The other morning, I woke with Otis Redding playing in my mind, “You’ve got to try a little tenderness….” I had spent the night at my folks’ house and as I walked down the stairs, humming along, my dad laughed. That song had been in his head for the last couple days too. Kismet, I guess, or the fact that we are both currently reading Barking to the Choir. I’m guessing “Tenderness” is just about the only song Fr. Greg Boyle knows how to sing.
I am obsessed with this book. I gobble up story after story and then I put it down, hard, and walk away, not because it made me mad, but because it made me so damn GLAD.
I just want to cherish the feelings – of both surprise: “I’ve never thought of it that way,” and satisfaction: “I knew it all along!” I also put it down so that I can find my own response to his call. He says “Amen” to life in all its painful, poignant reality and his example demands that I find a corresponding, “Alleluia” within myself. To offer any less to this modern-day gospel feels sacrilegious.
I think I am beginning to understand how the early gospel began to spread and people became “Christians.” When the news is that good, that liberating, that healing, you can’t help but tell your family, friends, neighbors and even strangers about it. You want to jump up and down and say: Look! Taste! Touch! See how love and love and more love makes all the difference. And in case you think I’m putting Fr. Greg on a pedestal, I’m not. He’s only reminding us of the “original program,” as he puts it, which is simply the message of Jesus, which many of us seem to have forgotten.
So back to tenderness.
Tenderness is the key to it all, though it goes by many names: compassion, empathy, love. Each of those words has its own nuance, but they all work on the same principle – the act of softening towards “the other,” so that some connection, healing, or relationship can be fostered. Tenderness, however, has a connotation of spontaneity, as if it’s something we can’t develop, or consciously create. Nonsense, Greg says.
Compassion and empathy have taken on clinical standing; they have been studied and analyzed to death with data. But tenderness? That kind of just wells up within us, right? It’s too soft, squishy, and personal to analyze, which is exactly why we should embrace it above the others, according to Greg.
Tenderness doesn’t just happen from your intellect; it’s your heart’s response in proximity to what is beautiful, vulnerable and beloved in our midst. The key to the “practice” of tenderness is to become familiar with what it feels like and know what brings it out in you. And once you know it, don’t run away from it; run towards it! Get comfortable with the uncomfortable, vulnerable feeling of tenderness.
Tenderness feels dangerous (I might get hurt by admitting how much I care!) It feels embarrassing (I might look like an idiot for welling up in tears!) It feels inefficient (who’s got time to stop and marvel? I’ve got things to do.) For all those reasons and more, we don’t allow ourselves to feel tender towards most things. It destabilizes our ego’s ability to judge quickly, efficiently and “correctly.”
But we all have our Achilles’ heel, the thing that just melts our hearts, even when we’ve got better things to do. Currently, mine happens to be my nieces and nephews, especially the little ones. I wish you could feel my heart leap when I spy one, or all of them in a room. I think my heart literally pirouettes in my chest as I bend down and open my arms and call their names and they come running to me for a heart-stopping, germ-sharing, laughter-filled embrace. I am not so foolish to think it will always be this way. They will grow up and grow out of love with me, but I will cherish these tender moments as long as I can, which is also why I keep pictures like these on my phone. When I’m feeling cranky and judgmental, I can find Instant Tenderness! (Snapchat filters are magical things at this age!)
I also feel tenderness towards my own kids, toddlers of all kinds, some teenagers, and most teachers. Not the heart-skip-a-beat kind of tenderness, but a genuine softening towards their occasional negativity, bad attitude and tendency to see themselves as the victim of unfair authority figures. “I get it,” I want to say to them. “Let me get you a drink (milk, soda, or wine, as appropriate) and sit with you for a while until you feel more like yourself again.”
So the tender gospel of Barking to the Choir asks us to consider:
Where and for whom do you feel tenderness without effort, or reservation?
Maybe you’re not a kid person, but how about a newborn? (It’s one of the only places in our culture that men are allowed to display tenderness without shame!) Maybe a majestic animal species, newborn pandas, or packs of puppies. Maybe a telephone commercial with a grandmother brings you to tears? Cats must be the source of tenderness for millions of people in the world. Why else would they be watching those videos?
The next time you experience that rush of tenderness, whatever it is, feel what it feels like in your body, your heart, your face. Get to know that feeling, and then hold on to it, because that’s where “kinship” begins. As poet David Whyte writes, “Start close in,” a place where the yoke is easy and the burden is light. Start embracing the tenderness you feel naturally and then take it a degree further, one step at a time.
If my heart melts for my little ones, can I extend some measure of tenderness to the runny-nosed stranger’s child, crying in the grocery store line behind me? Can I ask my heart to skip a beat, and offer a smile to his parents, instead of judging their choices? And once I can do that, can I extend it even a step further to the foster youth in my own town, the refugee child on a distant shore, the little ones on the border? Can I eventually get to the heart-wide-open place where I begin to believe that there is no such thing as other people’s children?
Degree by degree, step by step, we expand our tender hearts until they include even our enemies. That is the mission and magic of Homeboy Industries. Step by tender step, they move people from separation to solidarity to kinship.
Embracing tenderness, writes Jean Vanier, is the highest mark of spiritual maturity. It is not a sign of weakness, sentimentality, or femininity in a pejorative way. It is a sign of strength, character and mutuality.
I am strong and centered enough to allow you to destabilize me through Love.
I am secure enough to be softened and changed by you.
I do not lose me when you win back some of yourself through my tender gaze.
I hope you’ll find something that makes your heart melt this week and then I hope you will chose to find another and another, each one less likely than the last and that through the practice of tenderness, you will become the genesis of “kinship” in your own little corner of the world. This is critical work needed in the world today.
“If love is the answer, community is the context and tenderness is the methodology. Otherwise love stays in the head, or worse, hovers above it. Or it stays in the heart, which is never enough. For unless love becomes tenderness – the connective tissue of love – it never becomes transformational. The tender doesn’t happen tomorrow… only now, only today.”
Greg Boyle, Barking to the Choir