What’s In a Word? Decoding a Sensate Revolution

 

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“May Provide More Hope than the Recommended Dosage” is a disclaimer that should accompany the genre-defying showpiece that is Sense8, with another warning that goes along the lines of “Could Cause Overwhelming Sense of Purpose and Belonging”. At a glance, Sense8 is just one of many television series viewers Netflix and chill to but it’s one that has redefined what both those terms can come to mean, and it’s not limited to the horizon opening possibilities of “chilling” Sense8 is renowned for.

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“Sense8” is a term coined by creators The Wachoswkis and the show’s writers to describe 8 individuals around the world who are mentally and emotionally linked with the ability to share one another’s feeling states, talents and knowledge. It is a noun, a noun which has come to symbolise a unique meaning to those who are avid viewers of the show to represent characters they deeply resonate with. But the word “sensate” which the creators have played with, is defined as an adjective of an experience that is felt through the senses.  The worldwide popularity of the show and its core beliefs have transformed a noun which is identified as an adjective in the English language into what it has ultimately become. Sense8 is no longer a noun nor an afterthought describing a noun or object, Sense8 is in fact, a verb. A verb that has repercussions not only for its viewers and fans who live by its philosophies but one that could potentially change the way we relate to one another.

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If you are not a highly sensitive person or an empath, feeling or perceiving others deeply through the senses as a Sensate does, is largely a choice. It’s a choice we exercise when we’re flipping through Tv news reports of violence and human strife abroad and we keep switching, till we opt into a channel or an entertainment experience that is removed from the distress we wish to avoid.  It’s a choice that can be liberating, because after all, what does feeling into a miserable situation bring you other than feelings of powerlessness and pessimism.  This is not the first war you’ve seen, and it won’t be your last. The narrative is clear, it’s a terrible place. for THEM. WE, on the other hand, are alright, more fortunate, secure in our little cocoons. This is what I call the Diego experience.

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Officer Gorski wants to help the young gunshot victim bleeding to death on the floor but all Diego can see is a child gangbanger, someone who chose this fate, and probably deserved it since he’s still pointing a gun at two police officers. Diego, like most people, is not entirely wrong or unfeeling, he believes a narrative, that this situation does not warrant an action and if it did, it could hurt him, wound him or leave him worse off than when he left the squad car.

For Will Gorski, and empaths, HSP’s (Highly Sensitive People) and Sensates, this is not a choice but a situation that chose him to make different decisions than any ordinary person would, given similar circumstances. There is, also a very loud and logical counter argument to consider, Diego’s telling him how he Should feel and what he Should do, but Will chooses differently. And his actions have a ripple effect not only on his own course, the boy whose life he saved and the investigation at hand but all the complex implications of saving a life that would have otherwise been lost. One need not time travel to make a lasting impact on the future. The present provides more than enough opportunities.  “Just Turn the Wheel and the Future Changes”, quite literally.

There’s a reason why we root for the underdog in a narrative, whether it’s in a book, film or television series. We can relate to the pain and isolation of the situation at hand and hope the character finds the strength to do what’s right, in spite of the circumstances. The sad truth is that very few in society today would actually act on this same impulse in true to life situations. Too many,  trapped within their own self-involved bubbles will simply walk on by or adhere to the Diego logic for their own personal safety but if you watch Sense8 long enough for it to truly penetrate that sense of inner virtue we all posses but too often override, this is no longer an option. This is what sets Sense8 apart from similar shows with a high moral intensity and sense of social responsibility. It does not delegate the part of the hero to the characters on screen alone, it inspires similar action in the viewers themselves, not due to some blind faith or a false sense of imagined courage, but on the wings of a grounded hope that one person can truly make a difference, however small. Sense8 magnetizes our inner compasses from directionless disarray and aligns it to a northern star, too bright not to follow.

Empathy ≠ Sympathy

 

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Kala sits in a movie theatre with her family watching a dog dry hump the leg of a comic hero on the cinema screen and the tears will not cease. She is devastated, confused and in pain, while Wolfgang sits stoically, sullen next to Felix’s hospital bed, seemingly feeling nothing. This is one of the best examples in television, of the stark contrast between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is to look at someone or something through the filters of your own perspective. It’s looking at a river and concluding the water must be cold. Empathy is to feel into someone or something to the point of losing yourself. It’s really stepping in the water and letting the current take you downstream or upstream and feeling the chill in your bones. It is the ultimate form of walking a mile in another’s shoes, so much so that you become them, even for a moment, but that moment dissolves any sense of separation.

Sympathy is safe, distancing and self-preserving while empathy leaves one open to the full impact of vulnerability. Sympathy is beneficial for greeting card companies, empathy could save the world. Empathy blurs the lines between two people and for a moment dispels the belief that there is a separation between what is you and what is outside of you.  It prevents you from willfully causing harm to anything you have chosen to feel into. It’s why Joong-Ki lives today.

Empathising with someone is not something we do accidentally or based on our tribal instincts or “something as accidental as blood. It’s something much stronger, it’s by choice.” We choose whether we want to feel what someone else is experiencing, we choose if we dare to be that vulnerable, and sometimes, we willfully choose not to go down that road and that’s usually due to our need for emotional and Biological Preservation.  Enter Blockers.

