The Gift of Intensity


My first steps into the world of social justice and activism happened in second grade, when I really began noticing and paying attention to things like environmental impact of goods and capitalist economies, thanks to Scholastic News articles about the safety of dolphins in tuna farming and the closure of my favorite grocery store chain. I was a kid with big feelings, especially when it came to issues of injustice. Most of my early activism looked like protesting the inequities between the methods my parents used in raising my brother and me (at least, from my perspective) and it wasn’t until I was old enough to read justice-centered novels that my activism took on a global perspective.

I was often told that I was intense—my feelings were intense and the way I responded to new information was described as intense. Even at a young age, I felt that this wasn’t something to be proud of. Intense people were dictators and women who chose careers above family. Intense people got things done, but at what price?

I’m in the midst of raising my own passionate, articulate, and politically aware daughter. At six years old, she also has big feelings and the vocabulary to describe all the injustices around her. Like me, her view of injustice ranges from the amount of time I spend reading to her sister to why adults would yell at a child like Ruby Bridges. I see a lot of my own story when I look at how she interacts with the world, which is both amazing and heartbreaking.

One word I intentionally choose not use to describe her is intense. Sometimes I’ll ask her to modulate her voice because the way she is speaking to her sister is too intense, but I try never to use the word in replacement of who she is as a person. I tell her she is thoughtful and passionate and that I love how she cares for the world around her.

As an adult, I took the Clifton StrengthsFinder test, a personality assessment meant to define one’s strengths. The idea is that instead of working on our weaknesses, we should focus on our natural giftedness. Two of my top strengths are Intellection and Connectivity. A trait of Intellection is that I need time and space to process and think about the world. Connectivity means I can see the threads that tie us together globally and environmentally. Combined, they make for someone who has an intense view of the world.

I’m learning to read these strengths for what they are—parts of my personality that are an asset to the world, rather than the detriment I initially took them for. When I read my strengths through the lens of intensity, they seemed harsh and uncaring. Recently, I was having coffee with our new pastor who knows this particular personality system. I made an offhanded comment about how my top strengths made for an intense person.

She looked me in the eye and said, “That’s not how I see it. I see someone whom God has given incredible gifts. You are able to use your mind and heart to help bring change.”

This is still hard for me to even type. I have so defined myself as someone who is too intense, too passionate, too serious to offer much. Can those personality traits actually be a gift?

I think about the words I give to my daughter for those same traits. What if I traded them out for myself, too? What if I told myself I was thoughtful and passionate and cared well for the world around me? How would that shift my own thinking?

I’m learning to reframe my own intense thoughts and feelings into gifts that are filled with passion and activism. I’m thinking of other words and labels that have been given to me over the years and looking at them critically and through the lens of God’s perfect creativity.

I’m wondering if there’s a word you were given as a child or young adult to describe your unique gifts in a negative way? How would you describe those same gifts to a child today?