are those who don’t care at all. Those paths all end in resentment, pride and ultimately, isolation. I think true strength and sensitivity work hand-in-hand to bring people closer together. Without love as an ultimate motivation, you can’t really possess either. Of course, there are times where love seems more like madness, but it’s really all that matters to me in the end.”
“To me, sensitivity means awareness of what others around me are going through, whether positive or negative. In addition to that awareness, it also means thoughtfully considering how to appropriately respond to the feelings and needs of others.
Strength can mean so many things that it is tough to come up with a concise, non-rambling definition. I think that, first and foremost, strength is almost synonymous with perseverance, or a willingness to endure difficulties of all sorts. Second, confidence balanced with a willingness to accept and learn from criticism is also an important aspect of strength. That is, confidence in one’s abilities, worldview, and general self-worth is important. However, overconfidence to the point that one is unwilling to listen and learn from the perspectives of others isn’t strength, it is hubris. Finally, I believe strength can be defined as a willingness to show compassion and care for others, regardless of cost to self. An individual who tears others down to achieve for him or herself may indeed be successful at getting ahead, but has not shown strength. Instead, a truly strong person would have the confidence to know that showing compassion and building others up is more important than gaining success solely for oneself. Strength means recognizing that life is not a zero-sum game, and that my success does not need to be predicated on the failure of others.”
“For me sensitivity means creating space in my heart for others, which is not an easy task nor is it my modus operandi. It’s about believing people when they tell me how/what they feel rather than imposing my projections on to them. I think strength is similar in that it is about creating or finding a safe place for yourself and others; a place where vulnerability is allowed. There is no strength in subjecting others to your will. I think there is strength in welcoming others though, because that is where you are tested and refined as a human. This is weird to write but that’s all I got!”
“Sensitivity I think primarily manifests itself as an awareness of the feelings of others. It is an understanding that other people’s needs and desires are as important as my own. It is a decision to validate other people – their thoughts, their dreams, their words through a courteous ,conscientious, attentive posture toward them.”
“I attached a photo of me playing last night. I don’t know that it expresses either strength or pride. But performing always scares me, and I feel vulnerable…exposed. Something about that feels good.
Sensitivity: To seek understanding first before seeking to be understood.
Have you ever been in an argument with someone? An argument where both parties are seeking justification of their own actions rather than seeking reconciliation? I find that’s usually why I get into arguments in the first place.
Have you ever played a piece of music, given a sermon on a passage, performed a play, or read a book? Whenever I do something like this, something where I’m interpreting, I always come to it bringing prejudices. So much so, that whatever comes out was far less about what was intended, and far more about who I am, and cannot escape being.
Do we marginalize people? Have you ever posted heavy-handed articles on Facebook about a community you’re not a part of? Whose struggles you do not endure? Do you cringe when you see someone different than you?
I dunno. Maybe I’m being dramatic, but I assure you that isn’t my intention. But in all these cases, I think that we are just trying to force things into our mess. We all carry so much baggage, and it’s terribly unfair to try to make someone else carry it. I mean, come on. They have their own.
And finally to define strength, which is tough. Because I don’t know that any of us have it…not really, anyway.
Oftentimes, when I hear that word, I muster up images of armor-clad warriors, or of brave people fighting against the current. I realize, though, that I’ve only ever been strong or brave when Jesus was strong or brave for me…when I have my armor stripped of me, when I shiver in fear and admit that I need carrying. I have no strength in me. Just need. And that’s okay…though I often need to remake my peace with that fact.
Society often tells us to be strong, to hunker down, grit teeth, and march forward…and I get it. It’s probably more acceptable than saying “Go ahead. Collapse.” And there’s probably times when that’s true. But everything falls, eventually. And when I do, I find that something else rebuilds me.”
“Sensitivity is not a word in my daily vocabulary, and not a trait that I place a higher value on than any other. I think it’s important to offer sincere sensitivity when it’s needed, and to me maybe the sincerity itself is more important. I am sort of an introvert and selfish by nature, and my own quest for sensitivity has been more focused on not being insensitive than being actively sensitive. My experience has also been that we don’t always know what need – sometimes reading between the lines is necessary/beneficial.”
“Maybe sensitivity is allowing other people’s perceptions and beliefs to take priority over my own. It’s got to start with listening. And then meditating. And then listening some more. And maybe trying not to have a strong opinion on stuff you haven’t experienced first-hand. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how women and people of color just see the world so differently than I do. And that maybe I should just listen (and stop trying to force a conversation) when they’re speaking truthfully and from the heart. The world is not a real scary place for me. But it is a scary place for a lot of other people who don’t look like me. If I can be more sensitive to what they’re going through, maybe (just maybe) I can learn something from them, about how not to make the world scarier for them. It’s not something I’ve figured out. So I’m still listening, as best I can.
And maybe strength has something to do with it. I don’t know. We tend to define strength along really gendered terms. Strength is male. Strength is soldiers. Strength is drones. Strength is cops in helmets and riot gear. I’m tired of that. I really am. That doesn’t mesh with the Jesus of the Gospels. Christ was murdered for being poor, and brown, and preaching about turning the political state inside out. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.” His father’s kingdom was a radical departure from a strong and independent kingdom of Israel that the those in power had been hoping for. That didn’t sit well with some, I guess. So they killed him. Remember “hands up, don’t shoot?” Submission as an act of political protest? Surrender as an act of defiance? How about we define strength by starting there, and see where that leads?”
“Sensitivity to me is to be considerate; to consider others. The way I experience sensitivity is how others consider me, and how I consider others around me. I find myself greatly affected when someone considers my thoughts and feelings. To know that someone has made space for who I am in a conversation or situation lets me know that I am welcome. I am also affected when others’ thoughts and feelings are not a part of the conversation. Who we are are is important, and who others are is important. It weighs heavy on me to me to make space for others. I aim (and miss quite frequently) to know others and be known by others. We all have value — being sensitive to making that value known and experienced is an important responsibility.” .
“Sensitivity to me is when someone puts another person’s interests ahead of themselves and allows the other person to be vulnerable without taking advantage of their vulnerability”