Laura Kipnis argues that "taking an occasional walk on the wild side while still wholeheartedly pledged to a monogamous relationship isn’t an earthshaking contradiction." Carol does not see any value in such an occasional walk and prefers the sweat of occasional joggings over the sweat of occasional sex, as jogging involves no tears and no bad blood.
In order to evaluate Carol’s attitude, we should first analyze the nature of emotional sensitivity.
“Smoking kills. If you're killed, you've lost a very important part of your life.” Brooke Shields, during an interview to become spokesperson for a federal anti-smoking campaign
Sensitivity, in the sense discussed here, may be characterized as a response to our physical or mental environment; it is the tendency to have a strong reaction toward romantic circumstances. Strong romantic sensitivity implies that you are quick to notice and be affected by romantic cues. Romantically sensitive people are tender and sympathetic toward other people. Though such people may be easily excited, they might not find it easy to fall profoundly in love, as such love demands a combination of many virtues that are rare to find. There are people who may not find an intense, genuine, profound love throughout their whole life.
In comparison to people with lower emotional sensitivity, those with higher sensitivity perceive the events around them as more significant. Their environment is replete with many meaningful events. Such people do not need to seek emotionally charged situations, as they react strongly to everyday situations. People of low emotional sensitivity have to look for unique events, or even create such events (for example, a mountain-climbing expedition), in order to enjoy the sensation of a significant event.
People of high emotional sensitivity are typically more sensitive to both negative and positive situations; accordingly, their sadness and happiness are more intense. Those who become extremely overjoyed when good things happen are more likely to experience an equally strong negative impact when bad things happen.
Like other emotions, love is characterized by a lack of indifference. Indifference expresses the absence of normative preference and hence the absence of emotional sensitivity. Therefore, people in love prefer to be hurt by the beloved rather than be treated indifferently. As Jose Ortega y Gasset indicates in his book On Love, the person in love "prefers the anguish which her beloved causes her to painless indifference." Similarly, the saying goes that it is better to break someone's heart than to do nothing with it. In her song, "A second-hand love," Connie Francis says, that "I'd rather have this kind of (second-hand) love than not see you at all."
Indifference is a shield we use to protect ourselves against external negative impacts. Hence, people sometimes prefer to lower their sensitivity levels in order to prevent themselves from being hurt. However, a significant reduction in emotional sensitivity may be harmful, as emotions have an important function in our survival.
A person who is totally without emotional sensitivity has no parameters and no warning system, no immediate evaluative guidelines that enable him to determine relevance and importance. In a world without emotions, Jose Antonio Jauregui argues, a young man, when meeting a young woman, may be able to see her, touch her, and think to himself: “This is someone with whom I could get along well.” However, without emotions, the young man will not be excited by her presence and will not be attracted to her. A lack of all emotional sensitivity would render us inhuman.
Emotional sensitivity plays an important role in our lives and we should not attempt to reduce, block or eradicate it, but we can attempt to moderate its negative impact. Just as it is not advisable to cut off your head to get rid of a headache, so it is not advisable to eliminate your sensitivity and desires in an attempt to get rid of the pain these cause you.
Two types of sensitivity
“I have been poor and I have been rich, and rich is better.” Bessie Smith
Two levels of sensitivities may be discerned: (1) sensitivity as a reaction to a given (external or internal) event, and (2) sensitivity to your own reaction, in the sense of giving it more or less weight.
You may, for instance, be very sensitive to insults: the moment you are insulted, you becomes extremely upset. The weight that you give to this sensitivity might enrage and distress you and after each incident, your anger might take a long time to subside. However, you can decide to work at giving lesser weight to such insults and not to pay much attention to them. Likewise, you may be very sensitive to romantic possibilities and get extremely excited when such possibilities arise. However, since you are married, you can decide to give less weight to such forbidden circumstances and stop yourself from thinking about them. Sensitivity-1 is the immediate spontaneous sensitivity to a given event in the short term; sensitivity-2 is the manner in which we deal with sensitivity-1.
An example of high intensity of both types of sensitivity is the case of Abel Kiviat, the 1,500m silver medalist in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm who had the race until Arnold Jackson “came from nowhere” to beat him by a mere one-tenth of a second. About 70 years later, at age 91, Kiviat admitted in an interview: “I wake up sometimes and say, ‘What the heck happened to me?’ It’s like a nightmare.” Despite winning a most respectable place that ranked him second in the world, Kiviat was very sad in his initial spontaneous reaction (sensitivity-1), and throughout his life he gave tremendous weight to the experience of losing the gold medal (sensitivity-2).
