Learnings from a Week-Long Experiment in Tenderness

Friday, May 5, 2017 - 5:00 am

Learnings from a Week-Long Experiment in Tenderness

Last Friday I wrote about the pope’s call for a “revolution in tenderness” and pledged to spend the next week honoring moments when I either felt or witnessed others feeling tender in public. Here’s what I experienced.

On the way home from the TED Conference, I sat across the aisle from a couple with a baby who was clearly struggling with a lot of ear pain. As I watched them get more and more frustrated trying to calm him, and perhaps a little worried about what their seatmates were thinking, I wondered what to do. On the one hand, I assumed that this baby’s parents knew the best ways to soothe him, so offering my services wasn’t actually going to be that helpful. In normal circumstances, I would have decided that since I couldn’t actually fix the problem, there probably wasn’t much else I should do. But because I’d made this pledge to myself (and our readers!), I decided I could acknowledge the baby’s pain, and by extension, the parents, even if I couldn’t fix it.

I gave them an empathic smile and said, “His ears are hurting, huh?” They nodded, the desperation visible in their eyes. “Poor thing,” I said, and just held their gaze for a minute. “It’s so hard to see your little one suffering.” It surprised me to realize how much better I felt after expressing some empathy and fomenting some solidarity with them. I couldn’t end the baby’s pain, but I could ensure that the parents knew that at least one passenger wasn’t resenting their child’s noise or judging their parenting.

The next moment I noticed tenderness in public was at a wedding. Of course there is plenty of emotion on display at a wedding. We actually perform these rituals, in part, because they are safe containers for our deepest, riskiest commitments and biggest, scariest feelings. In this case, I noticed the way in which the groom’s best man apologized for his own tenderness. He said something like, “I’m going to get a little cheesy here. I can’t help it.”

I’ve heard some version of this at so many weddings, most often uttered by the men who grab the mic. It’s as if, even while giving a toast which is, by definition, supposed to be emotional, men still feel the necessity to flag their own feelings as inappropriate and temporary. It makes me sad to think about it — this instinctual apology tacked on to the majority of wedding toasts given by men to their brothers and best friends over all these years. And it makes me wonder… is it contagious? Could the contagion be reversed? If a guy is unapologetically tender during his toast, do other guys follow his lead?

Another moment that really struck me was not actually something I witnessed in person, but something I watched online: Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue about his newborn baby’s near-death experience and the medical care that saved him. If you haven’t watched it yet, it’s worth a gander.

Kimmel, not known for being particularly tender in public, repeatedly broke down as he described the care that he and his family received at every turn — the nurse that noticed his son’s alarming symptoms, the co-workers who sent cards, the extended family who showed up and called and counseled. In the final moments of his monologue, he made a plea for protecting and expanding access to healthcare in this country, one of the best articulations of why it matters that I’ve ever heard. It wasn’t about politics; it was about our inevitable vulnerability and inherent dignity. And I think part of why it has been viewed over eight million times is that it feels so striking to see a man known for being tough and funny also show up as fragile and grateful.

So what does this add up to? For me, there are two big learnings, or better yet  “rememberings,” of the week-long experiment. The first is that part of why I sometimes turn away from tenderness in public is because I don’t know how to fix it. I have too often unconsciously behaved as if my two choices are to fix someone’s tenderness or ignore it.

In fact, the simple act of noticing and expressing empathy, even when I can’t fix something, is a way of honoring the pope’s call. Small as it may seem, I am recommitted to doing the small stuff: looking homeless people in the eyes even if I don’t give them money, saying something random and kind to someone who looks like they’re struggling, simply smiling.

The other big “remembering” is about gender. Though Pope Francis didn’t articulate this, I believe that the biggest “revolution in tenderness” needs to happen among and between men. Men are given some margin of error for expressing feelings about the big stuff — getting married or becoming fathers — but there is still far too little room for the full range of their emotions more generally.

I can’t help but wonder how our religious institutions, our schools, our workplaces, our White House, would be different if more men were genuine in public about what they were feeling and when they needed support. If men had permission to be tender in public, the whole world would be different.

Finally, I’m dying to know. What did you learn?

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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.

Share Your Reflection


  • Louis Schmier

    I have learned over the years that small steps on a great journey are not small. And, so, too, small acts of kindness and tenderness add up to great deeds.

  • Gabby

    Over time I think we can develop judgment about when it is actually helpful to another for us to acknowledge or to offer help and when that is mainly embarrassing to the person who is struggling in the moment – when they would rather not feel that everyone is watching and noticing. Ultimately what we do should be less how much better *we* feel to express empathy than whether we made the subjects of our attention feel better or worse.
    As an example from this week, the checker at the local grocery told me she had noticed a customer was deaf and signed to her while speaking. The customer was deeply offended, the checker told me. The checker only meant well by it.
    We need to pick up cues if we want other people to be comfortable about our level of attention to them.
    We can begin by asking how we would feel were the situation reversed but then also remember that the other person may be more or less sensitive.

    • Judy Montel

      I don’t think we can always know what someone else feels. And I vote for keeping trying rather than retreating because we offended someone. Not everyone has a high tolerance for making a fool of themselves in public, however! The first person to whom we need to show tenderness and forgiveness is ourselves. Anything we do after that is the icing on the cake. And I think it is helpful to have a perspective (again, not suitable to everyone) that we are a vessel and not in charge of everyone’s well-being. So if we comfort ourselves by making contact and empathy, how or whether it helps others is in the hands of the universe.

      • Gabby

        I appreciate the recent On Being interview with Sheryl Sandberg about grief as well as Parker Palmer’s writings about his depression for helping us understand better how to be helpful in how we support those in pain rather than only soothing ourselves with words and actions that feel good for us to do or say. Sometimes a silent presence is best, sometimes other things. We can learn this art of loving and empathy. There is a danger, I think, in leaving too much to the universe.

  • leif fairfield

    I’m a man, and I’m unashamed about being tenderhearted.

    But, it’s a complicated thing: in one sense, men are continually performing a facade of toughness. There is a cultural expectation that is constantly reinforced (by men and women alike) which tells men how they are expected to appear to the world as tough (Brenee Brown articulated this very well in her interview with Ms. Tippett about shame).

    The other part is that men are not actually aware of what tenderness feels like (as noted by the groomsman in your story dismissing his own emotions as “I’m about to say something cheesy”). Why didn’t that groomsman just say, “I’m going to say something that makes me feel vulnerable”? Because calling emotions “cheesy” is a way of creating emotional distance.

    I’ve been listening to a Buddhist teacher Stephan Pende Wormwood, who will constantly encourage this mantra: “I am a human being, and I have feelings.” Men are taught from a young age to keep feelings at bay (“walk it off”, “you’re okay”, “crying is for sissies”), and to actively suppress feelings Men tease each other for being romantic with the women (and men) we love.

    There’s definitely a cultural shift going on, but it won’t happen naturally; men and boys need to be taught to recognize their feelings and then to believe that it’s actually okay to then display their feelings. And, women can help by encouraging this.

  • Free Polazzo

    i raised my sons to express their feelings by modeling that behaviour. There is a men’s movement in the USA that has been active for over 35 years. We joke about men learning to express their feelings to their spouses who were complaining that men can’t say how they feel. After a few weeks the men were told to “shut up about your feelings already!” . Yes, it is complicated. Do you have a few days to here what i’ve learned over 35 years? It’s not just men, btw. . .

  • I’ve learnt that often we need to feel safe to behave tenderly and vulnerably; so perhaps we all need to offer more of that too, in the form of compassion and kindness? Thanks for your thoughtful post, from here in Australia :~) G

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