“It’s the hard things that break; soft things don’t break…You can waste so many years of your life trying to become something hard in order not to break; but it’s the soft things that can’t break! The hard things are the ones that shatter into a million pieces!” –C. JoyBell C.
After the recent shootings in Florida, the U.S. president stated “We have to harden our schools, not soften them.” When difficulties happen, people are often encouraged to toughen up and get hard, to take charge, gain control. Strength is associated with toughness, power and the ability to fight back and win battles. I’m more interested in a different way of being in the world, though, the way of gentleness and humility. The world is full of so many hurts–people have lost homes, their health, their loved ones, and more. From bullying to physical abuse, humans suffer in innumerable ways. From what I observe, the world doesn’t need more hardness. There is already so much suffering everywhere we look. When we are hurt by others or are less than we hoped we’d be, what we want is to be comforted. When we suffer, we want someone’s soft words or arms. We want gentleness.
It’s rare, though, to hear of those who aim to become more gentle, making me wonder what needs to be in place before we are able to respond to each other from a state of what might be called willful kindness.
To be gentle means to be tenderhearted, kind, to be soft. Soft things are supple, can bend and are less likely to be brittle and break. As I reflect on the foundation necessary for gentleness to thrive between people, it seems a first thing needed is a foundation of trust, and trust involves a recognition of what it means to be in relationship. In Western culture, we have the idea that the world is full of inanimate objects available for manipulation and use. Overall, our awareness that we’re a part of a great life web, part of each other is somewhat shallow. Too often, it seems, people feel free to act without concern for the impact their behavior has on the larger community, including the community of the natural environment.
One recent example of this failure to see oneself as part of a larger community is in the me-first behavior of the drug firm executive Martin Shekreli. In his lack of respect for the larger community, Shekreli defrauded investors and increased the price of a life saving drug by 5,000% per pill. Dominic Rushe, writing for The Guardian quotes John Coffee of Columbia law school regarding Shekreli’s general attitude while in the courtroom, ‘“His behavior during the trial was arrogant, and he treated the judge as an irrelevancy. Every defense counsel I know, and I know a lot of them, instructs his client to be respectful and modest because ultimately the judge is going to sentence you. Your arrogance can cost you a very high price.”‘ Shekreli’s arrogance in response to difficulty is very different from a group of doctors in Quebec. Robin Levinson-King in her BBC article, “Why Quebec doctors have rejected a pay rise,” reports that the Québécois doctors asked for their salary increases to “be cancelled and that the resources of the system be better distributed for the good of the healthcare workers and to provide health services worthy to the people of Quebec.” These doctors are are aware that what they do and the attitude they demonstrate affects the lives around them. How utterly refreshing to be part of a society where people recognize their actions affect the greater good and willingly respond accordingly.
When we confront difficult experiences in our lives, rather than getting tough, perhaps it’s better to act with gentleness, and to draw closer to the suffering in order to listen to what it is telling us so we can find the clues for how the suffering can be addressed or possibly healed. To do this, we need to be able to understand how we’re interconnected with others. Charles Eisenstein in his book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, writes about interbeing and its defining principles. The first two of these principles are: “That my being partakes of your being and that of all beings. This goes beyond interdependency—our very existence is relational. That, therefore, what we do to another, we do to ourselves.” In family dynamics, as well as in personal love relationships where we are in close proximity with each other on an ongoing interactive basis, our awareness of these principals of interbeing are heightened. If one person becomes upset, everyone feels it and responds. If people are relaxed or focused on a particular activity–this, too, affects everyone’s behavior. When everyone in a group is in tune with each other, the air is suffused with gentleness, and you function on a foundation of trust that people are doing their part. It’s like participating in an orchestra–each person plays their own notes but the notes relate to each other rhythmically and melodically to create music.
E. E. Cummings writes beautifully about interbeing in his love poem “[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]”
For ill or for good, how we respond to events affects others. Humans are social beings, and because of what we now understand about how mirror neurons function in our brains, we can say that people do, in a real sense carry each other’s hearts in their own hearts. When we observe someone else feeling sad, we see the emotion in their facial or body gestures, and our own brain cells connecting to what that person is feeling light up.
When we allow ourselves to be a channel for wellbeing, doing what we can to relieve other’s suffering, we tend to feel more centered, more in love with life. Our fears diminish, and we come to sense our connection to what Cummings names as “whatever a moon has always meant/ and whatever a sun will always sing.” Cummings names so well the awareness of interbeing brings: wonder. We can regain a sense of awe and an awareness of our place within the greater cosmos–a place of humility, but also that allows us to feel more alive, whole, more content–and as a result, more gentle.
In a world clambering for position and recognition, to be gentle takes courage. To stand inside the sharpened razors or heat created by living alongside people struggling for prestige, territory and power and yet remain gentle is difficult and very challenging. To survive in these contexts requires actively and routinely grounding ourselves in something wider and larger than our own intelligence, achievement or privileged place. We can ground ourselves with a wider foundation through developing a purposeful connection to community. Participating in a community that nourishes our spirits and building connections there can enable people to find ways to sustain themselves through difficulty and to become more than they could be by themselves. Research shows us, according to Robert Waldinger in his TEDTalk, “What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness,” that those who are happiest in life fare the best are those who “lean into relationships with family, friends, and community.” Deep relationship requires taking time for trust to grow enough that people feel free to open themselves. Some possible ways to begin this journey with others are to share dinners, go on walks, listen to music, read books, essays or poems, attend plays, do art, share jokes, tell stories or to simply sit silent beneath a tree gazing up at the branches and the sky together–anything that creates spaces of being where lives can unfold naturally, and differences can be valued. In this context of relationship with a desire to keep the bond between each other, a natural kind of respect develops.
In community we can become free to begin to live beyond the fear of each other or the threat of being bulldozed by someone clambering for attention, position or power, we can let go of competition and focus on being present with each other. Gentleness can emerge. We can create time and space to hear, see, and know each other. Though he doesn’t name it as interbeing, E. E. Cummings intimates it in his poem; interbeing is the secret–the bud, root, tree and sky–the essence of everything. Our lives are intertwined. “I carry your heart in my heart.” To know this, to live in this gentle awareness, is what brings us into the presence and wonder of existence itself–the mystery of what it is that holds up the stars and keeps them in balance.