The Canary in the Coal Mine How to Use Your Sensitivity as a Compass

Back in the days of coal mining, miners would often bring a caged canary with them down into the mineshafts. The ever-present danger of suffocating from toxic coal fumes, invisible and odorless, meant that the demise or death of this sensitive little bird would alert the miners to the fact that the way forward was not safe for them.

Lately, I’m reminded of this often. I’ve been feeling a bit like one of these little birds myself. I don’t mean that we intense, sensitive people are the first to die, obviously. But like the canaries back then, we are the first ones to notice when things are off—whether it be an imbalance within ourselves, our family, or our world. I’m starting to see the value of these warning signs more and more these days.

Intensity Under a Pandemic

As I write this, here in Holland, as with the rest of the world, we are dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. The whole country is in lockdown during a very unnerving and strange time. At first, I felt a lot of fear which was soon followed by an immense sadness. My heart broke when I heard all the grueling stories of doctors and nurses who worked around the clock, and of those who were suffering—the lonely, sick, and dying. I couldn’t grasp the magnitude of it all; I found myself weeping for them and for the world.

I also felt a more personal sadness for the loss of our normal lives.  We were dealing with the stress of adjusting to homeschooling—working from home all of a sudden—and juggling all these different balls at the same time. There was also sadness for the suddenly very real prospect of getting sick and losing loved ones. Of course, I know that death is an inevitable part of life—no one really knows when it’s their time, but it suddenly becomes so much more real in these times. I felt so vulnerable in such a short space of time. For me at least, it was necessary to really feel into this, to sit with these emotions, and this new reality.

After a while though, a new feeling emerged—one I’m almost afraid to mention. Amidst all this uncertainty, worry, and sadness these days, I sometimes feel as if I’ve also been given a gift—the gift of time, of stillness, togetherness, and of slowing down. It’s as though I’m seeing more clearly that a lot of things that we had and were doing was really just “fringe” and unnecessary.

In this newfound quiet, a very valuable insight has emerged for me: something I’ve felt for a long time, like the canary in the coal mine, but something I wasn’t quite listening to nor acting upon.

I was afraid to mention feeling like I had been given a gift because I know we’re in a privileged position. We haven’t lost anyone to this virus yet, we were all sick with COVID-19 but it was mild and we all recovered. We both still have our jobs, we work part-time and our kids also normally do well at school, so our family was in a position to handle homeschooling without too much extra stress. I know that a lot of people’s days don’t look like ours. This crisis has a different face for everyone, and I feel so very deeply for the people who are struggling, suffering.

And yet, in this newfound quiet, a very valuable insight has emerged for me: something I’ve felt for a long time, like the canary in the coal mine, but something I wasn’t quite listening to nor acting upon.

Seeking Balance, Seeking Togetherness

Before the lockdown, between careers, kids, family, and friends, my schedule was full. I feel blessed to have such richness in my life, but for a long time, it also felt as if the world was turning a bit too fast for me—for the kids—and perhaps for the whole world. Where was the time to breathe, to do nothing, and to just be? Hurry, hurry, finish your breakfast, we gotta go to school. Give me a quick kiss, I’ve got to go to work. Quick, race to the train station or my train will leave without me. Practice your piano lessons. Hurry, get in the shower, time for bed, because tomorrow we have to get to school in time again. It’s normal I guess, but we were all feeling tired and rushed a lot of the time.

During the school holidays, we would recover and find time to breathe before diving back in. Last December, being together with family and cozying up inside our homes was an opportunity for restoration and for turning inward. Yet, amidst all the fun and celebratory activities—family birthdays, celebrating Christmas with loved ones, the school music recital in the early morning’s winter light—the peace and introspection I was craving for were hard to find. By the end of the month, we were all so tired that we could barely keep it together. All of us got sick, and the week after Christmas, we were completely spent.

