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Letters to the Living No. 5: On Gentleness, Wrestling with a Wounded Angel

Part 1: The Single Mom Inside
I have been trying, for days now, to write about gentleness. It is such an important concept — something I struggle with inside myself, and that I feel is lacking in the world at large. But for some reason, despite multiple drafts, revisions, and asking friends and family for insight, I still feel no closer to understanding gentleness or its application in our daily lives.

So this morning I decided to sit down, take a deep breath, and actually feel the space in my body.

More often I concentrate on heaviness, the pressing weight of being human and all that actually means. All I have to be and achieve. Switching perspectives — from being stuck in this dense physicality to being made mostly of water and air — helped me reach an understanding that has little to do with argumentation, and more to do with honesty.

I realized it’s okay to be groping in the dark, enlightened by my own confusion. Yet, I am also trying to be kinder to myself, letting those ripples touch every one of my actions and interactions. I fail so often, and I think I’ve been dwelling on those failures recently, clinging to all the times I let the voice inside my head beat me up. Sometimes I wish I could grab that voice by its shimmering throat and knock some sense into it.

That is precisely where gentleness comes in. Instead of beating up my harsh task-master, I know, deep down, that I must treat this constant companion with the greatest love and respect. At the same time, I know I must stand up for myself too. But how? How can I treat my inner dictator with love, while also being my own defender and friend?

Image by Erin Nekervis/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)..

This is at the core of my attempts to write about gentleness. It is this constant pull-and-tug between who I think I should be, and who I am, right now, this minute. This dialogue creates a lot of internal friction. Which is why we need gentleness in the first place!

Riding the El in downtown Chicago, I saw a young mother with two small children. She was slumped in her seat, expressionless, exhausted. The kids were growing tired and cranky. Every time they got rambunctious, she would plop them back in their seats and tell them loudly to be quiet. Every time, I felt my own heart quiver. I wanted to intervene, but knew I mustn’t.

Now, reliving that scene, I see how personal it was. I have such empathy for that mother — tired, alone, trying to do her best, but feeling the weight of never doing enough. Hmmm, now who does that sound like? Well, like all of us, at some point in our lives. She certainly reminded me of me — my inner single mom trying to raise me up right.

Those kids, her kids, I love them. I loved them as I sat on that juddering train, as all the other passengers tried not to look annoyed, but darted sharp glances in the direction of their screeches. I am those kids too, or at least, some of their untamable spirit dwells in me.

Reimagining my inner dictator as a struggling single mom helped so much. If I have compassion for this mother on the train, a total stranger, how could I not have compassion for my young, tired, trying-her-hardest inner parent?

Image by Erin Nekervis/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)..

And, if I love those crying, playful, unruly kids so much, how could I not love the bawling, dancing, I-don’t-care-who’s-staring self I usually keep locked up? How could I not treat both inner parent and inner toddler with equal if different modes of kindness until, and here’s the real magic, they both mature? Until they reach their own understanding that has nothing to do with pull-and-tug, and everything to do with the space and flow of my ensouled body?

Wherever we are, sitting with a cup of tea, or at a computer, or on a commuter train, every bit of us is in flight. Thoughts are flying across synapses, cells are migrating to heal a wound, memories are churning up by the whiff of perfume floating off a fellow passenger.

And that harshness or loving-kindness inside our heads is flying too. He or she is fluid, and as full of space and change as we are. Our beings are not solid granite. We are evolving constantly — the parts of us that are immature or always have a foot out of line. And the sweet, beautiful parts too. Flying. Every blessed bit of us.

I may not have a grasp on gentleness yet. I may not know how to juggle the demands of being a young, single mother to myself — much less to the world around me. But when I shook out my thought-wings this morning, they looked strong and ready for a journey — however long it may take.

Image by Erin Nekervis/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)..

Part 2: The Fruit of the Spirit
They say: Learn the beauty of scabs and thick skins. Learn to give as good as you get. Learn to speak loudly, whether you are carrying a stick or not.

“They” are the voices of conventional wisdom. And they do speak loudly, advising us to, “Sell yourself. Push yourself forward. Don’t take guff. Use your elbows.”

The world’s a harsh place kid…

Yes, the world is indeed a harsh place. Part of my growing-up years were spent in Israel, a splintered land that embedded itself in my soul. Those years were like a palmful of broken glass: sparkling, jagged, light-filled. And potentially lethal.

