Calling some Quiet, Shy and Highly Sensitive Humans

March 28, 2012

Sometimes I wonder why I blog.  This doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy it, I do.  Yet in the seemingly silly, unfair, bullying, loud, shallow, cacophony of our world, any intelligent and sensitive being must ask:  “Surely, WTF is the point?”

All I can say is, “Don’t call me Shirley.”

Seriously, how many readers, Twitter followers and Facebook “friends” does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer:  Only one, but it has to be Kim Kardashian.

And even then the light-bulb only goes on for a nanosecond, and if you’re not quick enough to look around you’ll miss the crude point of that sort of illumination:  we were better off in the dark.

*

I Spy with my little eye, a rising trend:  the rise of the introverted, quiet, compassionate and authentic.

Jung had as vision of this (the rise of a globally unifying spirit, of the feminine principle and of introversion).  He thought it would take around 600 years.  We’re at 540 and counting down, give or take.

What is introversion?  (BTW, Jung used the term extraversion, not extroversion, for the counterpoint)  It is the tendency to be highly sensitive, quiet, shy and be interested in the inner world of feelings, thoughts, and private spirituality—an ability or tendency to sense the numinous (i.e. a feeling of divine presence) in the seemingly mundane.

Conversely, extraversion is the tendency to be focused on the outer world.  Such people are more hardy (i.e. less “sensitive” to loudness, roughness).  The extraverts are the kids who immediately join the game, try the toys, and explore the preschool yard.

The introverts are more like those of us who literally crawl into the cubby at preschool (yours truly) and when pushed to socialize might inexplicably push a kid in a wagon down some stairs (also, yours truly).  We are not necessarily “bad” kids, but we are most assuredly “different” from the loud and the brash.

In honoring the confluence of opposites it must be noted that every extravert has an introverted side (this is why even muggles enjoy Harry Potter, even if they would tease and exclude him if he actually showed up at their school); and every introvert has a secret extravert lurking within (and hence meek Ian Flemming birthed Bond, James Bond; hence many terrific actors are able to inhabit wild characters but are actually shy when the cameras stop rolling).

Although it has taken five decades, love, true friendship, work, yoga and the luck of the zeitgeist (the spirit of the subtly shifting time) for me to begin to grasp this, my own chief problem has been that of being a highly sensitive person in a world where the deck is severely stacked against us quiet and sensitive sorts.

This self-realization has also been a by-product of blogging.  For in the virtual blogosphere I have formed what I would consider to be “real” relationships with “real” people.  With some I have “real” phone chats and sincere private email exchanges, with others I now have real, consistent and treasured lunches.

In addition to blogging, perhaps the rise of memoir also reflects this trend of rising interiority?  Perhaps memoir and blogging mark ways for an introvert to make herself or himself known and find a place that is valued in the group without having to become a loud, aggressive, branding, marketing, socially dominant person?

Can writing deeply and honestly touch other humans and allow one who sucks at cocktail parties and conventions to nevertheless gain a feeling that even shy sensitive people yearn for:  to feel truly seen, heard and loved?  Moreover, can writing, or any other way of authentically sharing ideas, consciousness and soul allow the quiet person to influence the consciousness of the group, perhaps even to trend the group toward compassion and sensitivity, micro-millimeter by nanosecond?

The highly sensitive are not “better” than less sensitive people, but we are not worse.  Yet we have all too often come to believe that we are worse:  inferior, shy, nerdy, geeky, lacking social confidence, too feminine (if male) or too masculine (if female), too odd, too… sensitive.

And all too often the dominant social world is one in which we continually fail (or succeed at great price and still end up on the shrink’s couch) because we’re playing the wrong game.  We introverts cannot win at the game of extraversion.

Are we to launch a civil rights movement for highly sensitive people?  No one makes us sit at the back of the bus—we are invisible to the dominant world, not even on the bus of what ranks, matters and is paid, literally and figuratively, attention.

I think back to my experiences with big publishing houses saying that they love my book but couldn’t publish it because no one has ever heard of me.  How the hell is a quiet, sensitive person supposed to make the loud people hear about them and take notice?  Suddenly you are trying to “build a platform” when that is totally the opposite of your personality and your desires.  You start blogging and while you fail to build a platform, instead you meet a few really cool authentic people—and sharpen your understanding of who you actually are.

I think of my once upon a time entertainment lawyer saying, of his more famous client, “Spike (Lee) is out there burning down a building right now.  You’ve got to get out there and make it happen.”  He was lovely, and encouraging, and saw me as highly talented… but he could not understand just how impossible it was for me to be anything like Spike in terms of sheer social audacity.