A romantic example of high intensity of both types of sensitivity is intense love at first sight, which continues to be intense for a long time. An example of low intensity of both types is the case of two people who are not in love with each other and are having mechanistic sex, which has no significance for their future happiness.
Managing our sensitivities
“I like restraint, if it doesn't go too far.” Mae West
We can manage both types of sensitivities in different ways. Managing sensitivity-1, which is to a greater extent a function of our personal makeup, is typically the result of a slow process of habituation (drifting), and while managing sensitivity-2 is more up to us and can include, for instance, the use of escape devices, such as being intensely involved in other activities.
Major examples of reducing emotional sensitivity-1 involve habituation. A nurse who deals continually with unpleasant sights that would disgust other people may get used to them during her years of work, and her emotional sensitivity in these specific circumstances may be considerably reduced. Similarly, a sex worker may be less excited by sexual intercourse, unless it involves great care and love, which are absent from her sexual encounters at work. Likewise, sexual desire may diminish or disappear in a couple who has been married for many years. Sensitivity-1 can also be reduced or increased with age.
Two real cases of such habituation are those of Jack and Rachel. Jack was, generally speaking, an indifferent person when he married his energetic and sensitive wife. Through the years of living with her, he became more and more sensitive to the extent that he even cried at his daughter’s wedding. Rachel was very sensitive and impulsive when she married her calm and even somewhat indifferent husband. Through the years of living with him, her impulsiveness was significantly reduced.
A radical example of eliminating emotional sensitivity-1 is adopting the attitude of complete detachment. The Buddhist state of neutral feeling, which is an attitude of even-mindedness and impartiality toward all conditioned things, is an instance of such an attitude. The peaceful and emotionless Buddhist state of nirvana is characterized as not belonging to the realm of the "changeable"; hence, it is devoid of emotional sensitivity. This approach to reducing emotional sensitivity may be highly effective, but is extremely difficult to achieve, not least because it requires complete detachment from normal everyday life. As indicated, significant reduction in emotional sensitivity may be harmful, as emotions fulfill important functions in our lives.
Altering emotional sensitivity-2 may be achieved, for example, by decreasing the weight of the comparative concern, which is so central to emotions. Such a decrease would have the effect of reducing emotional sensitivity insofar as it makes us less sensitive to the discrepancy between our current state and our other past or possible states, or those of other people.
It is not merely easier to moderate the second type of sensitivity but also more appropriate. Sensitivity-1 expresses changes in our environment, while sensitivity-2 refers to the way we should behave given our sensitivity-1. The information provided by sensitivity-1 is crucial for our decision making process and we should not ignore it by eliminating such sensitivity. It is usually better to make decisions after considering all the available relevant information.
Lowering our expectations is another way of reducing sensitivity-2. By doing so we will be less frustrated by negative events and more surprised by positive ones. People who expect nothing are never disappointed. Their immediate emotional reaction to a negative event may be that of sadness, but they will quickly recover and will not be deeply disappointed. In the same vein, Carol, who expects nothing of significant value from romantic love, may be emotionally moved when romantic possibilities are available, but will not allow such excitement to turn into genuine love. In order to ensure this, she would prefer not to experience even the initial romantic sensitivity-1.
Another way in which people manage sensitivity-2 is to build fences around their normative boundaries in order to be far away from crossing these boundaries. Thus, various religions demand that women adopt a modest appearance, in order to prevent their own and others' temptation. The imposition of such dress codes and other restrictive modes of behavior is intended to prevent seductive responses—that is, to avoid generating sensitivity-1. This runs the risk of preventing not merely what is normatively forbidden, but also preventing other pleasant activities that cross no normative lines. Insurance against emotional sensitivity can be very costly for both the individuals and the society.
We need to seek a wiser way of emotional modulation. Modulation is defined as “the act of modifying or adjusting according to due measure and proportion” (WordNet). The secret of optimal modulation is to be able to give the right weight to your emotions; it is the ability to sense your environment and act within it in an optimal manner. Sensitive people sometimes have difficulties in modulating their emotions. The wiser ones find good strategies to deal with an overdose of emotional sensitivity-1 without eradicating such sensitivity, which in itself is a positive gift and offers a deeper engagement with life.
Emotional modulation in the manner suggested here is different from total control of the emotions. Total control seeks to abolish sensitivity-1; emotional modulation attempts to modify the overall impact of sensitivity-1 by managing sensitivity-2. This does not offer a way in which to entirely escape from our sensitivities; rather, it helps us to channel our emotional responses to our advantage. Thus, we should strive to invest our energy in useful or pleasant things rather than dwelling on destructive events.