There were times when I felt those shards surround my whole body, as if I was walking in an envelope of bright danger. At any moment, if I was incautious, I could lose my life — any of us could. So each of us, in our own way, developed an ability to slip from this knife’s-edge reality into the daily flow of school, running errands, meeting friends. It was an odd, dreamlike existence. Normal, and yet, not.

Perhaps because of the existential anxiety floating through the air, each person became their own inviolable universe. There was no need for social pleasantries. No one waited in line or moved aside for you on the sidewalk. We were invincible. We were self-sufficient. We were razor-sharp and could deal with any shrapnel flying our way.

Except that I couldn’t. I don’t think any of us really could, not Israelis, Palestinians, Arab-Israelis, pilgrims, expats, or tourists. But this early experience of living in a society that is abrasive almost by necessity made me acutely aware of abrasion of all kinds. I developed a heightened sensitivity to harshness, and instinctively withdrew from environments that reminded me of the death-sparkle in Israel’s air.

I remember walking into an American public high school on my return to the States. My abrasion-radar went wild. The low, institutional brick building was a warren of sharp objects — high-energy particles called teenagers zooming through the halls and classrooms. We churned through eight classes a day, with little meaningful connection between classmates and teachers. I would come home feeling tired, cross, and convinced there was a better way to learn.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Image by Erin Nekervis/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)..

It’s not just schools that often lack gentleness. Workplaces can rub us raw too, as can public transit, shopping malls, restaurants, and daycare. The levels of noise, advertising, and stressed-out people dealing with other stressed-out people can leave us feeling bombarded and drained.

Creating more spaces of refuge, like public parks, is one option. But another option is to integrate gentleness into all our spaces and daily interactions. It could be something as small as turning down the music in cafés. Or as radical as a mother making the commitment to care for herself with as much tenderness as she does her family.

What is essential is reorienting our minds and relationships toward a quiet that has little to do with physical noise. Rather, it is the quiet of being attentive to ourselves and others. In these moments, our energy is less frenetic. Our voices drop a register and no longer seem on the verge of snapping.

Gentleness is not a showy virtue. It’s not something you can put on a résumé. American society, in contrast, praises daring, open-mindedness, and self-confidence. These traits fit a mythology of pioneers and entrepreneurs. At the same time, we’re also beginning to explore the value of vulnerability, which goes hand-in-hand with the capacity to be expansive and courageous.
But I believe that vulnerability by itself is not enough to cultivate the openness to life that, when nurtured, is deeply transformative to soul and society. In order to be open in the first place, a person needs some caring support. If the air is glittering with harmful words, ignorance, and unkindness, we’re unlikely to breathe deep and launch into the truest, most hidden aspects of our story.

A level of trust in oneself and one’s environment is a prerequisite to baring one’s soul. And trust grows through encouragement not criticism. I know some people advocate “tough love” as a form of strong medicine. But most guidance can be dispensed with a light touch and lots of respect and real love for the person on the receiving end.

Image by Erin Nekervis/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)..

Which brings me back to gentleness. It is found in the Lotus Sutra:

“Dwell in the abode of great compassion
Wearing the robe of gentleness and forbearance…”

And it appears in Galatians 5: 22-23, again paired with “forbearance” or patient endurance:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”

There is no law against these nine virtues because they form the law of ethical relations itself. Through their practice, we receive our freedom, as individuals and as a society. In a world that acts like a body at war with itself — and bracing for new and unexpected blows daily — analysis and retaliation are not enough. Our very beings must radiate the cure.

The phrase “fruit of the Spirit” is a potent one. It means that gentleness is one of the offspring of our higher selves, not the seed but the purpose of the seed.

And if gentleness strikes you as a rather soft and tasteless fruit, I’d like to reveal its robust and vivid core. Think back on your own lives. Gentleness shines out in memory. It forms the scaffold upon which we rebuild our fire-bombed selves and communities. I came across this quote by an anonymous therapist on Tumblr:

“What trauma survivors need is gentleness. Because no one was ever gentle with us.”

It was shared nearly 2000 times.

Gentleness forms the under-song of survival — the hidden face of evolution, wars, famine — and the partner of resilience. It is the loving touch that reminds us we are not alone, and there is hope. There is healing.

Gentleness exists between people. And it dwells within each of us.

It is me saying to myself: I’m so in awe of you, I must treat you as if I truly understood what noble means. It is me saying to others: I get it. We’re wounded and taking a thousand risks simply by showing up. And I see that. I honor you.

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