On a particularly difficult day, in a series of difficult days, I found myself not only unable to attend to my long to-do list, but also unable to take joy in any other activity. Frozen on the couch, I asked my wife what she thought I should do. (She is also a pastor, and she loves when I pepper her with these sorts of questions while she’s trying to write a sermon.)
She briefly offered me consolation, and then she wisely asked, What would you say to a congregant in this situation?
Be gentle with yourself, I said, and continued crying.
Then, I paused, mid-sniffle. I now realize that I have no idea what that phrase even means.
If I have ever suggested that you “be gentle with yourself”, I apologize. Heartily. I assure you, it sounded good at the time. Because who can argue with the idea of being gentle? But that generic tenet is only enough for one who stands outside of any given situation. In the moment that I self-prescribed this illusive gentleness, I was looking for more specificity and precision.
As in, what does gentleness tell me to do right now? Push through pain? Take a break? Tie myself to my desk chair? Eat a cookie while doing any of those things? Just eat a cookie?
According to Webster, the primary definition of “gentle” focuses on tenderness. This speaks not only to the word’s meaning, but perhaps also to our mortal predicament. Human beings are inherently fragile. Although we spend a great deal of time pretending not to be, or at least, I do, we are tender at the center, which makes us both vulnerable and impressionable. We wound easily when others, intentionally or not, do harm to us. But moreover, our tenderness means that we also take on the grief and pain around us. Like a thumb leaving a print in cookie dough, so do situations beyond our control, and even beyond our periphery, leave a mark upon us. (FYI I did eat a cookie, and it was delicious.)
On the particular day that I sought solace, I said to myself, What is wrong with you, Kerr? (My internal monologue has yet registered the name-change.) The pain isn’t even that bad today.
By which, of course, I meant the physical pain in my body. I failed to take into account the pain of our local community, where elected officials have once again chased unsheltered people out of the encampment where they were finding safety and camaraderie. I failed to take into account the pain of our nation, which continues to brutalize and dehumanize entire demographics of people. I failed to take into account the pain of our world, where COVID-19 continues to exponentially spread every day. As a pastor who works with unsheltered folks, who is also LGBTQ-identified and respirates, any of these levels of pain may weigh on me at any moment. Just because I am not consciously focusing on that pain (or even registering it on a given day) does not mean that it is not leaving a mark on the more tender part of my being. The same could be said of anyone, each of us feeling more or less deeply this collective pain at any given moment.
At least for me, this collective, peripheral pain stays in my subconscious, and so I continue to be surprised that it can affect my entire being. For as many funerals as I have officiated, I continue to make plans for what I will get done on that day after the funeral; as though, after having shared a family’s grief, and inevitably projecting at least a little of my own grief upon them, I won’t be needing a nap.
How much easier it would be if I would just be honest with myself. Perhaps, “being gentle” means that when we get frustrated with our own exhaustion or overwhelm, we take a moment to acknowledge consciously the difficulty that our subconscious has been holding for us. Even just now making a list of the pain around me, I can see how it is feasible that I would be unable to tackle emptying my inbox or painting the shed today. This is not to say that there are not important things that need to be done (perhaps shed-painting is not the best example), but rather that it is understandable that tasks may take more time than usual, or may require a different time than right now. It may even be understandable that the tasks won’t be done as well as they would have been in a different time. Regarding this sort of mediocrity, those of us who are fastidious task-masters may not be able to muster the words “It’s okay”, but perhaps we could try saying “It is what it is.”
On any given, in the face of the pain, not only in myself, but in our world, I am be moving slower than usual. I am a human being, and I am tender. It is what it is.
The second definition of gentle focuses on moderation (ie a gentle turn instead of a sharp one). As an “all or nothing” kind of person, I do not come naturally to this meaning of “gentle”, either. Which is a shame, because if the primary definition of “gentle” mirrors vulnerability, the secondary mirrors wisdom. It is rare that life offers us 50-yard-dash kinds of situations. Moderation means that we can act with prudence in any given moment, and moreover, can have the energy to continue to act in the days to come. Perhaps not coincidentally, it is only through the practice of moderation that we can protect our own tenderness (or at least attempt to). And it is certainly only by moderation, by controlling our emotional energy expenditure, that we can participate in the work of healing the pain beyond ourselves that afflicts us.
On any given day, in the face of the pain, not only in myself, but in our world, I am going to do all that I can to be a part of the world’s healing, but I will not do so much, so fast that I will be unable to do the same tomorrow. “Being gentle” with ourselves does not give us permission to abuse ourselves, nor to blame ourselves. But it also does not give us permission to forsake the important work that is immediately before us.
On the day that I prescribed “be gentle” with myself, I did finally get off the couch. I played with our puppy. Then, I held our adult dog, because equal treatment is important. I ate a serving of vegetables (also, another cookie). I did other things that were perhaps more important, but I took a moment to give myself credit for doing the little things. Because if “being gentle” requires acknowledging how every one one of us is connected to the whole, than anything that contributes to individual healing is akin to the greater healing of the world.
So be gentle with yourself. We all need you to be.