What’s Going On?


Sermon #31 (5th August 2018 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

This Sunday is the first tackling our new theme for the month of August: ‘Paying Attention’. And this morning I want to talk about a particular kind of paying-attention – I knew what I wanted to explore today as soon as we set the month’s theme – but, even now, as I stand here… I don’t know exactly what to call it. It’s something a bit elusive. Just for now – just to be getting on with – let’s call it ‘sensitivity’.

The distilled message of today’s service is this: There’s nearly always more going on in any given situation than is apparent at face value and we could – and maybe should – put a bit more effort into paying attention to these subtexts and subtleties, into reading between the lines, listening out for what’s not being said, the stories untold. I reckon it would be of benefit to everyone if we could each cultivate greater personal sensitivity in order to have a better sense of what’s going on around us (by which I mean: what’s really going on).

Arguably, some of us are just born more sensitive than others, in the most literal sense: there’s been quite a bit written about this in the last twenty years or so but the most well-known voice on the subject is Elaine Aron, a clinical psychologist, whose book ‘The Highly Sensitive Person’ claims that about 20% of the population could be said to have what a hypersensitive nervous system. That’s a physical thing. It’s about the equipment we’ve got for doing perception with: for seeing, hearing, feeling. According to Aron, this 20%, the ‘Highly Sensitive People’ of this world, just pick up more: they automatically tune in to what is going on around them and find it hard to switch off. They tend to sense and process everything very deeply, tune in to how others are feeling, and as a result tend to have great empathy, and to worry about others’ well-being a lot.

So maybe you’re one of that 20% who got a physiological head-start when it comes to sensitivity. Or maybe you know that you’re at the other extreme, in terms of what you were born with – not necessarily insensitive, but perhaps you tend to be a bit oblivious sometimes, despite your best efforts – and there’s no judgement implied in this. It’s not that one’s morally better than the other. This neurological sensitivity is just the hand we’re dealt – the dispositional raw material – it’s good to have some awareness of what our baseline level of sensitivity is BUT we all have choices about what we do with the perceptual equipment we’ve been given. And we can all choose to cultivate personal sensitivity as a virtue, to work on building it up. Of course it’s not quite like building up your biceps; as far as I know there aren’t yet any ‘sensitivity gyms’ out there where you can go to strengthen your sensitivity muscles… though perhaps that’s one of the things we can work on together here at church, if we think it’s worth doing. Strengthening our capacity to discern ‘what’s going on’. For most of us, there’s going to be a certain amount of personal development involved.

And I should say, in passing, that to actively cultivate sensitivity, even to see it as a positive, is a pretty counter-cultural thing to do. When I was doing my research for this service I started out by googling something like ‘how to be sensitive’ and when results came up I was confused. It said: ‘showing results for how to be LESS sensitive’. Not what I asked for! One of the first results was an Agony Aunt column in the Guardian entitled: ‘I’m too sensitive. How can I toughen up?’ (it wasn’t a fun read; because it wasn’t a kind read). I get it – it’s hard to be sensitive in this world – you tend to get overwhelmed by the too-much-ness of everything and you’re prone to be mocked and knocked by those who are more bullish. So I can see why people might write to an agony aunt to say ‘please save me from my own sensitivity’. But it makes me really sad too. Because, looking it another way, sensitivity is a secret superpower. It’s the power of super senses: to see with open eyes, hear with open ears, feel with an open heart. Yet the world we’re living struggles to imagine why anyone might see it in these positive terms.

Let’s broaden this out a bit now, though, and return to the question: ‘what’s going on?’… In any given situation, what does it mean – and what does it look like in practice – to be more sensitive, to pay more attention, to truly open our eyes, ears, heart and mind to others? Well, there are various dimensions to interpersonal and social sensitivity. It could include:

– really listening to what people are saying, especially when they speak about themselves and the stories of their lives, and doing our best to remember what they’ve said and handle it with care;

– reading people’s feelings and picking up on what’s not being said out loud (and perhaps why it’s not);

– being aware of the larger social and political context and how it’s affecting people, their conduct, and their opportunities in life; and

– empathising with others to try and understand their experience; to be curious, to notice what struggles they are facing, and what burdens they have to carry.

Even just bearing in mind that the way we are personally experiencing a given situation is not necessarily the way everybody else is experiencing a situation – because each of us is bringing our own context, circumstances, and accumulated life history along for the ride – so we’ve all got our own very particular goggles through which we interpret our experiences – even bearing that in mind is a good start when it comes to sensing ‘what’s really going on’.

And as the quotation on the front of the orders of service suggests, it does require intentional effort from us – in the words of Leslie Jamison: ‘Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us — a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain — it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves.’ I like that phrase – ‘to extend ourselves’ – for me it really speaks of reaching out towards others. And I’d add, beyond ‘paying attention’ in the most basic sense, it’s also a choice we make to be curious about other people’s reality (or not). We can choose to ask ourselves (or we can choose not to bother asking): ‘what’s going on beneath the surface here?’ or ‘what’s the bigger picture?’