 

Blockers ≠ Connection

 

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In Sense8, BPO cannibal and fellow Sensate Milton aka Whispers uses Blockers, a black capsule that not only prevents other Sensates from finding him but one that also makes him the unfeeling, pathologically remorseless individual that he is. Blockers are nothing new, it is simply a new word for a coping mechanism as old as time. We all use blockers, some less harmful than others, to keep the world outside at bay, to shield ourselves, to protect ourselves, to limit ourselves to the Diego experience.  We binge eat, consume alcohol, self-medicate, inundate ourselves with entertainment and distractions to block the very thing that makes us who we are. This is what Riley describes when she and Will kiss while Will’s on blockers ” It really isn’t the same is it?”

We’re all, in essence, resorting to what Will did for most of season 2  in order to survive for most of our lives, moving from one dingy hideout to another, hoping to avoid feeling, fleeing from what we’re scared will hurt us. As Shugs so eloquently put it ” Checking out temporarily, permanently, my darling is the only choice that makes any sense”.  And it does make perfect Sense in a cruel and unfeeling world. Our brains are designed to avoid pain and chase pleasure. Our hearts, however, are made of sturdier stuff.

So it takes all the more courage to do what Riley and Will did eventually, by risking exposure, coming out into the open and turning the tables on the oppressors.  It just might be the most empowering act a human can do, to lay bare one’s vulnerabilities and stand out in the open, seen by others as someone who feels the full impact of what it means to be alive and to feel.

Sensates are innately vulnerable due to having no access to blockers, and as such feel the full gamut of emotional assaults and elation available to the human experience. The implications can be literally overwhelming but as revolutionary as the show which first introduced the true potential of relating to the other in this way. It goes beyond feeling the pain and suffering of others to sharing in their joy, moments of ecstasy and excitement as feeling goes both ways, although the negative implications are where our minds run to first. It isn’t limited to a man finally understanding what it is for a woman to endure her period as hilarious as the results were in Lito’s case. It can even stretch as far as understanding where an adversary is coming from as Will learns when he walks around in Whispers’ shoes and witnesses his family life to remark ” you’re just as trapped as we are, aren’t you?”

 

Sense8ing

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Which brings us to Sense8ing, a word that embodies the essence of I am Also a We in both spirit and action. It’s also a verb like Sense8, because Sense8ing is what one does after one Sense8 the feelings and emotional needs of the other or those around them and act with the best interest of oneself and the other at heart.

It is what makes even a prison a blissful refuge, a slum the backdrop and breeding ground for courage and a life in exile the path to freedom and belonging. Because no one is entirely alone in their experience, however terrifying or captivating, there’s a bleeding out of every experience to a shared one, which in turn takes the sting off the tragedy while heightening the joy or pleasure of an otherwise isolating state of being.

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We’re not going to get in right everytime, that would be to invalidate the parts of us that is human and imperfectly so, and there will be times when having a bazooka in the trunk of your car to obliterate everything to kingdom come will seem like the only option( three guesses on where I’d aim it and the first 2 don’t count). But more often than not, it is not the only option and if you Sense8 enough, it will become second nature to see the wider possibilities available in every single impossible situation and take the road less travelled.

Fandom ≠ Fanmily

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According to statistics, nearly 65% of new shows that premiere on television in a single year are cancelled.  And this is within the period between the first and second season. These are the facts of modern day entertainment. while most viewers are disappointed when their favourite TV series comes to an untimely end, it’s nothing that warrants drastic action or anything beyond an angry Facebook post aimed at the responsible network. This is in no way due to the lack of passion or love for the show, it is a simple acceptance of a fact that seems unchangeable.  A fan is but one individual, and the network which produces the show is a large conglomerate, an entity with considerable power and influence. What can be realistically achieved by a single act of protest?

And then there’s the argument that there are far more atrocious injustices taking place on a global scale which makes fighting or spending time on a cancelled television show seem rather senseless or even frivolous. At the end of the day, it’s a TV show, there are people around the world who are starving, wars and pestilence which are ravaging entire nations.  Aren’t there worthier causes on which to spend one’s energy? The choice seems all too clear. Once again.

This kind of argument would apply to a linear world, a place in which value and worthiness can be quantified, measured on a scale with value allocated accordingly. Is satisfying someone’s hunger more or less worthy than lifting someone depression or providing hope to those with suicidal ideation? What’s more empowering? Giving someone a sandwich? Or helping them understand the inherent value in their lives and possibilities for improvement? How can we quantify and calculate the impact of self-awareness, overcoming beliefs steeped in prejudices and hatred? Or the significance of finding the courage to listen to your intuition in spite of what odds and oppositions are stacked against you? Why is a piece of exquisite art any less worthy of fighting for than a plot of land, a borderline, a way of life or a religious ideology? It is perhaps, the most influential medium of all, the great leveller, which lets us see ourselves and others without cultural and societal filters. Sometimes, a flatscreen is more useful than a bed to call one’s own. “The bed keeps you in a slum, the flatscreen takes you out” Capheus declares, out to understand, touch and feel worlds beyond our limited existences and communities.  It is what connects us to what it means to be human and no other piece of entertainment has ever explored it as deliberately as Sense8.

Sense8 was cancelled after only 2 seasons but was renewed a month later due to the persistence of a fan movement that followed this instilled instinct that art is love made public and what they so dearly loved is worth fighting for. And the show’s message of inclusivity and that each “I ” is Also a “We” is what propelled more than 500,000 fans around the world to let their voices be heard and campaign for a show which taught them both the value of their voices as well as the value of art. Separation just may as well be an illusion as half a million individuals who have never crossed paths except in their collective love of a single piece of art stood up to one of the world’s largest internet streaming services and entertainment networks and won. Therein lies the difference.The narrative has been altered. An almost missable alteration perhaps, but one that will have a ripple effect on the future generations who may take the road less travelled, Sense8ing the potential for change we all hold in our hearts.

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