“Nothing is little to him that feels it with great sensibility” (Samuel Johnson).
SENSIBILITY REFERS TO OUR ABILITY TO FEEL OR PERCEIVE THINGS. Just as our “senses” enable us to experience physical stimuli, “sensibility” allows us to be affected by things of an intellectual or emotional nature. As personal beings, we can perceive, feel, and respond with a will that is free. The gift of consciousness allows us to be “in touch” with reality in ways that are truly wonderful.
The ability to feel is a blessing, obviously, but it is a mixed blessing. Physically, we can’t feel pleasure without also being able to feel pain, and the same thing is true emotionally. “The heart that is soonest awake to the flowers is always the first to be touched by the thorns” (Thomas Moore). But we wouldn’t want it any other way, would we? It is the more sorrowful (and even the more painful) emotions that give depth and contrast to our character. If we weren’t sensible to these things, our emotional lives would be impoverished.
It is interesting, however, that our sensibility either grows or diminishes as we live. If we don’t open ourselves up to that which we ought to feel, or “sense,” then our sensibility begins to atrophy. Without an effort to keep them open and receptive, our hearts begin to shut down — which is to say, we begin to lose our humanity.
Blaise Pascal pointed to another potential problem when he wrote, “The sensibility of man to trifles, and his insensibility to great things, indicates a strange inversion.” Just as we need to enhance our sensibility and keep it in good working order, we also need to make sure it has a good sense of priorities. Ideally, we want to be more sensible to what is most important in life, and less sensible to all the rest. Some things should affect us more keenly than others.
Life involves more than our feelings, of course, but it should never involve less. We may do great deeds and witness extraordinary events, but if we’ve not had the sensibility to enjoy them (tasting them with full awareness and wakefulness), we’ve lost much of what’s available to us in the temporal world. So let’s not allow life to simply wash over us. Instead, let’s be deeply and joyously sensible to it.
“The man who has lived the longest is not he who has spent the greatest number of years, but he who has had the greatest sensibility of life” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau).