Tell people you’re hypersensitive and the first thing they’ll say is “I’m sorry.” The way I use the term is, however, somewhat literal. Some of us experience sensory input in especially intensive ways. Psychologists say that those of us who do often stop and assess in new situations. We can become overstimulated and sometimes “shut down” if too much is going on. It doesn’t mean I’m going to burst into tears if you insult my haircut. (It’s homemade, we’re in a pandemic, after all.) The reason I bring hypersensitivity up at this point is two-fold. The first fold has to do with the fact that I no longer get out much, which means much of the “ordinary” now seems new. The second fold is that I wonder if hypersensitivity had a role in leading medieval people into monasteries and convents.
Back to point one. If sensory stimuli can overwhelm one, going back into TMI territory can be almost traumatic. I commuted into New York City for about seven years. Manhattan is difficult for a hypersensitive person to take. Over time I became accustomed to it, and familiar environments are more easily navigated. The pandemic, however, has me spending about nine or ten hours a day in the same small room at home. Actually, working remotely had already done that, but I used to get out on weekends. We recently took a safe weekend trip, stopping only at places with few people and staying with family. Less than 24-hours out from home I realized I was feeling overwhelmed. Too much interaction. We had stopped at a town I’d never visited before. The trees were spectacular. I soon regained my bearings, because no matter how late I stay up, I still awake early to write.
This leads to the second point. I suspect things moved much more slowly in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, but I can see why certain individuals might like to cloister themselves. While I disagreed with the theology, I taught for fourteen years at Nashotah House, a cloistered seminary. You saw the same people day in and day out. The campus was suspicious about this thing called “the internet” for quite a long time. You ordered books through the mail and waited a month or more for it to arrive. In some ways this was a comfortable existence. Of course, it blocked me from much of what was happening in the wider world. The pandemic has, in some measure, brought me back to that space. I wonder if, historically, they might be connected. But right now it’s time to get to my ten-hour room and work.