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Series III - Chapter 25 - 'The Cultivation Of Sensitivity'

Series III - Chapter 25 - 'The Cultivation Of Sensitivity'

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Commentaries on Living

IT WAS VERY early in the morning when the plane took off. The passengers were all heavily cloaked, for it was quite cold, and it would be colder still as we gained altitude. The man in the next seat was saying, through the roar of the engines, that these easterners were brilliant, logical, and had behind them the culture of many centuries; but what was their future? On the other hand, the western peoples, while not at all brilliant, except for the few, were very active and produced so much; they were as industrious as ants. Why were they all making so much fuss and killing each other over religious and political differences, and the division of the land? What fools they were! They hadn't learned anything from history. He thanked God that he was a scholar, and not caught up in it all. The man who was now in power had turned out to be a mere politician, not the great statesman one had hoped he would be; but such was the way of the world. It was strange how, centuries ago, one small group had civilized the West, and another had exploded creatively all over the Orient, giving new and deeper significance to life. But where was it all now? Man had become small-minded, miserable, lost.

"After all, when the mind is bound by authority, it shrinks - which is what has happened to the minds of the scholars," he added with a smile. "When bound by tradition, philosophy ceases to be creative, meaningful. Most scholars live in a world of their own, a world into which they escape, and their minds are as shrivelled as last year's fruit dried in the summer sun. But life is like that isn't it? - full of infinite promise, and ending in misery, frustration. All the same, the life of the mind has its own rewards."

The sky had been a clear, soft blue, but now clouds were piling up, dark and heavy with rain. We were flying between an upper and a lower layer of clouds; it was clear where we were, but there was no sun, only space in which there were no clouds. Heavy drops of rain were falling on the silver wings from the upper layer; it was cold and bumpy, but we would be landing soon. The man in the next seat had fallen asleep; his mouth was twitching, and his hands jerked nervously. In a few minutes there would be the long drive from the airport, through woods and green fields.

Like the two who had come with her, she was a teacher, quite young and enthusiastic. "We have all taken college degrees," she began, "and have been trained as teachers - which may be partly what's wrong with us," she added with a smile. "We teach in a school for young children, up to the age of adolescence, and we would like to talk over with you some of the problems of the adolescent period, when the sexual urges begin. Of course, we have read about it all, but reading is not quite the same as talking things over. We are all married, and looking back, we realize how much better it would have been if someone had talked to us about sexual matters and helped us to understand that difficult adolescent period. But we haven't come to talk about ourselves, though we too have our problems; and who hasn't?"

"For the most part," added the second one, "children come to that difficult period completely unprepared, with very little help or understanding; though they may know something about it, they are caught up and swept along by the sexual urge. We want to help our students to face it, to understand it, and not become virtual slaves to it, but what with all these cinemas, advertising pictures and sexually provocative magazine covers, it is difficult even for adults to think straightly about it. I am not being respectable or prudish, but the problem is there, and one must be able to understand and deal with it in a practical manner."

"That's it," said the third; "we want to be practical, whatever that may mean, but we still don't know too much about it. Films are now available, telling about sex, and showing from beginning to end how children are born, and all the rest of it; but it's such a colossal subject that one hesitates to tackle it. We want to teach the children what they should know about sex, without arousing any morbid curiosity, and without strengthening their already strong feelings to the point of encouraging them to make experiments. It's a kind of tight rope that one has to walk on; and the parents, with some exceptions, of course, are not much help; they are fearful and anxious to be respectable. So it's not just a problem of adolescence; it includes the parents and the whole social environment, and we can't neglect that aspect of it either. Also, there's the problem of delinquency."

Aren't all these problems interrelated? There's no isolated problem, and no problem can be resolved by itself; isn't that so? Then what's the issue that you want to talk over? "Our immediate problem is how to help the child to understand this period of adolescence, and yet not do anything that might encourage him to go overboard in his relation with the opposite sex."

How do you now meet the problem? "We hem and haw, we talk vaguely about controlling one's emotions, disciplining one's desires - and of course there are always the examples, the heroes of virtue," ejaculated the first teacher. "We urge on them the importance of following ideals, leading a clean life of moderation, obeying the social order, and all that kind of thing. On some of the children it has a stabilizing effect, on others no effect at all, and a few are frightened; but I suppose the fear soon wears off."

