Photo credit: Sandy Normand
For a long time, just the word gentle made me uncomfortable. It was not as if I was incapable of holding a fragile object with great care or speaking softly; it was too many years of absorbing messages about gentleness as a “feminine” ideal, alongside its siblings: nurturing, emotional, and receptive. Gentle sounded like a noun, whose synonym was doormat. Thanks, but no.
My problem, it turns out, was not with gentle at all, but with the way that our culture ascribes value to external markers like gender, age, race, ethnicity, education and social status to define how certain types of people ought to behave. Forget simple double standards – there are multitudes of land mines just waiting for unsuspecting unique and authentic human beings to wound.
Too many times, I spoke aloud when others would have preferred that I were quiet. I embraced persistence when I was pressured to give up. I refused to allow others’ expectations to define me. In many ways, my bold persistence has served me well : authentic sense of self, creative leadership, a different spiritual perspective. At the same time, that same bold persistence sent me running face-first into the hard edges of a broken world.
While I sometimes attempted to move the landmines out of my way before stepping on the space they occupied, I began to step on them with proud intention. Let the wounds come if they must. At least it is one less landmine for someone else to hit. Over time, I hardened myself in response to the pain of these wounds. Refusing gentleness was a bit of a straw horse, though, because I was rejecting gentleness when I was really upset with injustice.
The biggest cost of hardening my heart was losing my ability to be gentle with myself. When I made a mistake, I began to lecture myself, to heap on expectations for perfection, load myself with guilt, and talk myself out of feeling disappointed and frustrated. I began to believe that I could accomplish anything if I had enough discipline.
The second, and perhaps more tragic consequence is that I began to see all invitations to gentleness as landmines. I extended my expectations of myself to those around me, my spouse, my kids, my colleagues and even strangers. In my attempts to both avoid and destroy landmines, I was increasingly impatient, aggressive and demanding – until God allowed me the gentle grace of falling apart.
The falling apart did not feel gentle. It felt like waking up naked in a snow storm on a bed of frozen branches, with the wind rattling my weakness and burning my tears. But it was gentle inasmuch as God slowly showed me how I had walked into the storm, given away my clothing, refused to let others come with me and proudly traded my comforts for branches. I was a force of nature creating a storm, and it stopped snowing and blowing when I fell apart. I still had to walk out of winter, and out of the forest. I was inclined to do so with the same force that got me there. But it turns out that yelling at the kids to use their nice words is pretty ineffective. Expecting hurting people to toughen up only deepens their hurt and creates distance. I needed a new way and the path God offered was labelled gentle. Since all other roads had led to falling apart, I decided it try the one God offered.
Gentleness proved to be a path for dancing and not walking. I was invited to learn new steps and ways of holding my body, because when I reverted to forceful language, pushing for my way, speaking before listening, I would feel the sting of the cold and the pull of the falling apart again. I began to try out asking questions, pushing back deadlines and cancelling plans. Not only did the world not fall apart when I was gentle, but I was surprised to discover that not everyone and everything was a landmine, and that injustice would also move out of the way in unpredictable ways.
That first year after falling apart I chose to be kind to myself for Lent, a discipline that proved more difficult and more fruitful than any other year. There was more laughter and relaxation in our home. My interactions at work and in the community were less efficient and more effective. And there was so much more failure, as well as starting over.
I am slowly learning that gentleness is the way of the strong who reject strong-arming. It is a path toward peace that refuses violent means. Gentleness disarms real landmines with honest and earned vulnerability, while at the same time refusing to create landmines for self-protection. It is a road for all of earth’s travellers to walk towards calm in the middle of a mess. The way of gentleness is harder than the way of force, and infinitely more creative and life-giving. I am learning that gentle is a verb whose synonyms are listen, hold, empathize, disarm and begin again.