It’s Not the Heat–It’s the Humidity

I stopped to gas up my car one morning. Waiting for the tank to fill, I glanced over and noticed Huck’s was literally sweating, its muggy windows totally obscured by condensation.

I could relate.

Summers here are notoriously humid. Some days, it feels like walking through soup. Every five seconds, someone, somewhere in the metro area says, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.”

I had a conversation with a relative who lives in Arizona. I tend to idealize Arizona—low humidity and pollen counts, the canyons alive with the sound of music and whatnot. He pointed out a distinction I’d never considered: while the humidity might feel gross, the high temperatures will kill you. So, if we’re talking life or death, it’s not the humidity, it’s the heat.

But the humidity . . . uggggh. Just feels gross.

Thinking about this—how humidity alters my perception of the temperature—reminds me how much depends on perception.

Two people may interpret the same event in completely different ways. For instance, siblings who lose a parent: one may have had a wonderful relationship with her parent, so she responds to the death with profound grief. The other sibling, whether troubled or mistreated, responds with relief or indifference or an odd sense of satisfaction. It’s not the event but your experience of it.

Before we went through the wringer, I secretly thought people who struggled with infertility were just being dramatic. From my angle, it was as straightforward as ambient temperature. I had no idea that so much of the experience wasn’t even about children but about grieving the life you’d imagined. At least one layer of the experience is grieving the death of a dream. Today, I stand corrected. And more than a bit humbled.

I’ve noticed we tend to look at the event and, unable to grasp its impact on an individual, leap to judgment. It’s not an easy thing, trying to understand someone so apparently different from you. There may be nothing harder. But the thing I find alarming is not the inability to understand but the refusal to try.

A recent Facebook meme argues, “Don’t judge someone just because they sin differently from you.” I’d add, let’s be generous to those who suffer differently. Instead of judging someone as utterly other, may we default to compassion, not disgust or pity or even sympathy. Until we get there, let’s stretch for loving, benefit-of-the-doubt empathy.

People are haunted or buoyed (or any number of verbs in between) by personal experiences of life events. These are perceptions—yes—but to an individual they feel as real as sweat on skin.

While we can pretty easily read the thermometer, we have to stretch our imaginations to begin to understand a person’s subjective heat index. Basic human understanding is worth it.

Because it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.