There’s another question you might be asking: ‘what’s the point?’ And it’s a fair question: none of this sensitivity, and awareness, and paying attention to ‘what’s going on’ makes much difference unless it helps bring about more caring attitudes and actions. Luckily there’s no shortage of opportunities to practice this sort of sensitivity in everyday life. Here’s a made-up, slightly caricatured example of the sort of situation I’m talking about. A thumbnail sketch – picture the scene: You’re in the pub, after work, with colleagues. There’s about eight of you sat around a big table chatting away. And your mate Phil, who’s quite senior, suggests that the gang should go on to eat at quite a fancy new restaurant in town. Several people nod and seem enthusiastic about the idea of going for a fancy meal and going on past form that’ll probably mean that everyone falls in behind the plan. But you notice that a few of the others have gone quiet or look slightly awkward. There’s Nina, who’s young, only recently moved to London, and relatively new to the job. You’ve picked up the impression that she’s quite hard up – and more generally, you know how hard it is for young people to make ends meet in London these days – and you wonder… perhaps she can’t really afford to pay for such a fancy night out… but then she might feel pressure to go anyway, even if she can’t afford it, to try and fit in with her new workmates… especially as it was Phil’s idea, and he’s her senior. And then there’s Geoff, who’s just come back to work after having a knee replacement, he’s not totally comfortable walking on it yet, and he’s a bit fed up more generally about having had to get it done in the first place because it really makes him feel his age. You suspect he’s going to struggle a bit with the long walk to the restaurant – and it’s upstairs too, on the second floor, without a lift. But he’ll be too proud to say anything. And Ali – she’s told you privately that she’s recovering from an eating disorder – so social events that are based around food are difficult for her, full stop. You guess she’ll just make her excuses and go home early. And what’s up with Steve? He’s looked a bit out of sorts all night but you can’t tell what’s up. But at the same time you know that Phil – the one who suggested the restaurant thing in the first place – he’s going through a rough patch himself. He’s finding work really stressful, he lives alone, and these Friday nights out with his colleagues are the only time he really relaxes and connects with others. This suggestion of a nice meal out might mean more to Phil than everybody else realises… and so on, and on… everybody round the table (including you) has got their own stuff going on. None of it’s being said or acknowledged out loud, in the moment, round the table. And all of your internal assessments of ‘what’s going on’ will take place in the blink of an eye.

So – once you’ve paid attention – once you’ve got a reasonable guess about ‘what’s going on’ – then what? Well, you can’t necessarily fix the situation for anyone else (though in the situation I’ve just described, you might be able to make a small intervention which eases the difficulty for some of the others, for example by suggesting you all go to the chip shop round the corner instead – cheap and close – though that doesn’t solve everybody’s problems). But it’s not really about being able to fix things, or rescue people. It’s about seeing and hearing them as real. So if you notice that someone’s been in a tricky spot, and there’s nothing you can do to help, or you don’t even know exactly what’s wrong, you could at least check in with them later and give them a chance to talk about it (if they want to). That, in itself, could be of great value.

Now, I haven’t described anything out of the ordinary there. Pretty much any interaction with human beings – friends, family, colleagues or acquaintances – will have some of these undercurrents going on. And hopefully this imagined scene will have helped bring to mind occasions both when you’ve been the one ‘reading the room’, striving to be sensitive to ‘what’s going on’ for others – but also occasions when you’ve been the one who’s in an awkward situation, struggling a bit, the one who’s been glad when someone else has seen ‘what’s going on’, stepped up, shown a bit of sensitivity or tact, and looked out for you in some compassionate way. And I guess you might also be reminded of situations when it’s not turned out that well.

There’s a whole other side to this topic that I can’t possibly do justice to this morning, but which I should at least acknowledge before bringing this sermon to a close, and that’s the shadow side of this sort of sensitivity. It can lead to a sort of martyrdom – where we attune to others’ needs but neglect our own. It can be anxiety-provoking – if not exhausting – to try and take on the whole world’s troubles (especially when we’ve most likely got plenty of our own already). In trying to read between the lines – we might end up seeing things that aren’t really there –convincing ourselves that we know ‘what’s going on’ for the other person better than they do. We can take it too far – our concern for others can tip over into almost invasive interference. There are these various pitfalls to look out for. And even when we get it ‘right’ there are questions we could ask about who typically ends up taking responsibility for this sort of care – you may have heard people speak about the unfair division of ‘emotional labour’ – the tendency for the same few people (often women) to take on all the worrying about other people’s feelings/well-being – while others abdicate responsibility, to a greater or lesser extent.

Even so – with all those cautions noted – I reckon our world could do with a bit more sensitivity… and I hope today’s service will have encouraged some of you to apply yourself to its cultivation and to speak out for the virtue of sensitivity in a world which so often tells us to ‘toughen up’.

So, let us ponder the ways in which each of us might develop ever greater sensitivity – it is a secret superpower, after all! – and let’s make the choice, again and again, to extend ourselves, to empathetically reach out towards others, in a spirit of care and compassion.

And in the week to come, as we go about our daily business, let us pause from time to time, to pay attention, and to ask that question: ‘what’s going on?’ (‘no, what’s really going on?’). May we truly open our eyes, ears, hearts and minds to those we encounter along the way.


Sermon by Jane Blackall

An audio recording of this sermon is available: