A Revolution in Tenderness

A Revolution in Tenderness

Chances are, someone has forwarded a TED talk to you at some point or another or you’ve seen one pop up on your Facebook feed. Maybe it was Ken Robinson’s impassioned plea for a new way of thinking about education or Susan Cain’s insistence that introversion not be seen as less valuable than extroversion.

Despite the fact that these are two of the most popular talks of all time, many people actually associate TED with technologists, designers, and other Silicon Valley stereotypes — the kinds of people who love to discuss how artificial intelligence might affect our future or those that use words like “synergy” and “scale.” These are guys who worship at the church of innovation.

Well this year, the paradigm shifted. A surprise speaker recorded an 18-minute talk…the Pope himself.

I sat in the audience as the silence settled over the crowd. Rather than seeing this 80-year-old priest’s message as out-of-date or cliché, rather than pushing back against the value of religious belief writ large, it seemed like the TED audience was actually starving for his words. What struck me most was what he said about our need for a “revolution in tenderness”:

“And what is tenderness? It is the love that comes close and becomes real. It is a movement that starts from our heart and reaches the eyes, the ears and the hands. Tenderness means to use our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other, to listen to the children, the poor, those who are afraid of the future.”

At a conference known for its culture of young people celebrating “moving fast and breaking things,” here was an old man talking about slowing down and really seeing people. At a conference where positivity and courage are celebrated, where the future is often painted with an unapologetically optimistic patina, here was a reminder that the world doesn’t feel so hospitable to everyone, that people have deep and understandable fear of what is around the corner — either in their personal lives or in our political sphere.

It was truly radical. Tenderness, it strikes me, is an endangered virtue in so many of our professional and public spaces. While I spend hours a week tending to the needs of my babies within my home — comforting my increasingly leggy toddler after a fall or lovingly preparing a bath overflowing with bubbles — when I’m out in the “real world,” I am conditioned to produce, achieve, and only ask for or offer help if its understood as a mechanism for getting to a goal faster or better, not acknowledging inherent human weakness. Autonomy and excellence, not tenderness, are prized in the public sphere.

The Pope made me wonder: what would our public spaces look like if tenderness were made visible? And I immediately flashed on this photo by Ed Clark that I have always been so deeply struck by:

Tears stream down the cheeks of accordion-playing Chief Petty Officer (USN) Graham Jackson as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s flag-draped funeral train leaves Warm Springs, GA., April 13, 1945. (Ed Clark / The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images / © All Rights Reserved)

In it, tears of grief stream down the cheeks of Chief Petty Officer Graham Jackson as he plays “Goin’ Home” on the accordion in Warm Springs, Georgia. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s flag-draped casket was passing at just that moment, headed for the presidential train and its journey back to Washington. It’s a beautiful image, in part because it embodies both toughness and tenderness in one single moment. Jackson is both openly weeping but playing on. He doesn’t hide his face. He is strong enough to express genuine sadness. In a sense, it’s a way of acknowledging how much the moment matters. His brave tenderness gives the moment a dignifying gravity.

There are so many moments in our fast, furious public lives these days where we miss an opportunity for this kind of brave tenderness, this kind of dignifying gravity. We rush through our neighborhoods, through airports, through workplaces as if trying to bypass the presence of embarrassing emotion, as if none of it matters enough to slow us down, as if — and this is the Pope’s real point — no one matters enough to slow us down.

So this week, I’m going to do an experiment. I’m going to slow down wherever and whenever I feel tenderness — in myself or others — and actually experience it. I’m going to use my eyes and ears to take it in, to express it, to make it real in public. I’m going to, as the TEDsters might say, “disrupt” the dominant culture — not with a new app or a crazy idea — but with the unorthodox assumption that there is room enough for tenderness, here and now, always. Join me?

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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  • Tod Marshall

    Thank you for this essay. I think of Li-Young Lee’s line to describe his often overly stern father’s hands: “two measures of tenderness / he laid against my face / the flames of discipline / he raised above my head” and how in that poem (and in Robert Hayden’s “Winter Sundays,” Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” and other works) the simultaneous energies of tenderness and wrath, tenderness and strength seem to dwell in the same “austere and lonely offices.” Anyhow, thanks for this reminder of how noticing “the sweet impossible blossom” (Li-Young again) of love becoming real is a daily practice.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Wow, thanks for this. Would love to check out all of these poems.

  • Gabby

    A side benefit of this worthwhile experiment in noticing and feeling may be suddenly realizing how much people are already showing care and kindness toward others in the public sphere- that many people are not at all only about producing, achieving, and giving help only when it is goal enhancing.
    I think there is a lot of kindness and beauty out there if one opens ones eyes to it, common and not radical at all.
    I could give two hands full of examples from the airport a couple of days ago (as you mention airports) and many more from most public spaces through which I pass. I live deep in an urban area in the West where most of the interactions are among strangers.
    There are some interactions notably lacking in tenderness, of course, like police citizen relationships in many places or the heated interactions of politicians. But it is as vital in our time as any to notice that these settings are not across the board social norms.
    The norm is to look out for each other in the public sphere.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Good point Gabby! It’s not just about changing behavior but noticing what’s ACTUALLY happening rather than the story we tell about it. Thanks!

  • Sarah Leach

    Thank you! In alignment with Krista’s interview with Sheryl Sandburg and Adam Grant, I think sometimes we rush and ignore each other in order to try to mask our pain. Being tender to another requires us acknowledge our own tenderness. I decided some time ago that I was going to try to meet people’s eyes and acknowledge others more fully while out in public. There is altogether too much isolation and misery. Thank you Courtney.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      I actually listened to the interview AFTER writing the column and was amazed at how much resonance there was. Thanks for pointing it out.

  • Jim Little

    you should be able to turn on English subtitles

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Yes, it has also been translated into 23 different languages!

    • Gregory

      Thanks Jim. I figured it right after I posted. I hit every setting but that one :))

  • Judith King

    I am going to join you before I even get to listen to all of Pope Francis’s TED talk…I think your idea of taking the moments now – straight away – just start doing it – is beautiful and rousing me to join you. And then I press that little white arrow and am sat up straight – he is speaking in Italian! In another part of my life I am learning Italian and the tears of gratitude began in my eyes…so Courtney thank YOU for bringing this to my attention and for your own beautiful essay inspired by it. I so look forward to listening from so many points of view (and hearing!) Ciao e grazie Judith

  • Debbie Pierce

    TED talks are fun and interesting to listen to. I enjoyed this article and am going to try to slow down and experience tenderness. Great job!

  • Great post! I am glad to learn that tenderness, caring, compassion…these virtues still exist in our world today.

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  • Thank you for this beautiful column. Tenderness is indeed an endangered virtue in our culture, and I love that you’re bringing it into conversation.

    In relation to tenderness, I’m having a different reaction to Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s message about grief than the commenter below. In fact, I’ve been losing sleep over it. I’m profoundly grateful to and in agreement with Sandberg and Grant for bringing grief and adversity into our national conversation, and for their clear message that we as a culture need to respond better to those who are suffering. At the same time, as a widow and a therapist who works with people who are grieving and/or traumatized, I find their messages about building resilience to bounce back and find joy after horrendous and traumatic life experiences is the opposite of tender. I’ve written an extensive blog post of my own that offers a tender perspective of fortitude instead of resilience; courage to bear the unimaginable rather than trying to regain control; and slow transformation instead of bouncing back to normal as quickly as possible. Not sure if it’s appropriate to share that here, but I have to say it out loud. I’m trying hard to get this more tender message out there.

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