Of course, I could have said no to all these activities, but in and of themselves they were all good things—important things. Saying no felt like swimming against a very strong current. But is this really how we wanted to live? Having too much of a good thing could eventually become a bad thing. I saw how a lot of the things we filled our days with were perhaps not as necessary as we thought, or at least, not as beneficial as we needed them to be. These are things that I had been observing for a long time, things I wondered about but didn’t quite know how to resolve.

Having too much of a good thing could eventually become a bad thing. I saw how a lot of the things we filled our days with were perhaps not as necessary as we thought.

Now that all of these activities have fallen away—come to a grinding halt even—we miss them, and we also see what a gift all this empty time can be. Now that there hasn’t been any school for weeks, barring an hour or two of homework each day, we’ve slowly rediscovered the freedom to just do what we want. Of course, the homework needs to be done, but why not linger at the park first and bake cookies afterwards? How about doing the homework once we’re happy and fulfilled from our time outdoors? Why not skip the repetitive lessons to focus on mastering the concept instead of doing every single assignment? Why not use the extra time to pursue our own interests, go down that rabbit hole, and learn from that drive within? There has been such freedom in doing this!

I’ve seen so much beauty emerge these past few weeks. I’ve rediscovered daily walks in the park or in the woods alone, or with my boys, in the crisp quiet of the early morning before I started my workday. We slowly saw spring arriving. As I walked, there was such a quietness, a hush, with almost no traffic and no people in the woods. There was a small rabbit that would look up at me, undisturbed, continuing to munch on the grass. Birds, so many of them, chirping in their little voices of spring against a backdrop of soft humming insects. We saw the trees getting a tiny shade of greener every day, the tiny green buds and blossoms slowly emerging and unwrapping themselves, fresh, and almost translucent then falling upon us like a beautiful, soft, white rain which contrasted the spicy, earthy scent of the dry woodlands that followed. The low morning sun shone through the beech forest, creating a softly sparkling green filter for my walk and I’d feel the gentle breeze caress my skin accompanied by the warmth of the sun. Such sensory richness. Such a deep, steady calm and vitality this brought me, day after day.

As for all the things we filled our days with, I now wonder how necessary they really were. Did they meet our needs? How were they helping us live according to our core values? What exactly are those core values? This really got me thinking: that canary that I have inside of me, that my children have inside of them—should we perhaps listen to it a bit more?

What Creative, Healthy People Do With Their Freedom

During this time I’ve seen a beautiful transformation in my boys, they sleep longer, and their energy has returned along with tremendous creativity. They build stuff, map out treasure hunts, build a model of our home in Minecraft, learn a bit of Swedish, invent their own songs, and wait for someone from the future to unearth their buried time-capsule. They get into fights—they are young and bored, too, after all. I also see them cooperating, giggling, cuddling each other, and having sleepovers a lot more—there is generally much more love and fun.

I notice a similar process within myself, too. For years I’ve struggled with insomnia, waking up after six hours of sleep, irrespective of how tired I’d feel. I now sleep longer—at least seven hours—for the first time in years. My eldest son wondered why he was suddenly able to sleep longer than he used to. “Why do you think this is?” I asked him. “My head just feels calmer,” he simply said, and I realized that I felt the same way. Now that our days are slower, we have more time to rest, nap, read, or go outside. We have the freedom to do what we want, instead of following our busy agenda. This calmness, for which I normally have to work so hard—through daily meditation and many decisions about what not to do in this rapidly spinning world of ours—now just is. Not all the time, but a lot more often, and a lot easier.

This really got me thinking: that canary that I have inside of me, that my children have inside of them—should we perhaps listen to it a bit more?

This is important, I think, especially for us sensitive and intense people. With a calm head, we can make better decisions; we can feel what our priorities and our core values are. When we’re not so rushed, we can feel what lives within us.

