A common interpretation of Pope St. John Paul II’s work identifies four aspects of the feminine genius: receptivity, sensitivity, generosity, and maternity. We began an in-depth exploration of these aspects and what they bring to the world and workplace, starting with receptivity. Now, we turn to sensitivity.
“From the beginning of Christ's mission,” wrote Pope St. John Paul II, “women show to him and to his mystery a special sensitivity which is characteristic of their femininity” (Mulieris Dignitatem 16, emphasis in original). Women stayed with Christ as He was crucified and they were the first at the tomb to witness His Resurrection. Pope St. John Paul II believed their presence at these events to be an example of how “Christ speaks to women about the things of God, and they understand them; there is a true resonance of mind and heart, a response of faith” (Mulieris Dignitatem 15).
Hearing the Little Voices
In her essay, “Fundamental Principles of Women’s Education,” Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) wrote that women “have ears for the softest and most imperceptible little voices” (Essays on Woman 134). We can use our ears as teachers, nurses, social workers, and advocates for children, the unborn, the disabled, the marginalized, and others whom the world does not hear. But we can also use these ears to become more attuned to the coworker who suffers in silence, the customer whose rudeness masks real pain, and the patient whose diagnosis transcends the initial presenting symptom.
At the same time, many of us struggle to develop this ear. That these gifts are especially given to women doesn’t mean they are easy to cultivate. It’s all too easy, in fact, to become caught up in the day-to-day details of our lives and block out those cries from others. We should, therefore, be intentional about cultivating awareness, including the ability to pause during our day and be mindful of others.
We should . . . be intentional about cultivating awareness, including the ability to pause during our day and be mindful of others.
Edith Stein continued to say that the modern age “requires women who have a knowledge of life, prudence, and practical ability; women who are morally steadfast, women whose lives are imperturably rooted in God” (Essays on Woman 139). Though she was describing the requirements of good, formal education for girls and women, her advice is equally applicable to our professional development. How can we make sure we have knowledge of life, prudence, and practical ability? We can talk to other people. We can read books and articles, and listen to podcasts. How can we become morally steadfast? We can seek spiritual direction. We can go to Mass. We can journal and build community. How can we imperturbably root our lives in God? We can pray.
We can pray not just at home, but also at work. A friend and fellow FemCatholic Contributor, for example, uses her lunch break to pray and listen to a Catholic podcast “to clear [her] head and refocus [her]self.” I like to put sticky notes on my desk as reminders not just of projects and tasks, but also of things like pausing and breathing or slowing down my work. Maybe I should add another sticky note that just says, “Pray.”
It's easy to numb ourselves to other people. In a world where everyone’s pain is displayed on social media, where contempt and anger drown out discussion and connection, it is tempting to block out news of injustice and hurt. In a world where individuality is idolized and we are taught not to pry (especially at work), it can be intimidating to ask someone what’s wrong.
When she was asked by a journalist, “Don’t you ever experience repugnance in the face of so much misery?” St. Teresa of Calcutta responded,
“We cannot deny that our work is hard for us in many cases. We don’t always carry it out under acceptable conditions. But all of us are better off working among the poor than among the rich. . . Our work becomes almost a habit for us, which makes it easier, instinctive, and natural, without being mechanical” (Loving Jesus: Mother Teresa 123).
If we keep ourselves from becoming numb to others, we can make sensitivity a habit - a true example of genius.
Sometimes, we do need to dull our senses. When we have a dental procedure, we receive Novocaine to block our nerve cells from being receptive to pain signals, so they become less sensitive. Our minds work the same way, sometimes, by being protective and blocking out pain. It’s healthy and good; God made us this way so that we can survive the hard times.
In other situations, however, we need our receptivity and sensitivity in order to live out our feminine genius. We need sensitivity to embrace our own crosses and help others carry theirs.
We are called to love as Christ loved. Was there anyone more sensitive than the God who wept when His friend died, despite knowing He would raise him just moments later?
The Whole Person
Mary Jo Anderson writes that sensitivity is “a gift that women have to see beyond the exterior and look into the deepest needs of the heart, never separating the inner person from his outward contribution.” At work, do we see the project or the person who managed it successfully? The task or the person who’s late in completing it? By seeing “beyond the exterior” to the person who developed her project management skills or whose family crisis keeps him from submitting his work on time, we can appreciate the whole person and address his or her unique gifts and needs.
At work, do we see the project or the person who managed it successfully? The task or the person who’s late in completing it?
Woman’s soul, wrote Edith Stein, is “fashioned to be a shelter in which other souls may unfold” (Essays on Woman 132). She believed that, as women, we are gifted to understand others and help them grow. At work, we can live out this gift by mentoring and coaching others, by listening and empathizing, and by serving.
Sensitivity gets a bad rap. We tend to think it means crying too much, being overly emotional, or even being the worst stereotype of what it is to be feminine. True sensitivity takes receptivity to the next level by not only listening to others, but really hearing them. Sensitivity is something all human beings are called to exercise, but that women are perhaps especially skilled to live out. It transcends professions, ages, cultures, and vocations.
I’ll be praying about how I can nurture this aspect of my feminine genius. Will you join me?
This article is part of a series on how we can live out the feminine genius in the workplace, focused on four aspects: receptivity, sensitivity, generosity, and maternity.