The World Needs People Who Feel Empathy for Lettuce

“Kendra,” my father said to me one morning before school as I sat at our battered oak kitchen table eating Cheerios, “if I throw this cereal box on the floor, would that hurt its feelings?”

I looked coolly at him where he stood by the counter, holding the yellow box. “No,” I said, affecting nonchalance.

He chuckled and set the box carefully on the counter, because he knew that I absolutely believed it would hurt the cereal box’s feelings.

Reassured of my father’s sympathy and love, I continued eating my cereal, making sure as I finished the bowl that I did not leave any single Cheerio alone in the milk. It was important that the final bite was two Cheerios, so that none would be lonely on their journey to my stomach, where they would be happily reunited with their bowl-fellows. It helped me to feel less bad about eating them to imagine that they were all happy together there in my stomach.

That was what it was like for me as a highly sensitive child. And not just with Cheerios.

And you know what? I did not grow out of it. I have a distinct memory of being in my early twenties, walking by a food coop and seeing a bunch of lettuce leaves lying on the top of the compost heap. Grief for those forlorn and rejected lettuce leaves slammed into me. I was nearly leveled.

I thought to myself, “This isn’t normal. Why am I still like this?” I’m sure any doctor would have diagnosed me with…well, something. I’ve been told I’m too sensitive all my life. I’m sure many of you reading this are thinking it’s excessive to feel empathy for lettuce.

But you know what? I don’t think it is, not anymore. Even though I don’t feel that way all the time, I still have days when it’s hard for me to “reject” food by throwing it away. Days when the pathos of the world is so unbearable I can’t fathom it. But I’m able to be grateful for those sentiments now, because I understand they’re what make me a writer, a creative, an empathic communicator. They’re what enable me to see things others don’t, make unique connections, and produce meaningful work. They are my gift — what I have been gifted, and what I in turn am charged with gifting to the world.

But it does makes life hard to be like this. Growing up as a highly sensitive child was painful. I don’t remember childhood as happier, more innocent times. I did have many happy experiences — I was privileged to have great parents — but I remember my childhood as being filled with deep and often overwhelming emotional pain. Not usually for myself, but for the world, and particularly for nature and animals and occasionally other people. Simply put, life has always been painful for me, for no other reason than I was born highly sensitive, born to feel that particular type of existential sorrow.

I’ve learned to manage it, kind of. I give people who are insensitive, cruel, or aggressive a wide berth. I protect myself from experiences that I know will trigger me. But something always gets me. The neighbors two doors down got an “outdoor dog.” That’s a thing here in the South where the weather is warm all year. It’s a dog who is consigned to living outdoors as a guard. That dog barks all day, which is annoying to sound-sensitive me, but mostly it’s emotionally painful for me, thinking of that dog alone outside all day, not allowed to be with its pack. Even now writing this I can feel the sorrow blossoming through my chest and arms. Time to move on to another topic!

I want people to know what it’s like to be a highly sensitive type (I hesitate to use the term HSP here, because I think the experiences of HSPs probably vary widely). If you’re thinking it sounds onerous and vexing, well, it is. But this is how it is for me, and it’s not changing. I don’t want to medicate it away. This is me. My true, authentic self, or at least one aspect of that self. And I want to share myself with the world.

If you identify with what I’ve written here, I want you to know that I believe being highly sensitive — what I often referred to as being a gentle soul — is a gift and a skill that the world needs. So stop seeing it as a detriment or a fault. And don’t let anyone else tell you it is. Your sensitivity is the glowing furnace behind your capacity to combine empathy with intelligence. It is what fires and clarifies your special kind of vision. You see things, you see people. Trust yourself. The world needs what you have. Especially now.

Kendra Patterson is an writer, podcaster, creativity coach, and ex-academic living in swampy north-central Florida. She blogs at kendrapatterson.com about the links between creativity, being a highly sensitive person, mental health, and more. She is the host of the podcast Stepping Off Now, where she discusses topics informed by her struggle with severe burnout and recovery, her experience as creative misfit in a conventional world, and her background in social science research. Available at wherever you listen to podcasts.

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Kendra Patterson

Former academic turned writer, podcaster, and creativity researcher. Writing & creativity coach. Listen at steppingoffnow.com. Blogging at kendrapatterson.com.