Perhaps we introverts need to self-identify, begin to team-up and help each other.  We’re never going to get anywhere trying to get the loud to include us; we truly don’t fit in with them.

I realize that “my people” may be famous and glittery or quiet and low-key—but all of them are real, soulful, can take me as I am and can let me relate to them as they are.  My people are the ones who want to connect at the real level and not just at the mass level.  Ironic that I come to realize and discuss this in a blog post.  How two-thousand-and-twelve is that?

It’s the realization that quiet and authentic is cool, in its own quietly authentic way, that can help us heal our introverted shame and confusion.  And, BTW, often we make pretty good parents (if we learn to manage our anxiety and anger that can creep up from struggling with being sensitivite in an insensitive world), friends and partners on all sorts of endeavors.

So, ciao, bonjour buenos dias my fellow sensitive introverts.  You are the ones who actually bother to “read” me (the socially gifted extraverts do not waste time on things that lack the social gravity of trending, swelling bigness—therein lies their social intelligence, they’d be fools to waste time on the small when the goal is always big).  Yet we, my introverted friends, just may be a groovy little clique of our own, a good cafe no one’s heard of and thus pleasantly free of trendsters, scenesters and those loud, often gifted, folks who make us feel even shyer and quieter when they show up guffawing and throwing their heads back in laughter at jokes we’re never quite in on.  I always liked that Janis Ian song, “I learned the truth at seventeen…” She’s my kind of artist.  I heard the song at seventeen, but I didn’t really get that it was about me until I was fifty-one.

If we introverts are to connect in our own way (i.e. NOT at blogging conventions for the highly sensitive) our first step is the awareness that we are highly sensitive, and not merely “losers” for being quiet, thoughtful and disinclined toward being the loudest one in the room.

None of us need the whole world to pay attention to us, but we do need a few people to actually understand us.   Through self-awareness and self-acceptance we highly sensitive sorts might function better in the world, relate better to extraverts and re-think what “success” might actually look like for ourselves.  It might turn out to look an awful lot like life as we’re already living it.

The take-away?  We don’t need to change our personalities and our behaviors when it comes to being quiet and thoughtful, we only need to shift our consciousness.  Then we can trust that we don’t need more followers and that our true friends are just that, and that we already have them and know who they are; we might make some new friends amongst our ranks, but we’ll certainly keep the old.  Silver and gold, innit?

Fish are programmed to always head to the middle of the pack—that’s what makes fish into schools.  Perhaps the same can be said of extraverts forming the group, all trying to be the center and thus forming society itself.

We more sensitive folks do not much care for that mile-wide and inch-deep ocean that some call our “culture.”  As fish out of socially dominant water we introverts need to realize that we can, in fact, breathe just fine out of that water, and in turn we might form a kinder, gentler, less obvious school of our own.

I suspect I have a lot of readers who rarely, or never, comment here—after all, you’re introverts, why bother?  But somehow I do sense you’re with me on this, as I am with you.  Maybe we can just feel it because we’re sensitive—and that’s the way we roll.

Now let’s see what we can do for all our collective sensitive children.

Namaste

P.S. This post was inspired by a conversation with a dear introverted friend who felt quite inspired and reassured by the recent book, Quiet by Susan Cain.  Since drafting this post I have downloaded the book and can hardly put down my Kindlefire—Susan Cain is the virtual mentor I’ve been seeking all my life (at least as far as the first couple of highly reassuring chapters suggests to me).  For introverts seeking a friend in letters beyond yours truly and obscurely, check out her site and book:  http://www.thepowerofintroverts.com/

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Lindsey March 28, 2012 at 6:48 am

Oh, Bruce … I relate, as I’m sure you can guess, to every single word of this. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it put better than this: “an ability or tendency to sense the numinous (i.e. a feeling of divine presence) in the seemingly mundane.” Yes, yes, yes. I need to read Quiet. The trust that I’m enough, despite being quiet, despite failing every time I compare myself to others (which in itself is a terrible thing to spend my time doing, and I try to avoid it!), is still tenuous. I do sense a current of something out there, of kindred spirits flashing in the water like the silver of a fish, quick, but definitely there. And you are chief among those kindred. Thank you. xo

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Bruce March 28, 2012 at 7:51 am

Your words flow to me as a lovely affirmation of our kindred introverted spirit. I’m quite confident that Susan Cain will strike you as more than able to further illuminate your past pain and heal the lingering shame. I just hope when you two Princeton girls bond, and I suspect you will in this small and shrinking world, you’ll reassure me that you’re not laughing at me when you’re merely having a good time, relieved and finally confident in the success that is actually all of ours, to be shared and enjoyed, a success that somehow is so gentle and sweet that it doesn’t make anyone feel left out, most of all those sensitive kids we once were, and perhaps remain behind the persona with which we must meet the muggle world.

