Sensitivity is agony. In moderation it’s good, but moderation rarely knows when to stop, and soon becomes excess. Excessive sensitivity is a theme taken up by Spa magazine this month.
Really, it’s better to be a clod. Your intellect may be sluggish and your imagination dull, you won’t set the world on fire, but the world doesn’t set you on fire either. You get through the day more or less intact, and through the night asleep. It is quite otherwise with the people Spa labels “oversensitive.” For them, every received email is a veiled snub, every overheard remark an implied threat, every situation an insurmountable challenge. Noise is an assault, light an invasion, a ringing office telephone an invitation to a nervous breakdown.
Everything has hidden meaning, invariably sinister. The client I emailed this morning — it’s now afternoon, why hasn’t she replied? She’s busy? Maybe … or maybe she no longer wants to deal with me? Maybe my note wasn’t clear? Maybe it smacked (certainly not intentionally!) of sexual harassment? Maybe I sent it to the wrong person, who is even at this very moment puzzling over what I meant, or who I am, while the intended recipient is wondering why I haven’t contacted her?
A question comes up in the course of my work. Should I ask the boss? Is it important enough? If I ask, do I show myself incompetent? Should I figure it out myself? That’ll take time perhaps better spent elsewhere, and what if I screw up? The boss will say, “Why didn’t you ask me, you fool?”
The office phone rings. Should I answer it? What if it’s a customer with a problem I can’t solve? Better let someone else take it. But what am I here for, if I can’t even answer the phone?
“This sort of thing happens to me 200 times a day,” says an office worker who, at 28, sounds burned out already. He represents a sizable segment of the population. Oversensitivity of this sort, says Spa, afflicts one person in five.
It’s not a recognized medical condition, and though group therapy sessions have materialized online and offline, there are no authoritatively certified treatments. You must learn to live with it — perhaps by telling yourself that you are not oversensitive at all; that rather the world is under-sensitive, blunt to the point of crudity, and it’s hard to deny that the headlong pursuit of more, faster, better, at whatever cost, has stripped life of a nuance or two.
Do you cry at movies? A bad sign. If a movie is too much for you, real life will floor you. A 35-year-old municipal official the magazine introduces is hypersensitive to facial expressions. Friend, enemy or perfect stranger, it doesn’t matter.
“If someone around me looks irritated,” he says, “it upsets me.” Either it’s contagious, or he feels himself to blame. He picks up every emotion in his proximity and makes it his own, or his own fault. It’s irrational, but emotions tend to be that, and heightened emotions doubly so.
A solution he hit on seems to work but has drawbacks. He wears glasses too strong for him. They make his head swim but blur his vision, which is the point. Seeing less, he feels less. Feeling less, he lives more, or at least more contentedly. The long-term damage he may be doing his eyes he’ll worry about another time.
“From earliest childhood,” says a 34-year-old accountant, “I’ve been hypersensitive to light and sound. I couldn’t go to a movie. A colleague once took me to a pachinko parlor. Within two minutes I fled to the toilet. The noise and lights were too much for me.”
The refrigerator motor is intolerable, the bathroom fan unbearable; midsummer heat is no fun but preferable to the hum of the air conditioner. Sunglasses and noise-canceling headphones are essential shields against a perpetual barrage of stimuli, barely perceptible to others but overwhelming to him.
One wonders if it’s different in Denmark. Why Denmark, specifically? Because Denmark, to many Japanese, seems to epitomize a kind of ideal society, backdrop to a life of ease, equality, cooperation, freedom, tolerance, mental and physical health, and various other good things, if not all good things.
The fairy-tale touch in this image may owe something to the fairy-tale legacy of the country’s most famous native son. Who doesn’t know, or know of, the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen (1805-75)? They are Denmark’s gift to the world. Whether or not his luminous ghost hovers over his descendants today, the nation seems to be moving in a direction very different from Japan’s, as journalist and sustainable energy activist Tomoko Kitamura-Nielsen points out in an October issue of the magazine Kurashi Switch, published by the Japan Consumers’ Cooperative Union.
Long based in Denmark, Kitamura-Nielsen cites happiness first and foremost — the U.N. World Happiness Report this year ranks Denmark second, Japan 62nd. Denmark also ranks second worldwide in terms of commitment to sustainable development; Japan, 17th. Danes, Kitamura-Nielsen says, get — and take — five weeks of paid vacation a year. Japanese workers, lucky to get two and wary of taking even those for fear of losing ground or face, might wonder what they’d do with so much leisure. Danes seem to have solved the problem. Perhaps they never saw it as one.
Cradle-to-grave social security and a public school system stressing freedom over compulsion and initiative over obedience complete the picture of a society geared for ends other than work for work’s sake — notwithstanding which, according to the Swiss businesses school IMD, it’s the second most competitive country in the world. Japan is the 34th.
The Danes must have their problems like everyone else, but the paralyzing sensitivity Spa portrays suggests lives lived in a social, economic and political vice that Denmark and societies like it have loosened, if not shaken. Japan’s vice, on the other hand, seems only to grow tighter.
Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”
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