I realize now that this is what I’ve felt for a long time. This is what that little voice inside of me was trying to tell me—slow down. I want to act upon this knowledge more, listen to my inner voice more, not just for myself, although, what better place to start? I want to empower others, too, to choose a simple life, a slow life. To live more from within.

I imagine if the whole world would live at a slower pace, it would do us an enormous amount of good—wouldn’t there be fewer airplanes, fewer cars, fewer wars, shorter commutes, and less pollution? Perhaps more kindness, caring, honesty, health, and happiness?

Choices Going Forward

As I was considering all of this, another question arose. Why was it so difficult, before the lockdown, to slow down? Why didn’t I just choose not to do all these things? I know alternative ways of living exist. We didn’t have to do all these things. Yet, I know for myself that my kids love those activities—I love those activities. I want to give my kids the experience of friends, family, and a language for their feelings in music. I’m afraid to miss out and afraid for my kids to miss out.

On a more subtle level, acting upon these feelings was difficult as well because it’s not what everyone else did. If everyone else was living at this speed, if they can bear it, we should be able to do it too, right?

On a more subtle level, acting upon these feelings was difficult as well because it’s not what everyone else did. If everyone else was living at this speed, if they can bear it, we should be able to do it, too, right? It almost feels weak and indulgent not to go along with it. It feels as if we’re supposed to go along with it, to help each other out, volunteer at school, and to contribute to a better world—these are all core values for me, too. Yet amidst all this helping and contributing, I also recognize there is value in helping ourselves, finding out how to live a peaceful life within ourselves; this, for me at least, can only be done when I slow down.

In a way, I think the speed of the world just isn’t what we’re meant to deal with. Our brains and nervous systems haven’t had enough time to evolve and catch up to our rapidly changing environment. In a few generations, we may adapt to multitasking, functioning with less sleep, and coping better with noise, but do we want this? Personally, I’d like to see this go the other way; I’d like to slow the world down so it better fits the perfectly fine nervous systems we already have.

I acknowledge that not everyone has the same needs, but I think slowing down is important to a lot of people, even the extraverts. I feel a very strong call these days to focus on the basics and the core. For me, this is togetherness: it is connecting with my boys, with our loved ones, allowing time alone for each of us to follow our own interests and projects, sleep, music, books, and games. It is also spending a lot of time in nature.


In a way, it feels as if there is time to breathe again, to just be. How strange, and telling perhaps, that it took a grueling pandemic to make me slow down—to make the whole world slow down—that we have to be forced in order to experience this much empty space in our agenda.

We may adapt to multitasking, functioning with less sleep, and coping better with noise, but do we want this? Personally, I’d like to see this go the other way; I’d like to slow the world down so it better fits the perfectly fine nervous systems we already have.

In my own life, I already make sure there is time for this by working part-time and carving out space for solitude, to walk in nature and think. I don’t mean to say, “I was right all along, I knew it!” I don’t have the answers. I don’t know everyone else’s situations nor everyone else’s needs.  What I do have are a lot of questions, observations, and assumptions about things I’d like to dissect further, so let’s start there. For instance, I don’t know yet what we’ll do once the schools open again. We could choose not to go back and homeschool, or we could see if we can change a few things about how schooling is done. I don’t yet know how we’ll handle all the options or how we’ll choose. Either way, this knowledge about what an empty agenda does for us, for our family, is now ours. I want to trust this inner voice more, to treasure this knowledge, and take it with us along the road as a compass and an invitation to explore further.

I’d also like to empower my fellow canaries to listen to their inner voices, too. If you feel things are off, please take this seriously. I’ve discovered that there is tremendous worth in listening to it. Don’t feel weak or less than or weird for not wanting to function at the same speed as others. As we say here in Holland, to change the world, start with yourself. Take care, be safe and slow down, if you can. It will make your head calmer.

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Foske is a psychologist and writer specializing in giftedness, parenthood, and education. As a writer, she also likes to focus on the art of living a happy life. She lives in Holland with her partner and their two sons.