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Kristen @ Motherese March 28, 2012 at 7:10 am

It’s only recently that I’ve begun to realize that I am an introvert, that I’m happiest in the quiet and the small group. Like Lindsey, my heart sang to your line, “an ability or tendency to sense the numinous (i.e. a feeling of divine presence) in the seemingly mundane.” And if there’s a club that meets here, with you and Lindsey and all of us parents quietly struggling and asking and laughing together, then I’m proud to be a part of it.

Thank you for this beautiful piece, my dear friend.

BTW, Shirley, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?

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Bruce March 28, 2012 at 7:58 am

You know Kristen, we’ll have to meet at your house for the club (you are still the ring-leader and relative group-former compared to my inability to shape clouds and flowing water into even virtual tangible placeness; my own favorite post was my guest post chez vous; or does one use the two form here?); we need to recognize you as the meeting place mostly because then I can go back to bed with my Kindle if the virtual connection gets too overwhelming (but promise I will circle back to help you clean up the next day and have a cup of tea).

Humor is definitely part of the way forward… each moment getting just far enough away from the pain to reveal itself in the full bloom of its hilarity at our own past expense; the perfect crazy glue of shared dread and anxiety leavened with authentic tenderness and love.

Looks like maybe I picked the wrong day to stop vacationing in Turkish prison.

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Felipe April 18, 2012 at 10:01 am

A very interesting topic Julia and one close to my heart. I struggled for a long time with traditional definitions of ‘introversion’/'extroversion’ and ‘temperament’- they just never sat comfortably. Then along came a woman called Elaine N. Aron who has put my life (and I daresay that of many creative people) into some perspective and led me to believe that the terms ‘extroversion’ and ‘introversion’ may be something of a misnoma.Elaine Aron expands on the inroversion/extroversion thing in her book The Highly Sensitive Person, in which she looks at certain characteristics which are common to about 15-20% of the population, although there is a sliding scale for the population as a whole and of course it manifests itself uniquely for each person. One of the characteristics typically shared by those who identify with the ‘HSP’ trait, is that we need solitary time like we need air to breath, and are often highly creative (a lot of ‘HSPs’ are writers). One of the complicating factors is that 35% of ‘HSPs’ are actually extroverts. I found this all incredibly validating, as I definitely have a highly developed capacity for extroversion…but a relatively low threshold for being with crowds of people, relative to most people I know (I suffer from what Aron calls ‘overarousal’ which is another way of saying overstimulation or being drained by social activities, even those I enjoy). It’s not so much ‘what’ as ‘how much’ although I’m pretty aversive to loud music and urban landscape noise (low threshold for traffic, sirens and industrial noise)for even short bursts.I also tend to need lots of rest, am seldom bored in my own company and prefer to work for myself from home. Although I need and miss having some sort of social life, the thing I most miss and crave if it’s absent from my life (which it often is, now that I am a parent of a young child and living in a community setting) is time out and personal space (to create, reflect, rest, write or whatever) which recharges my batteries.There’s more (including the list of typical HSP characteristics) on http://www.hsperson.com , Elain Aron’s website, if you’re interested.

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BigLittleWolf March 28, 2012 at 1:32 pm

There is so much here to comment on, Bruce, starting with this:

… being a highly sensitive person in a world where the deck is severely stacked against us quiet and sensitive sorts… – and that is exactly how it feels – as though the culture is stacked against us. But I will say that the highly sensitive isn’t always the shy; we may be selectively shy, and all the more discouraged by the many personality buckets that our various worlds (corporate, for example) would slot us into. As if anyone can be classified and thus “understood” so easily!

It is an odd contradiction that writers – typically highly introverted (even if we have our social sides as well) – now must promote, promote, promote to have a prayer of being read. It makes the task of crafting prose of any genre all the more trying.

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Bruce March 28, 2012 at 6:05 pm

Hi BLW, yes these distinctions are very important… to people like ourselves. I”m hoping that perhaps the great untapped market for our own goods and services may be found in our fellow introverts, those who would love us if only they knew about us. The battle cry of promote, promote, promote to my mind is like the call to run over the top of that trench in WW I, mass soul murder to no good end whatsoever. Instead I might go with connect, connect, connect… meaning the honest and authentic exchange of goods, services and ideas amongst the ranks of the sensitive, the introverted, the compassionately quiet. Intelligent statistical reasoning would suggest that there are millions of us—millions of quiet folks sick and tired of the loud-mouthed world.

