My father was a philosopher, by which I mean he was inherently curious about life’s meaning – both as a scholar and as a teacher.
Everyday he sought greater understanding about the meaning of life, and he felt it was such an important thing that he devoted his life (after a career change) to teaching others the importance too. To achieve greater depth of knowledge and understanding he was passionate about the importance of education: not ‘teaching’ per se, but true education: facilitating and enabling others to question and learn for themselves, not as a ‘discipline’ but as a way of being. He was a Humanist and an existentialist, a deep thinker and an activist, and had very strong values of justice and fairness, both personally and at societal level. His passion in this regard lead to active involvement in activities to promote both educational and social change.
It was not such big questions that seemed to trouble him the most though. Throughout his life, which was cut short at the age of 58, the biggest issue he seemed to grapple with was not “life, the universe and everything”, or even “why are we here?”. It was his own sense of self. He consistently felt like an outsider, that he never truly belonged. He was a perfectionist, forever dissatisfied with his achievements and capabilities. He regularly berated himself for his shortcomings. He suffered from anxiety and depression, carrying deep feelings of inadequacy.
To those who knew him well he was frequently experienced as ‘difficult’. He was challenging, often very deliberately so, particularly in debate, relishing the deconstruction of ideas, concepts and beliefs in the search for truth. He was at times both overwhelmingly kind and generous, and remarkably self-absorbed and selfish. He laughed hard, especially at the farcical. He was extremely clever, argumentative, insightful, principled. He held strong beliefs (of the non-religious kind) which could mean that he was opinionated too. He cared, and about the things he cared he was a passionate and loyal supporter. He was ’emotional’ – he cried, often: in sadness and in joy, and he shouted (a lot) usually driven by frustration, most often with himself.
He loved Jazz – once saying that if you couldn’t feel the music of jazz in your bones you can’t consider yourself alive. He found small-talk (tittle-tattle) dull. He detested ‘fancy’ flavoured food (he loved spicy food, but anything too herby or aromatic was too much for him). He had an intense sensitivity to noise. He liked only comfortable clothes, but he wanted the to look what he considered stylish too, and once he found clothes that worked, he bought more of the same. He was highly intolerant of interruption, thoughtlessness and ignorance. Though he was highly curious and interested in people and in life, he rarely read fiction. To me, he was a bit of an enigma, and whilst most of my friends thought he was cool (if a little odd, perhaps because he was so different from their parents), for me, he was a difficult dad to have.
With the realisation that my son was highly sensitive, and that in fact so was I, came the moment that illuminated the heart of my father and which totally and fundamentally changed my perception of him . The very things that encapsulated the “difficult enigma” that was my father, that reflected the frustration and contradictions of being with the person he was, and being the person he was, were suddenly all crystal clear when viewed through the lens of the Highly Sensitive Person.
When you don’t know about the trait, being HSP and being around HSPs can be confusing, frustrating and unpredictable. But as soon as you do know about it, the apparent contradictions and with them, the confusion, disappear, and whilst it can still be frustrating and unpredictable, it makes sense.
So, to my dad: I wish you were still here so I could share this with you. It is something I could have taught you and I think you would have been intrigued, fascinated and enlightened. We could have spent hours digging deep into this one and connecting; exploring how it affected you growing up in a working class mining community; being the first to go to grammar school, the first to go to University; how it explained your desire to move from engineering to philosophy; how it drove your energy and enthusiasm for fairness, equality and open access to all, your empathy, kindness and generosity (and at times distinct lack of it too), and all those overflowing buckets! Most of all, though, I wish that I could share this with you so that you could know this, and thereby find some peace with yourself, through understanding that you were normal and that it was truly OK to be you.
Dedicated to all HSPs who are finding their path to understanding, and to all those who never had the chance and whose lives would have been all the better for knowing.