The two types of sensitivity are somewhat similar to the two basic components in hope and fear: (a) the intensity of the desire to be in or to avoid a certain situation (sensitivity-1), and (b) the probability we attach to the occurrence of such situation (sensitivity-2). Hope and fear are most intense when both components are high. We should never lose hope in improving our situation and we should never stop fearing risky situations. But it is up to us to evaluate the probability of such situations and to take reasonable measures to increase or decrease them. Managing our hope and fear should not typically be done by eliminating these emotions, but by giving them the due weight that enables us to conduct an optimal, satisfactory life.
The argument on moderation
The value of moderation is well-known in life. Can this argument support Carol’s wish to eliminate romantic sensitivity-1? Not entirely so.
In Aristotle’s view, a person is bad by virtue of pursuing excess, not by virtue of pursuing necessary pleasures such as dainty foods and wines and sexual intercourse. The excess, rather than the emotion itself, may be harmful to survival and moral perspectives. Aristotle saw moderation as a significant value and considered moderate behavior to be beneficial.
It is indeed often the case that when our emotional responses are extreme, we should consult reason in order to moderate these responses. Therefore we are advised to count to ten before expressing our rage. However, we should try to moderate, rather than eliminate, the intensity and frequency of emotions, even the negative ones such as jealousy and envy, because their exclusion can have negative moral results.
Is moderation also a virtue in positive emotional experiences? Can we love someone too much? Can we join Carol in assuming that too much of a good thing may be harmful? Or should we join Mae West in claiming that “Too much of a good thing is wonderful”? With all due respect to them both, I beg to differ with both views.
Concerning Mae West’s comment, I would argue that what seems to be good in the short term may be harmful in the long term. Up to a point, "the more the merrier" remains true with regard to receiving rewards, after which "one can have too much of a good thing." Sex is typically a wonderful experience, but sex addiction
is a disease that needs to be treated.
However, Carol’s opposite position, which involves the wish to eliminate romantic sensitivity all together, is also not warranted. In Aristotle’s view, not only is emotional excess harmful, but so is emotional depletion. The ideal situation is that of emotional balance. Whether an emotion promotes or disrupts the performance of a task depends on a number of factors: the nature of the task, the type and intensity of the emotion, and the specific character of the person.
Moreover, profound intrinsic positive experiences should be treated differently to superficial negative ones. Such positive experiences promote our flourishing and wellbeing and our main concern is how to enable them to persist over time, and not how to avoid experiencing them.
Moderation (and compromise) seems to be in diametric contradiction to emotions in general, and romantic love in particular. People do not tell their partners that they love them moderately; such a statement would be an insult. A moderate intensity of love is perceived as an expression of deficient love. Indeed, lovers tend to emphasize their extreme attitudes. As Flora says about her married lover, “I adore, love and desire this man to the extreme. The universe has never seen a greater love.” However, in reality, love comes in degrees and entails moderation (and compromise). Moderation need not be perceived as the elimination of pleasure contrived to reduce one’s vulnerability to the desirable; rather, it can be understood as a means for securing long-term pleasure. There is no normative demand for moderation in love, since love is supposed to set you on fire (sensitivity-1). Moderation may be necessary in the implementation of love (sensitivity-2).
To sum up, moderation can be a good way to achieve emotional modulation, but it does not support Carol’s wish to eliminate her romantic sensitivity.
What to do?
“The American people don't want to just survive; we want everyone to thrive.” Barack Obama
Is Carol sensible to wish to eradicate, or at least substantially decrease, her romantic sensitivity? What should she do?
The distinction between the two types of sensitivities gives us a clue about how to deal with her dilemma. In a nutshell, she should not try to eradicate sensitivity-1, but should seek to better manage her sensitivity-2. Her main problem is her great sensitivity. She is kind and sensitive to everyone who needs help. She cannot choose to become an indifferent person, but she can give less weight to certain aspects of her sensitivity-1. She should not carry on feeling insulted for a long time, and she should not try to artificially eliminate her romantic sensitivity-1. This will allow her to remember her good romantic experiences and to forget the bad ones. As Albert Schweitzer claimed, “Happiness is good health and bad memory.”
The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, you know that so many men flirt with me, but do not worry as Billie Holiday described it so nicely: “Maybe millions of people go by, but they all disappear from view, and I only have eyes for you.’”