Do you remember the Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tale about the Princess and the Pea? The bottom line was that the Princess was so sensitive that even though 20 mattresses were placed between her and the Pea, she still felt the discomfort caused by that tiny little Pea. That proved she was a real Princess, fit to marry the Prince.
After I had been married several years, I realized that I had married a Princess. My wife Sally and I would be in a room and she would complain of being cold when I felt comfortable. That made sense. Some people are cold-natured. They should keep a sweater handy. But, later, in another time and place, Sally would complain of being hot, and I still felt comfortable. You can’t be both cold-natured and hot-natured, can you? Eventually I remembered this story of the Princess and the Pea and concluded that this doctor’s daughter from Greenville, South Carolina, is ultra-sensitive. She is delicate! Nowadays, we might say she is “high maintenance.” She has very elevated expectations regarding her own personal comfort. She knows—even though 20 mattresses may separate her from that Proverbial Pea—that the Pea is there, and she feels it. And she lets me know she feels it! And she wants me to do something about that blasted Pea, no matter how many mattresses have to be removed and replaced.
So far, this sounds like a complaint about the Princess’ super-sensitivity, but it’s not. Here’s another Fairy Tale. This one is about the Blue Collar Kid and the Cantaloupe. This Fairy Tale is about me. Instead of being extra sensitive, I tend to be less sensitive, even insensate, numb, not sensitive at all, anesthetized, and utterly unaware of the cantaloupe beneath my own thin mattress.
Sally and I would come home from somewhere and she would ask, “Do you smell that?”
I would answer honestly, “No.” I sensed nothing.
Over time, too many of these “Do you smell that?” or “Did you hear that?” episodes occurred when something was actually overheating or burning in the oven or making a noise that needed our attention. It wasn’t just that I married a person whose perception was extra keen; it was also that she married someone whose senses were apparently exceedingly dull. As I have tried to analyze candidly what was going on, I have concluded that there were a couple reasons for my insensitivity, my lack of awareness.
- In the instance of “Do you smell/hear/etc.?” at least one aspect of the situation was my not wanting there to be a difficulty! If there were a problem, the commode overflowing, an electrical short in the light fixture, a noise in the ceiling fan, the smell of dog urine, twenty mattresses that needed to be unpiled and restacked, I suspected I would be the one whose task it would be to ameliorate the crisis. I didn’t want there to be a problem so I didn’t want to see, hear, smell, taste, or feel one.
- The more basic issue was that I had rarely ever listened, smelled, tasted, touched, saw, or felt with much consciousness or comprehension, and that insensitivity predated my relationship with Sally. Call it clueless. Call it naïve. Call it stupid. Call it immaturity. In the movie “Clueless,” the teenage protagonist was hilarious. A 50-year old naïf is sad and frustrating, not humorous.
Listening or paying attention was actually a third-tier challenge for me. Not listening went hand in hand with an addiction I have, the need to talk incessantly, the secondary difficulty. The prior issue to that, however, my primary demon, has to do with fear, the fear of not being liked. I have heard it called “Approval Addiction.”