Last summer, the summer of 2019, which seems so long ago now, I was telling a friend about writing a new book, and that it would be on tenderness. My intention, I explained, was to do a shorter and “friendlier” version of my previous co-authored book, Cherishment: A Psychology of the Heart. In the new book I would leave out a lot of the theoretical psychology, and bring to a non professional audience what I thought was important for them to know and do, in order to help dramatically enhance the quality of their lives.
While my first book centered around the word cherishment, I decided to rename my central theme around the word tenderness, because it was a “new baby” and needed its own name. I also felt that the word tenderness captured perfectly the emotional atmosphere of cherishment and cherishing. My friend quickly responded, “Oh my, I love that word. In fact, I just listened to a lovely interview from the On Being podcast, hosted by Krista Tippett. It’s all about tenderness. I’ll send you the link!”
I listened to that podcast. The topic was “Tending Joy and Practicing Delight.” The interviewee was Ross Gay, a Professor, author and gardener. In this enchanting conversation he talked about his new poetry collection, Book of Delights.
I immediately recognized Ross Gay’s worldview on tenderness and especially loved that he referenced gardening—which is also dear to my heart—in its relationship to tenderness. “How wonderful,” I thought, delighted to have found a kindred spirit. Tenderness is indeed, on the rise, and the more of us that help this movement—this budding revolution—the better it will be for all of us.
And now, here we are in the spring of 2020, which has become an “all hands-on deck” tenderness moment if ever there was one. Less than a year after my listening to the On Being podcast with Ross Gay we all find ourselves in a global coronavirus crisis. As a result, tenderness is on everyone’s mind, even if they don’t always consciously know it. This morning I googled “Who else is writing about tenderness?” and made a fascinating discovery. Several years ago, no less a personage than His Holiness Pope Francis had in fact specifically called for a “Tenderness Revolution” when he gave a surprise TED talk in April, 2017 called “Why the only future that is worth building includes everyone.”
It is truly uncanny how applicable his talk is to today’s global crisis. It’s worth listening to in its 17-minute entirety. For the specific tenderness reference you can start at 12:57. Click here.
In the TED talk Pope Francis remarks, “And what is tenderness?” “It is the love that comes close and becomes real. It is a movement that starts from our heart and reaches the eyes, the ears and the hands.”
A Spanish Journalist, Eva Fernandez, who has traveled with the Pope, recently published a book, The Pope of Tenderness. In it she recalls many moving stories and moments of tenderness observed by her during her time with the Pope.
In a letter to her, Pope Francis writes:
“I was pleasantly surprised that you are writing a book about tenderness, the revolution of tenderness. I’m sure it will do a lot of good… Today, we are used to ‘discarding’ values and people, healthy and sick, young and old, to the point that we can refer to our civilization as a ‘throwaway culture.’ How good it is for us to remember that God manifests also with gestures of tenderness, gestures that are habitual in his way of acting,”
He goes on:
“How good it will be for us to recover the effectiveness of the caress children ask for and respond to, [replacing] the culture of dispensable and throwaway with the revolution of tenderness!”
The pope concludes his letter to Fernandez asking her to pray for him. How amazing is that? Tenderness is a relational behavior. It’s reciprocal. It is a give and take. That’s what makes it so real. The Pope asks for her prayers with the confidence of a child that his need for her prayers will be fulfilled. “That’s the lovely reciprocity of tenderness,” I thought. Also wondrous for me is the Pope’s phrase “How good it will be for us to recover the effectiveness of the caress children ask for and respond to…” He totally gets that children are our teachers just by their very being. It’s in their DNA to be tender, to ask for it and to give it, naturally, easily, without hesitation. The Revolution of Tenderness will be led by children—and that also means the child in us as adults. As I’ve often said, tenderness is our birthright. It doesn’t have to be shopped for, earned, prepared or studied in order to be obtained. It’s everywhere, all the time in the heart, the ears, the eyes, and the hands…
Right now many of us across the globe are re-experiencing a version of what life is like in infancy. An infant stays home. They sleep mostly, eat, wail a bit, eat again, wail, then sleep some more. Parents know that their little ones are too delicate to go out into the world and be exposed to noise, pollution, germs. It’s a time of sheltering in place! Infants get to be in their pajamas all day—or for us, our yoga pants! Their day is filled with being lovingly tended to from heart, eyes, ears, hands. In this time of coronavirus we get to tend to ourselves, as both the one cared for and the one delivering the care.
Whenever you walk into a baby nursery there is a sudden quiet and peace you experience as you move gently toward the crib to check on the sleeping baby, or peek from afar at the awake infant making sweet little sounds as their eyes intensely follow the colorful mobile shapes over their head. You might go over and gently check the diaper with your hand, or adjust the swaddling, before you tip toe quietly out of the room. And while infant sleeps your “mother’s ears” are always on alert.
When in life do we ever get to experience so much sweet quietness? Right now, there is a long vista ahead of us, with no clear end to the crisis. Of course many folks are in hectic households, managing their children’s cooped-up frustration with patience and creativity. We are all experiencing conflicts and fears to varying degrees and sadly, some devastating reports have emerged about increased domestic abuse. But at the same time many adults are also trying their best to access the kind of quiet, restful, safe havens and creative, curious absorptions they haven’t known since babyhood. It’s an opportunity to take stock, set priorities straight, and prepare for their next growth spurt!
Whatever your situation—and they are all challenging—this is a time to remember the tender parts of your earliest life, and take nourishment from them. Please know that there is a Tenderness Revolution under way; that it’s no longer an obscure concept. Indeed it is, as Pope Francis teaches us, the love that comes close and becomes real. If you want it—and why would you not—-it’s here for you—join in!
I was pleased to discover that on March 26th, 2020 Krista Tippett decided to re broadcast her show with Ross Gay. Here it is, for your convenience and pleasure.