Maybe a new business model might arise: buy introverted. Here’s to prospering through enriching each other and keeping things real.

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Meagan Frank March 29, 2012 at 5:24 am

“Buy introverted.” I love it. I am absolutely going to have to check out the book you mention. I’ve never thought of myself as an introvert. I’m not the loudest at a cocktail party, but I’m comfortable. Maybe I’m more of an introvert than I’ve ever admitted. I seek out the private conversations. I am drawn to authentic relationship and truth…and I’ve become discerning along my journey. I have told many people about your book, and I am absolutely with you… inspired by your gentle blogging. I cannot fit myself among the most successful, high-profit writers and bloggers, but I am completely satisfied knowing there are people like you in the blogosphere and purpose in living my own life with authenticity and truth. I am grateful for you and I am quietly cheering in my kitchen! MMF

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Bruce March 29, 2012 at 6:47 am

Hi Megan, I am so touched, heartened and quietly cheered by these words as I tap tap a reply at my own kitchen island in the predawn darkness, the cesura before not posting, but composting the just-fading flowers. Namaste :)

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Graph April 17, 2012 at 5:17 pm

I appreciate your post. I teach personality type and one of the things I notice is that some people have a difficult time choosing Introvert in my trainings. Introvert has been given a bad rap and a lot of people feel there must be something the matter with you if you’re an Introvert.I’m an Introvert and it hasn’t stopped me from being successful, conducting trainings, playing the piano to large audiences, and singing in front of large audiences.Knowing and understanding that I focus my Energy as an Introvert has helped me immeasurably, however. I make sure that I take time out to recharge my batteries by spending time alone when I’ve done a log of Extraverting. By knowing just this one thing about my type, I have eliminated the tension headaches I used to get that kept me in bed for several days at a time and no pain medication would deter. In fact, I haven’t been sick in years with a cold, etc.Understanding what the Energy behavior dimension is all about and the E/I preferences is very valuable information.

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Bruce April 18, 2012 at 7:23 am

Yes, It seems useful to get to know ourselves well—and then make use of that knowledge to also relate to our shared world in ways that work for us and, hopefully, contribute to the group as well. Namaste Graph

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Wolf Pascoe March 29, 2012 at 5:37 pm

So much here that is resonant. It makes me ramble.

“How the hell is a quiet, sensitive person supposed to make the loud people hear about them and take notice?” I worry about this every day. Then I think it’s the wrong thing to worry about. Then I get angry at the cacophony of banality that is our culture.

“Buy introverted,” Yes. And “Connect, connect” in place of “Promote, promote.” It made me think of Forster’s “Only connect,” and the paragraph in Howard’s End which precedes it:

“Mature as he was, she might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man. With it love is born, and alights on the highest curve, glowing against the gray, sober against the fire.”

No connecting without unless within. This is the first task.
And this about connection with others, from Adrienne Rich, who died this week:

. . . . a process,
Delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.
It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.
It is important to do this because in doing so we do justice to our own complexity.
It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.

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Bruce March 29, 2012 at 10:01 pm

Yes indeed, my soul-filled lupine rainbow bridge of a friend. Perhaps a rising light of half-moon quiet love gives way to another glow upon the bridge that is our gray dawn horizon, a process of gentle warming light upon our collective complexity, a golden flowering trend to make that hard way prove to have been more than worth it.

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Laura March 30, 2012 at 7:06 am

It seems the quiet, the sensitive, the intuitive are barely noticed by the clamoring world around us (particularly in the look-at-me frenzy of social media) and yet the gifts we bring include the sort of empathy that can heal what troubles our culture. By staying rooted within, we can more easily perceive how truly connected we are.

http://lauragraceweldon.com/2011/03/14/we-are-one-being/

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Bruce April 1, 2012 at 6:44 pm

Yes, Laura—perhaps the empathy and consciousness of that water you write so lovingly about in your post, and the watery parts of our individual and collective Selves, whispers its wisdom up into our lived experience, suffused, if we’re so fortunate, into Love as consciousness itself.

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Sebastian April 18, 2012 at 12:05 am

A friend once told me this ifdiniteon of introvert and extrovert:An introvert is someone who, if she has five minutes out of busy day, uses that time to be alone a bit, to gather her thoughts.An extrovert is someone who, with five extra minutes, uses it to call a friend.It’s a question of how you recharge. It made me feel a lot better about being an introvert! (I had always thought it was a bit of a moral failing.)Some people are networking pros and I’ve always been jealous of them. But, I think, it’s a skill like anything else. Like knitting.