"We talk about the process of reproduction, pointing it out in nature," added the second one, "but on the whole we are conservative and cautious."

Then what's the problem? "As my friend said, the problem is how to help the student to cope with the sexual urge when he reaches adolescence, and not be bowled over by it."

Does the sexual urge arise only when the boy or girl reaches adolescence, or does it exist in a simpler, freer way throughout the years which precede adolescence? Must not the child be helped to understand it from the earliest possible age, not just at a certain later period of his development?

"I think you are right," said the third one. "The sexual urge does undoubtedly manifest itself in different ways at a much earlier age, but most of us haven't the time or the interest to consider it much before the child reaches adolescence, when the problem tends to become acute."

If one comes to adolescence without having been rightly educated, then obviously the sexual urge takes on an overwhelming importance, and becomes almost uncontrollable. "What does it mean to be 'rightly educated'?"

Right education is through the cultivation of sensitivity; and sensitivity must be cultivated, not just at the particular period of growth called adolescence, but throughout one's life; isn't that so? "Why this emphasis on sensitivity?" asked the first one.

To be sensitive is to feel affection, it is to be aware of beauty, of ugliness; and is not the cultivation of this sensitivity part of the problem you are speaking of? "I hadn't thought about it before, but now that you point it out, I see they are related."

To be rightly educated is not just to have studied history or physics; it is also to be sensitive to the things of the earth - to the animals, to the trees, to the streams, to the sky, and to other people. But we neglect all that, or we study it as part of a project, something to be learned and stored up for use when occasion demands. Even if one has this sensitivity in childhood, it is generally destroyed by the noise of so-called civilization. The child's environment soon forces him into a mould of the respectable, the conventional. Gentleness, affection, the feeling for beauty, the sensitivity to ugliness - all this is lost; but of course the biological urge is still there.

"That's true," agreed the third one. "We do seem to neglect all that side of life, don't we? And we excuse ourselves by saying we have no time for it, we have the curriculum to think of, and all that!"

Isn't the cultivation of sensitivity at least as important as books and degrees? But we worship success, and we neglect this sensitivity, which destroys the pursuit of success. "Isn't success necessary in life?"

Insistence upon success breeds insensitivity, it encourages ruthless- ness and self-centred activity. How can an ambitious man be sensitive to other people, or to the things of the earth? They are there for his fulfilment, to be used by him in his climb to the top. And this sensitivity is essential, otherwise you have sexual problems.

"How would you cultivate sensitivity in the young?" 'Cultivation' is an unfortunate word, but since we have used it we will go on with it. Sensitivity is not something to be practised; it is no good merely telling the young to observe nature, or to read the poets, and all the rest of it. But if you yourself are sensitive to the beautiful and to the ugly, if in you there is a sense of gentleness, of love, don't you think you will be able to help your students to have affection, to be considerate, and so on? You see, we stifle or neglect all this, while every form of stimulating diversion is indulged in, so the problem becomes increasingly complex.

"I see what you say to be true, but I don't think you fully appreciate our difficulty. We have classes of thirty or forty boys and girls, and we can't talk to all of them individually, however much we would like to. Moreover, teaching so many at one time is a most exhausting task and we ourselves get tired out and tend to lose whatever sensitivity we have."

So what are you to do? Care, tenderness, affection - these are essential if the sexual urges are to be understood. Surely, by feeling out the problem, by talking about it, by pointing it out in different ways, sensitivity is gathered by the teacher and its significance communicated to the young child; and when that child becomes adolescent, he will then be able to meet the sexual urges with wider and deeper understanding. But to bring about the right kind of education for the child, you have also to educate the parents, who after all form society.

"The problem is complex and really mountainous, and what can we three do in this mess? What can the individual do?"

It is only as individuals that we can do anything at all. It has always been an individual, here and there, who has really affected society and brought about great changes in thought and action. To be really revolutionary, one must step out of the pattern of society, the pattern of acquisitiveness, envy, and so on. Any reform within the pattern will, in the end, only cause more confusion and misery. Delinquency is but a revolt within the pattern; and the function of the educator, surely, is to help the young to break out of the pattern, which is to be free of acquisitiveness and of the search for power.

"I can see that we shall be of little value unless we also feel these things intensely. And that's one of our major difficulties: we are all so intellectual that our feelings have become paralysed. It is only when we feel strongly that we can really do something."