Photo Credit: Marc Perrault

Soft seems both desirable and impossible right now. I want soft clothes, soft voices, a soft place to land. The world feels steep and rocky and utterly beyond me in a lot of ways. I have written before about (my resistance to) leaning into the strength of gentleness, and softening as God’s way. This month, I’ve been praying with a frequent spiritual instruction: “Harden not your hearts.”

The heart is a such a miracle. A pumping muscle in four chambers, connecting to a system of vessels carrying life to the rest of the body. Hardening brings death, but staying soft is the antithesis of weakness. What does it mean to have the kind of strength that quietly and consistently beats to sustain life?

When I am unsure, injured, afraid, I instinctively want to protect myself by whatever means available. I reach for the most solid comforts I can find. Brick words, walls of certainty, or silent defensive weapons. But the same strategies designed to keep others out simultaneously lock me into isolation. Hardening has never worked for me.

Soft is scary. It comes with risk. It exposes my vulnerability. And still.

My family fell into deep loss three years before the pandemic hit. We were rising out of survival just as the world went into lock down. We have more practice than I ever wanted in living into the bare essentials. Suffering, in all its many forms has a way of exposing the hard edges. And what I learned in grief was that how we do suffering, conflict, and difference makes all the difference.

There is so much outside our control. We do not get to choose where the earth has rocks and mountains or where wildflowers grow. Even our best efforts at gardening or farming cannot make the rain come. And the force of nature is rivalled by people who disagree with one another on vaccinations and residential schools.

When my kids express their grief by slamming the door, soft does not mean letting them destroy the house. Soft seeks out the story behind the slam. When different opinions emerge at work, soft pulls out perspectives, and strives for shared decision making. Boundaries and action are not incompatible with kindness and curiosity. A soft heart proclaims that who I become while I behave matters.

Maybe more than anything else, I am remembering that softness knows its limits. When I resist a hard heart, I need to reach for more help. Friends and mentors, a therapist and chiropractor, early bedtimes and unanswered questions. More prayers of gratitude and more curiosity.

My faith tradition has more than its share of failures and weakness, and a deep need for repentance. And in the pages of a very old letter to the Corinthians, there is an invitation to a still more excellent way. In the tradition that is my spiritual mother tongue, for better and for worse, there is this pebble that seems to be unshakably true. Softness is a powerfully human way to be.

The heart can fuel us over rocky terrain, and up mountains and down. The heart was made to weather our suffering, to beat in spite of it, or die trying. There is so much I cannot choose, but the hardness of my heart is up to me.

Soft takes such small and sustained steps. It is an active resistance to hardening. Preferencing questions over answers, relationships over being right, mutuality over personal gain. Letting hope grow in us even when it doesn’t seem possible. Getting up again in the grieving. Steadying ourselves by holding onto one another. Soft takes more energy, more commitment, and more grace than hard.

Harden not my heart.
Or my spirit.
Lead me to a still more excellent way.
Soften me to a strength
that goes well beyond
my own.
Soften me
into the wisdom
of stories,
of ritual,
of mercy.
Soften me
to work for the smallest steps
in the right direction,
to be a vessel for hope.

May I soften my steps through a sacred world so that I can be a heart among many beating for life for all of us. 

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