Come to Your Senses
You have probably heard the story about “The Princess and the Pea,” which was made famous in our culture by Hans Christian Andersen (but is, like most fairy tales, traceable far back to other times and places). The essence of the tale is that a girl who has claimed to be a Princess is subjected to the ultimate test by being given a bed consisting of a pile of mattresses, under all of which (unknown to her) has been placed a single pea. In the morning, she complains of having had a bad night. Something hard and uncomfortable has disturbed her sleep.
Of course, it was the pea, and this high degree of sensitivity proves that she must indeed be a Princess. The moral is that there is something very special about royalty, which differentiates those who are endowed with it from ordinary people. That distinguishing quality has to do with extreme awareness and perception – and it is also something which makes such extraordinary people very precious and deserving of the utmost care and respect.
It seems that people at that superior level of society are something every culture needs to have, in some form. In countries like the United States, which have never had a Royal Family, the Presidency assumes some aspects of that role, the chief difference being that it is not hereditary – although even there, we have had “dynastic” families, like the Adams, the Roosevelts, and the Bushes. But, apart from politics, the aura of celebrity in such areas as sports, entertainment, and business, imparts a glamor which in some cases seems to rival or even exceed that of genuine royalty.
One difference may be that celebrities give autographs, while royals generally refuse to. (There is a story about a young nephew of Queen Victoria who wrote to her asking her for some money. She wrote back, refusing – and he then sold her letter for more than he’d requested.)
But as far as sensitivity goes, there is, of course, nothing particularly human, let alone royal, about it. It is well known, for instance, that your dog’s sense of smell is somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 times more acute than yours. As for sight, an ordinary housefly has evolved a visual apparatus quite astounding in its complexity and capability. We puny members of homo sapiens trail far behind many of our fellow creatures in the performance of our senses.
Nevertheless, many of us are particularly sensitive to certain common phenomena. Unfortunately, this sometimes tends to become more noticeable in negative than in positive respects. I myself, for example, have for most of my life, been inconveniently aware of sounds which don’t bother other people, but which to me are simply NOISE. This became a critical issue in my life over the question of so-called “leaf-blowers,” which in my community of Santa Barbara, could still be legally used, when I moved here in 1973. I still encounter people in town who congratulate me on having led the successful movement, decades ago, which finally got those machines banned.
Then there are people with highly developed senses of taste and smell – in certain circumstances making their lives miserable (as when one might happen to live near a sewage plant) – but in others, providing employment and respect, e.g. as professional “tasters” of wines or teas.
In our time, however, the very term “sensitivity” has come to be fraught with significance scarcely dreamed of a few generations ago. In particular, we are cautioned to beware of hurting the feelings of others, who themselves, may now – because of this new trend – have become more sensitive. Such feelings may relate to various characteristics, such as their looks, speech, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. The consequences of being insensitive can range from being reprimanded to being shot.
One aspect of this changing outlook is that the old standby of Humor – to ease troubled relationships – is itself now on the inspection table, and sometimes on the chopping-block. Even professional comics can no longer be perfectly sure whether or when they’re on safe ground. It used to depend on the audience, but of course there is now no way of knowing how large that audience might be, or how many sensitive but influential souls may be among them.
Indeed, whole courses are now offered – and sometimes required – to enable us to avoid treading on each other’s toes. Or, putting it another way –
Be careful what pea you put under whose bed!