On Gentleness



I have the flu. Not the flu—which would presumably prevent me from even considering the act of sitting up between sneezing and snoozing to compose a blog post about it—but a flu, a virus. I have been alive for fifty-three years. And I have gotten some kind of sickness, viral or bacterial, every single one of them.  But still, the process of coming down with something always catches me off guard. I am slow to detect a microbe, or a foreign infectious agent. I always think it’s me. That there’s something wrong with me: meaning, my personality. I fear it’s taking a giant nosedive.

I ask myself—trying to be as kind as I can—what the hell is wrong with me all of a sudden. I tell myself—again with an attempt at loving kindness, because I do love and care about myself, but the fact I need to rely on my functioning as my sole work-horse creates a little friction in my tone—to to get it together, put some pep in my step. I notice a headache, so remind myself to drink more water, perhaps gently interrogating myself about the possibility of accidental self-induced dehydration.  

And then I sneeze.  

The first sneeze, then the second, and my inner world starts to shift.

Am I sick? Is that what this is? My sinuses reveal themselves to be throbbing, the cavities around my nasal passages obviously inflamed, and remarkably: the cause of the headache becomes crystal clear. I am not a loser!  I am sick! That’s when the inner nursemaid comes rushing in, with her spoon-full of sugar to help the medicine go down. “Oh honey, you’re sick.  That’s what it is, sweetheart.  Let’s get you into bed as soon as we can.”

I now have permission to cancel my workday, and give head’s up that I will most likely need to cancel tomorrow as well. And I have a mission now, one-pointed focus, which is to get well. I put on my pajamas and gather the Kleenex, the cough drops, the tea and the juice.  A culture of inner gentleness settles in like a lullaby.  

What if this gentleness were there all the time? Would there be a cost to that? When I work with clients and students on cultivating an inner gentleness, an interior culture of self-compassion, there is often the fear that one would go soft. The worry that without the inner task-master, we would curl up on the sofa and wallow, sucking our thumbs and becoming sulky balls of self-indulgence. But honestly, I don’t think that would happen. I used to be run by an inner bully, an impatient whip-cracker who thankfully now only takes over when my reserves are down, my resources low. Yes, I hear the twisted logic in that—in what sounds like kicking me when I’m down, when I need my own support the most. But the way I interpret this phenomenon is that it takes a lot of resources to keep the inner tyrant at bay; it requires reserves to keep the voice of inner kindness amplified. When my tank is full, my health thriving, my resilience quotient on high, then my primary inner voice is (these days, after decades of working to rewire my own brain) the kind, self-loving one. And I am pleased to report—as are many others on this journey—that this inner gentleness does not lower my functioning. Does not beckon me to soften into a perma-state of immobility. In fact, it inspires me. To engage, to contribute, to savor, to receive—all of which gives me strength. Not a rigid authoritarian power, but a flexible, fluid kind of strength. It would be ideal if this voice could sustain its reign even when my resources are low—before I realize it’s not my fault, it’s a microbe!—but I’m not there yet. I hope to be, in this lifetime, but for now, that’s aspirational.

I can’t help but wonder, here in my pj’s, about the possibility of gentleness in our shared outer culture. What would that be like? In our very own country, there have been thirty mass shootings already in this new year. We have a leader who not so long ago threatened to give North Korea—a country—a bloody nose. (Code for a pre-emptive strike that could have cost tens of thousands of lives). The white supremacist movement is currently emboldened—in the modern world, in our so-called educated civilized nation. I wonder about the inner culture of those practicing hate and bigotry, threatening violence against civilians, and shooting down classmates. Are they as barbaric to themselves internally as they are to others? I can only conjecture. If the people practicing bullying, hate crimes, and violence had a practice of inner gentleness, what would the world be like? I imagine that this gentleness might make these people not only more compassionate to themselves and others, but ultimately stronger—so much so that they wouldn’t have to resort to bullying, hate and violence which are expressions of weakness. I can only hope that the more of us who cultivate inner gentleness—which is humbling work, with incremental progress—spread gentleness outwards, with contagion.

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