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Social Justice for The Sensitive Soul
an interview with Dorcas Cheng-Tozun
We are hopping out of our current series (we will get back to it next week!) so I can share with you this powerful interview with author Dorcas Cheng-Tozun, who wrote a beautiful book called Social Justice for the Sensitive Soul.
This kind of book is always important, it’s timeless, because we are always resisting a toxic status quo, asking what our personal ethic of care and activism must look like. And yet, it’s especially important now, when we feel these tides of unease and oppression and hate and genocide rise up around us. How do we respond? Who are we?
I hope you will sit with these words, and then go order this book, especially if you are a highly sensitive soul or are trying to understand the sensitive in our world and each other.
Our care matters in the world, and I was so grateful to read this book and remind myself that my sensitive parts can be a strength, and not a failure.
How did it feel in your body to write this book? Were you able to honor your own tenderness and take your time, or did you feel like you were pushing against the publishing world that often demands so much of us?
When I first got the contract for this book, the one term I negotiated was my deadline for finishing the manuscript. At that point, I had only written the introduction, so I knew I still had a long way to go. Having been through the book-writing process before, I realized that the time pressure, more than any other part of the process, could cause me significant stress. So, I asked for double the amount of time that the publisher initially proposed, and they were willing to give that to me.
Having that additional time gave me a lot more breathing space to plan, contemplate, and reflect as I put the manuscript together. At times, what I was researching was really intense—for example, reading about Freedom Summer in Mississippi or honor killings in South Asia. There were days when I had to give myself time to simply feel, to lament, and to work through the weight of suffering. Only after I had taken the time to process did I feel ready to continue to write.
I felt a lot of freedom reading your words because I so often feel bad for being sensitive myself. How do we view sensitivity as a strength instead of weakness?
We can all begin first by realizing that being sensitive is an inherent part of who we are. It is not a deficiency or weakness; it’s just how we’re wired. Next, we can celebrate the very real gifts and abilities that come with being sensitive. Sensitive individuals have an intuitive ability to connect with others and with nature; they have a keen attention for noticing what others may miss, including the person or group that is being left out or unheard; and, because they are deep feelers and thinkers, they tend to carry a lot of wisdom and insight.
Psychologist Elaine Aron, who coined the term highly sensitive person and is a leading researcher of this trait, likens us to the priestly advisers of ancient societies. We are relationship-oriented and cautious, astute and compassionate. Communities need us to thrive. It can be easy to forget that when we live in cultures that celebrate the more loud and aggressive personality types, but sensitives provide an essential counterbalance that ensures care for the entirety of the population.
There’s a big dissonance between contemplation and action—we perceive meditation, care, contemplation to be the opposite of action and activism, and lazy, even, and we consider activism to ONLY be the loudest voices out there. In fact you write about how activists often feel shame for trying to care for themselves. Have we gotten something wrong? Where have we misstepped, and what can we do to imagine contemplation and action as partners?
I think it’s a very natural human tendency to feel like we have to choose between contemplation and action, and it’s likely true that each of us feels more comfortable in one of these spaces than the other. But here, as in many other places in life, balance is key.
Social activists have developed a culture in which we hold one another to impossibly high standards: you are either committed 24/7 with every fiber of your being, or your contributions don’t matter at all. And I get it; the stakes feel so high that it feels necessary to give every ounce of time and energy we have available.
But humans are not machines who can continually advocate and fight without tending to our own bodies and souls. We are actually doing great harm to one another and the causes we care about when we ignore our human limitations and push each other to the breaking point.
We are the best versions of ourselves when we are spiritually grounded and emotionally refreshed, and what these important causes need are our best selves. What nourishes that groundedness and health can look different for each person, but for almost all of us, it will involve some connection with spirituality, community, nature, and activities that bring us deep joy and peace. Then, you will have greater strength to bring that joy and peace to the places and people most in need of change.
In my book Living Resistance I write about how the journey of resistance is a lifelong one, and I felt that sentiment in your book, as well. There is a sustainability we must practice in our work that makes it possible for us to keep going, and at the same time, it’s never too late! How do you continue to remind yourself of this in your work and life?
Personally, I’m at a point in my life where sustainability is not a choice but a necessity. I have burned out so many times, doing significant harm to my physical and mental health, that now I have to pace myself and be very conscientious of signs that I am overstretched.
I used to push myself to the point when my mind and body would shut down, when all I could do was lie in bed and sleep and cry for months on end. It’s an awful place to be, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I emerged from those very dark seasons, but with many scars, and now I live with chronic anxiety and a much lower tolerance to stress and trauma. I also have two young children to care for, so it’s not an option for me to push myself in my activism to the point where I can no longer function.
But I love justice work and still feel called to it. For me to stay in the arena, however, requires that I approach the work at a manageable pace, and in ways that give me life and hope and joy.
I feel very strongly about this idea of sustainable activism because I see so many passionate, tenderhearted individuals burning themselves out such that they can’t engage at all. Many who leave justice work never come back. Over time, we’re losing so much knowledge and talent and experience for these very important causes. I would much rather see activists giving themselves the opportunity to cycle in and out of justice work over the course of decades rather than have them burn bright for only a couple of years and then have to quit entirely.
“Hope within the sensitive soul is something to behold.” I love the way you wrote this, and I think it’s true. How do we push back against the narrative of being nearly “too hopeful” in a heavy world while also not being afraid to express and embody hope in our own way?
In my experience, hope in the sensitive soul is often hard-earned. Many of us tend toward melancholy and spend a lot of time ruminating on everything around us that seems broken. So, if we are able to live with authentic hope, it is because we have wrestled with the many internal and external factors that would pull us toward despair, and have still managed to come out of it with the belief that change is possible.
Such a hope is not naïve or disconnected from the very real suffering in our world. This kind of hope knows that systemic and communal transformation is a long and painful journey. But we hope nonetheless, as that gives us a vision to move toward, and gives us permission to celebrate each small step forward. We need hope, along with love, to fuel our efforts even when the impact can be hard to see.
What do you hope readers take away from your book, and how do you think talking about sensitivity will shape the future of activism work and social justice?
My greatest hope is that fellow sensitive souls would feel empowered and affirmed. You have many beautiful, healing gifts to offer the world. You have many different pathways to advocate for change without having to be loud or to engage in heated arguments and debates.
The world has always needed sensitive souls to step into places of activism, and perhaps never more so than today. Political scientists say we are living in an “age of anger,” in which it has become increasingly acceptable to express rage and hostility, and to promote conflict and even hatred. Many social movements today are built on a foundation of anger.
Anger can be justified and understandable, but in the long run it’s a very blunt instrument that can end up doing more harm than good. Even if someone is on the right side of history, I believe their efforts will have limited success if they engage in tactics that shame, divide, or ostracize others. We need to choose gentler, nonviolent approaches to social change if we have any hope of moving toward Dr. Martin Luther King’s Beloved Community, in which all of humanity experiences dignity and care.
Generally speaking, the sensitive, empathic, and introverted among us tend to favor this kind of activism: approaching those we agree with and even those we don’t agree with in kinder, gentler, and more compassionate ways. We need sensitive souls to speak up for this approach and to model it for others in meaningful ways.