There was a guy I went to middle/high school with, I’ll just call him “Steve” for this story. Steve was a great guy, and we were pretty close. We hung out a lot in those days. Steve was also an (as the kids these days say) “absolute unit.” He was huge. He was about 6′ 7″, maybe 6′ 8″, and he’d been that way since 5th grade. I don’t know his exact weight, but it was definitely north of 350. Not fat, either – the dude was just BIG. Imagine a guy that size in your fifth grade class. He was just an early grower, had a full beard in middle school, that kind of guy. And he definitely had the strength to match – when we were in high school my father accidentally left a U-Haul moving truck he had rented in neutral and it started to roll down our street, and Steve just ran ahead of it and stopped it with his hands. I watched him put an ax halfway into an 8-inch diameter tree in one swing, and then break the tree in half the rest of the way with his hands. I could tell a lot of stories about this guy, but the point is just so you know the kind of titan he was.

He was also, however, extremely shy and timid. In high school the football coaches begged him to play, but he always refused. He would shy away from any conflict at all, and in fact on more than one occasion he would be bullied pretty severely and the rest of us (none even half his match in size or strength) had to come in and help.

I asked him why. He told me that when he was in fourth grade, some kids were bullying him because he was different, and they were being really physical about it – pelting him with things, screaming taunts, knocking his books down, etc. They had him cornered and so he hit one of them. But the bully was a fourth-grader, and it was like being hit in the face by a full-grown man. The kid got really hurt, broken bones, had to go to the hospital. Though he was eventually fine, Steve had the world come down around him. Everyone from his parents to the school all told him not just that he had reacted poorly or that he should have done something differently, but that he was fundamentally a bad kid. That he was dangerous. There was talk of transferring him to a different school where they put violent kids with behavioral issues (he managed to just barely dodge that bullet).

Ever since, he’d been terrified of his own strength. He walked down the hallways with his shoulders hunched together, like he was afraid to even brush up against anyone. He was fine with sports like weightlifting, but the thought of using his strength in a sport that put it against other people like football was horrifying to him – he was certain he’d kill someone the first time he went on the field.

I used to think about that a lot and be furious at the injustice of it all. Here was Steve, who was by all accounts one of the sweetest and kindest people I’d ever met. He was a great friend and other than that one bit of defensive violence in the fourth grade had never raised a hand in anger, even in his own defense. And he managed all that at an age where most people are horrible little hormone-raged monsters, and he was a zen monk.

I can still sometimes be mad about the injustice visited on Steve, but the reality is that I was too focused on being mad for my friend, and not focused enough on the lesson I should have taken for myself.

My personality is a lot like Steve’s physical frame. My personality is BIG. I’m loud and gregarious and grandiose. In the right context, it can be charming – put a bunch of friends on a camping trip and I’m the life of the party. But there are a lot of contexts where it’s downright dangerous.

It’s easy for me to make people uncomfortable, even if that’s never my intent. It’s easy for me to just be so loud and so overly familiar that I intimidate people into not speaking up, or offend them, or not take their perspective into account.

There are things I try to do, things I’ve learned to do over the years, to counter those natural tendencies, the same way Steve learned to walk with his shoulders in. I’m never the first person to talk in a meeting. I never initiate physical contact – I never go in for the handshake or the hug, I let the other person, just in case. I solicit private feedback often as a temperature check for how my behavior has been affecting them or others.

But it’s a journey, and I don’t have it all figured out yet. I might not ever. I just try to improve. Because it’s not unjust at all for me to have to alter my behavior to protect people from my words and thoughts and actions – it might not be my fault that my personality is just bigger than the world was designed for, but it is my responsibility. Twenty years ago Steve understood this better than I probably ever will.

People won’t always tell you that you hurt them. Especially when it’s not physical, and there’s no bruises to see. More likely than not, they’ll just walk away from you or cut ties, and one door after another will close and you might not ever know why. I am eternally appreciative of the few that take the time and effort to look me in the eyes and say “ouch.”

And I am sincerely trying to be better. That’s all I can offer.

One thought on “Sensitivity

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