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Bruce April 18, 2012 at 7:17 am

Hi Sebastian, My hope is that we can knit our introverted and extraverted selves together into a more conscious and cohesive sweater :) Here’s to appreciating the way we are, and the way others are too.

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Mark April 1, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Hey, Bruce, you forgot to mention: Spike is also out there Tweeting the address of innocent people for lynch mobs to go and wreak havoc upon. I think a little discerning introversion on Spike’s part might be in order. What’s your sense?

Best,

Mark

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Bruce April 1, 2012 at 6:56 pm

Knowing little of the flow of the twittersphere, and knowing still then that I know no Truth in this regard of what it purports to report, I must merely agree that discerning introversion is alway a nice thing for impulsive extroverts to consider adding to their toolboxes.

While I do know that Spike was always a masterful self-promoter, and I do also know that I have been less gifted, for better or worse, in this regard, I find it reassuring to realize that plenty of this is neurological, inherited amygdala stuff, and thus I’ll leave it to Spike to figure out what he needs to do and I’ll try to employ skillful, and increasingly conscious, means in taking my own ideas to the quiet street.

Thus I’m in quiet league with you in hoping to foment love and compassion for real and for ALL. And still I generally think that angry and inappropriate responses to threats (even non-personal, in the media) might be filtered through the lenses of historical injustice, psychological trauma (including a past of invisibility that may breed needs for attention/self-promotion), and also contextualized within our lurid culture’s cult of fame and self-promotion.

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MKCountryman April 5, 2012 at 7:44 am

My people are the ones who want to connect at the real level and not just at the mass level.

I am jealous of those of you who can be so eloquent and soft and respectful when making your point. I don’t sound soulful, numinous, or introspective when I denounce the world in frustration by saying, “I don’t have time or desire to play any of the bullshit social games.”

Sometimes I read something, and I can do nothing more than nod my head and say yes, yes this is it exactly. I have written on this before. I haven’t been able to decide if I am an introverted extrovert or an extroverted introvert. And certainly haven’t written publicly or tried to talk to anyone about it, because I am not ready to be carted off and locked away for fear of sounding too unbalanced.

thanks so much for the post.

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Bruce April 5, 2012 at 10:01 am

Hi MKCountryman, Thank you for these honest words. I suspect that when we are able to acknowledge our uncertainty about where we fit on the spectrum from introversion to extraversion we are breaking our own chains and finding both flexibility and greater freedom to be, to express, to connect and to work together toward something we can all be proud of and nourished by. I’m particularly heart-warmed by: “I am not ready to be carted off and locked away for fear of sounding too unbalanced.” I think many introverts are cowed into silence by such fears. The liberating realization is that we are not carted away, merely ignored… until we are no longer ignored by each other. All Good Wishes

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Helen April 5, 2012 at 2:51 pm

Thank you so much Bruce for creating such a wonderful post! It beautifully sums up what life as a highly sensitive introverted person looks and feels like. I have known for a number of years that I am an introvert and my Myers-Briggs test result categorizes me as an INFP. Once I realized that I was an introvert I gave myself permission to stop trying to ‘be’ extroverted and started reading everything I could on introverts. Through self-discovery and self-awareness I was able to heal parts of my life and lay the ground work for how I wanted live my life. Things make so much more sense now. I have for many years been working on getting my business as a Life Coach up and running, but something was missing. That niche market thing never made sense to me. Just recently I figured out that my calling is to be a Self Care Coach for Introverts. It is time for me to shine my light brightly in the world and to help my fellow introverts embrace who they are, connect to all their wonderful gifts and thrive in an extroverted world. Your blog post is further confirmation as to what my life purpose is. Thank you!

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Bruce April 5, 2012 at 3:30 pm

Hi Helen, Thanks so much for your kind words and for stepping up to comment here. I want to wish you all the best with your business. Here’s to having fun and authenticity while striving to contribute to our shared world.

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angela April 8, 2012 at 11:48 am

Bruce,
I needed to read this today. THANK YOU! I can identify with much of what you’ve described and have carried a sense of shame for being this way. You have helped me realize its a gift, something to be celebrated. Keep it up!
Angela

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Bruce April 8, 2012 at 5:04 pm

Hi Angela, How very lovely to hear from you, and to be reaffirmed in the hope that kindred spirits quietly show up—and that there are more of us than we sometimes fear. You too keep up your faith in the gift of your sensitivity and perhaps we introverts can celebrate together (in a very chill way, of course). All Best Wishes, BD

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