The On Being Project

The New Better Off

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 Rather than seeing this 80-year-old priest’s message as out-of-date or cliché, rather than pushing back against the value of religious belief writ large, it seemed like the TED audience was actually starving for his words.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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