“How well I know with what burning intensity you live. You have experienced many lives already, including several you have shared with me- full rich lives from birth to death, and you just have to have these rest periods in between.”
Recently someone was describing me and they used the word “intense.” At the time I was nonplussed, incapable of completely escaping the negative connotations of the adjective. Pursuing my interest in reclaiming those personal characteristics that are less easy to sit comfortably with, I began to think more about what it means to be intense.
There is no arguing with the accuracy of the language. I am, in fact, intense. I feel things strongly. I care. I invest myself. I get excited. I throw myself into the heat of the fire. A perhaps “nicer” way of saying this is to say I have depth, but at some point we are just splitting hairs while trying to avoid the judgments of a society that values being laid back except at the workplace. (At the workplace, as far as I can tell, society wants us all to be relentless workaholics who are still somehow able to meet family responsibilities, maintain our health, and have free time in which we can consume.)
Many writers of my acquaintance are at least somewhat intense. Maybe you have to be in order to be willing to shut yourself up in a room and create a world solely in your imagination for months at a time. Maybe you have to in order to have something worth saying. Maybe you have to in order to brave the convolutions of the publishing industry. I’m not really sure, but intensity does seem come with the territory for many of us. Musicians too. Perhaps artists in general.
What I love about living with intensity is this: it makes the moments of my life mean more to me. The possibility of slipping into complacency becomes much less likely, and complacency is the kiss of death to an artist. Intensity pushes us onwards. We need to be out there in all the mess and glory of life, sleeves rolled up, ready to soak up whatever is there to be experienced. Some artists experience intensity in austere solitude; Emily Dickinson comes to mind. Some find it in observing society, social mores, and customs. Some find it through adventuring. Some find it through pursuing la vie boheme. What matters is not so much the content of the experience as the depth to which that experience is pursued and savored.
Intensity can be uncomfortable at times, both from the inside and as witness. There are feelings! And not all of them are what we consider to be positive! And our culture still encourages a certain kind of insouciance, a fetishization of the carefree state: “Don’t worry, be happy,” we are exhorted. Intensity, though, doesn’t usually land on only one side of the emotional spectrum. Happinesses might be more richly enjoyed, but sorrows will be more deeply felt as well.
The challenge, then, becomes to harness the intensity and steer it towards something meaningful. We are generally encouraged to suppress the intensity, deny it, drown it out and numb it, but it’s when we learn to work with it and channel it that we can create our best creative work and fully inhabit who we are. Intensity, then, is neither good nor bad. It can be a difficult challenge, a useful tool, and a motivation to examine life and ourselves more deeply.
The next time somebody tells me I’m intense, I’m going to thank them for the compliment.