what we're about

Attempts to illuminate our brief mortal existence

Monday, January 14, 2013


By gnuckx [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tender-hearted.  It's not a quality that I think about a much, except maybe in its opposite when I joke with my friends about being a hard-hearted mommy because I let my child cry sometimes.  But today the word jumped out at me from the end of Ephesians 4.

"Be kind," says Paul.  "Be tender-hearted towards each other.  Forgive."

For a second after reading that, I caught a glimpse of a church, a community, a world where we all have, indeed, put away such things as bitterness, wrath, clamoring, slander, and especially malice (Eph.4:31) and are simply kind to each other.  Where our hearts are not just tender toward each other both sympathy, and in openness.  Where we forgive slights, offenses, and outright wounds.

Ideally, I would go on here to write about what a wonderful vision this is, and how much I wish that reality conformed to it.  But I can't.  Because although that briefest of glimpses made me catch my breath in the morning, I realize now, having pondered it through the day, that I don't actually want to live in it.  As far as concerns myself and those I love, I want people to behave like this.  I'm also happy to try it out among my peers; people that I like, and whose good opinion of myself I value.  But I don't want to be responsible to live like this with everybody, because a world where all is genuinely kind, tender-hearted, and forgiving is a world free of boundaries between peoples, and I thrive on boundaries.  Not the good kind of boundaries, where you don't let toxic people run all over you, but the negative kind of boundaries - the kind that tell me who is in (me and my little circle) and who is out (the people that me and my little circle like to disapprove of).  In fact, I am so far in the thrall of these boundaries, that I really start to feel at home in a new place when I have 1) found a few friends, and 2) figured out who we all subtly disapprove of.

I'm too well-trained of a person, of course, to just rip off on people - that might be slander, after all, or even malice.  I'm usually nice to everyone.  But as my common denominator of disapproval with a friend becomes obvious, I slowly become more comfortable with pointing out to each other the ways that this person or these persons either irritate us personally, or are just generally clueless about the little facets of life that we find so self-obvious.  Sometimes I talk about them in lowered tones, with the correct facial expressions to indicate that I really don't want to gossip, but understand that we have to have someone to commiserate with about this.  Depending on the situation the disapproval might be aimed at people that we know, generalized groups of people, figureheads of movements of which we disapprove, or people in various positions in our life.  I am well-aware of my failings in this area, but I don't always realize when it's happening.  In fact, as I've been writing this I've thought of more and more examples of doing this, many of them relatively benign and even humorous, but some of the insidiously close and nasty. Nasty is a strong word, but it's the right word for this, because when I do this, I am deciding who I will think of as a real person, and who will be considered something a little less than quite fully human; that is, a little less human than myself.  Once I've begun to think of someone as not quite fully human, one aspect of tender-heartedness - sympathy - is shut down.  If they're a distant group of people, their troubles and concerns roll easily off my back.  If they're a part of a movement that I don't like, I conflate all the things that I don't like about the movement with the person who symbolizes them.  If they're an irritating person in my life, it becomes impossible for me to see their perspective, to recognize their struggles, and to acknowledge their own difficulties.  They may even be another friend, in which case I can make the correct noises when we talk, but the words that I'm saying don't reach my own heart.  No part of their pain is really imprinted upon myself; I am not helping to bear their burdens.  I just want it to look like I am.  Words are not sympathy.

Not only would this be hurtful to the other person/s, were they to discover it (which I truly hope they don't -  I don't want to hurt them, just use them to make myself feel better without them being aware of it), but it's toxic to my own self, to developing new relationships, and to relationships that I do wish to nurture.  Living inside of my self-drawn boundaries, I have to keep a closely guarded heart to new people and experiences.  I'm nice; I'm polite; I'm downright friendly to most people (I think); but I can't let anybody really in until I've figured out if they're an in sort of person, or an out sort of person.  Clues from my already-friends are a short cut, but barring that I have to be on the lookout for ways that they might disappoint me as a person; I have to see if they're more accomplished than me in some area of particular ego vulnerability; I have to find some area where I can consider us at least on equal footing, if not where I have a slight advantage.  Are they prettier than me, more accomplished than me, more self-motivated than me?  Those are not strokes in their favor.  As you can imagine, this doesn't make meeting new friends graceful.  It's difficult to have a free and light-hearted conversation with someone when you're acutely aware of all the ways that they're wounding your ego.  Fortunately, I can often rise above this initial, paralyzing rush of analysis, or I would find no friends; in fact, I'm blessed to have some of the best friends that a woman could ask for, both old and new.  But even after a person has slipped past the outer ring of my fear and suspicion, my guarded heart interferes with relationships that I really wish to nurture.  I'm reluctant to take off the last of the armor and be honest about struggles that nobody else seems to have, prejudices that aren't fashionable to acknowledge, and desired ends that I fail to accomplish.  Revealing these things makes me too vulnerable, too readable, too... tender.  If subtle contempt interferes with my ability to truly sympathize with others, my fear of being cast outside of the boundaries that I have drawn interferes with the second aspect of having a tender heart - being open to the touch, influence, and impact of others.

Although my word for the year is struggle, this is a knot of influences, instincts, and inclinations that is woven so closely through my being that I'm not even sure where to begin struggling with it.  So while I struggle with some other things that I may find the time to tell you about soon (e.g., food, organization, and finishing things), this is one situation that I'm just going to need to sit with.  It won't unravel with my own cogitations, but soaked in enough prayer and interior stillness, the ends may slip out where I can see them.

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