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The On Being Project

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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