Message 81, “An Overlooked New Year’s Resolution: Gentleness”, 1-8-12
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Of all the holidays we collectively celebrate over the course of a year, New Year’s Day is the only one that marks the passage of time. As an arbitrary moment fixed by our use of a calendar system chosen long ago, we look back and remember the past year as we more importantly look forward to the next. We are given an empty slate upon which we can create something new about ourselves and our lives.
What will 2012 bring for any of us? Because we have no idea, we often try and assume some control over our destiny by resolving to do things that will help us be happier, healthier, wealthier or wiser.
It is said that approximately 43% of American adults make a New Year’s resolution. While those who do are ten times more likely to succeed then those who simply hope for the best, the vast majority of resolutions – 80% – are not kept one year later. As Mark Twain once noted, New Year’s is the accepted time to make an annual resolution. And next week we can begin paving the way to hell with them as usual!
As true as that might be for many of us, I like the optimism of Benjamin Franklin who said, “Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each new year find you a better person.”
And in our effort to be a better person, the majority of Americans adopt similar New Year’ resolutions. The most common include: spending more time with family, losing weight, quiting smoking, getting in shape, getting out of debt and getting organized. Psychologists say that people often fail at their resolutions because most do not set realistic and attainable goals and they are too focused on the negative. Instead of resolving to lose weight, for instance, one should set a positive goal to look better or live healthier.
Over the next few weeks, I want to examine some less common ways we might become better people – ways to be at peace with our neighbors, as Ben Franklin put it. I’ve chosen a few that resonate with me – perhaps because I struggle with them more – but they are ways of behavior that I believe powerfully affect our own lives and our interactions with people around us. We’ll look at the ideas of gentleness, forgiveness and laughter over the next three Sundays as possible, but uncommon, New Year’s resolutions.
For today, we will consider the concept of gentleness. Like many human qualities, it is a difficult one to define and there are many interpretations of what being gentle might include. Some modern definitions of gentleness imply a form of weakness and softness that insults the quality. Indeed, to be gentle is often considered a feminine ideal which is a backhanded insult to women since the stereotype is one of weakness. Webster’s collegiate dictionary defines gentleness as enduring injury with patience and restraint. While this comes close, it seems to miss the mark. Aristotle tried to define it as a mindset that is half-way between anger and indifference. The French often translate gentleness as “douceur” – which implies sweetness, politeness and modesty.
All of these definitions are reasonably suitable but they fail to offer a holistic understanding of the characteristic. To be gentle is to exhibit strength under control. To be gentle, I believe, is to be calm and at peace in any situation. A gentle person emits a soothing presence at all times – even under stress or when attacked. He or she is rarely angry in an explosive or mean spirited manner. Being gentle is to possess tact, humility and courtesy. Importantly, however, gentle people know when and how to act and speak in decisive ways without causing harm or injury. One illustration of gentleness offered by one psychologist is to compare it to a giant machine that is used to crush cars into flattened metal sheets for recycling. This powerful machine, is so precise – so gentle – that it can also be calibrated to crush the shell of a walnut without damaging the inner meat of the nut.
While we are not machines, the illustration is helpful. Gentle people are NOT weak or soft. They have strength but know how to wield it in ways that have a positive impact on others and on their work. They know how to treat others with respect. When they speak, it is with a calm voice. Even in times of stress, one speaks and acts peacefully. When waiting, gentle people are patient. When walking or moving through life, gentle people do not stomp, make loud noise or move without care for the impact made. When assisting others, they do not get exasperated or impatient. When interacting within partnerships or families, gentle people respect the likes and dislikes of the ones they love. Gentle people make their own needs known calmly and without being demanding. At work, colleagues are treated fairly and with respect – wherever they are in the workplace hierarchy. One is never abrupt and the time of others is respected. When a gentle person handles any object or other living creature, it is done with care.
Spiritually, gentleness is a universal quality admired in most world religions. According to the Koran, Allah is gentle and loves gentleness in people. “He who is deprived of gentleness is deprived of good”, it says.
Serenity, gentleness, silence and self-restraint are the hallmarks of a person at peace, according the Buddha. Problems, the Buddha said, are not solved by hatred, anger or violent speech. Our problems are solved, he said, by loving kindness, gentleness and joy.
And St. Francis de Sales commented that when confronted with difficulties in life, the gentle person does not try and break them, but rather bends and shapes them for the better, over time. He or she is patient and long suffering. His ideal for gentleness was obviously that of Jesus – a man who was admired and followed by thousands but who could have commanded an armed revolt had he wanted. Jesus regularly sought out not the power brokers of his time but people who lived on the margins – those with no influence or wealth.
Indeed, a wise modern prophet, Abigail Van Buren of Dear Abby fame, commented that a gentle person is marked by how he or she treats people who can’t do him or her any good – and by how he or she treats those who can’t fight back. Van Buren clearly understood this idea of having power over others but using it productively, carefully and with care.
For me, that is the ultimate essence of gentleness. It is a character trait I want more evidence of in my life. This strength under calm control is a beautiful thing. Such a demeanor is humble towards others without being falsely modest, it works and achieves without being forceful or impatient, it is considerate even when insulted or troubled, and it manages a crisis with calm determination instead of anxiety and fear.
And that speaks to the quality that Buddhists most encourage. Gentleness towards others begins within ourselves. We must first be gentle with our own flaws, failures and fears. I was a bit down last weekend over New Year’s – despairing over some loneliness I felt. Invoking the things I often talk about in here, I got angry myself for getting down when I have so much in my life. While all of that is true, it took a gentle friend to remind me that many people experience blue periods and that perhaps what I needed was not anger but a reassuring hug.
The lesson I learned was not that it was healthy to remain depressed but that I needed to show as much care and concern for myself as I try to offer others. From such inner love, I could better examine why I felt sad. One who is gentle with oneself does not make excuses for self-failure but instead forgives, lets go and seeks ways to change. This gentleness for the self is the perfect attitude for acting calm with others. Indeed, those who are angry and rough with themselves are often angry and rough with others. The Buddha implored his followers to lovingly touch their own inner hearts. “When you do so,” he said, “you discover that your heart is vast and limitless. You begin to discover how much gentleness there is to give away.”
And when we practice and give away gentleness, I believe there is a substantial change for the good in our world. We begin to experience the kind of contentment and serenity that we seek. The human impulse, many believe, is to compete and scramble for the limited resources of life – food, wealth, land and resources. Human history shows us, however, that while we often act against our better angels and act selfishly, humanity is gradually evolving toward greater gentleness with each other. We are evolving toward cooperation and greater peace because our rational minds tell us that selfish competition and a lack of gentleness toward others is a zero sum game. We see this in history as lone hunter gatherers joined forces to hunt and farm together, to then form villages and eventually nations – all as ways to cooperate and benefit everyone. We saw this as nations moved from economic systems based on feudalism and slavery towards economies with opportunity for anyone. We have seen this worked out in history as vast segments of the population are no longer treated unfairly – racial and religious minorities, women and now gays and lesbians. Such progress was not the result of general morality but a recognition that gentleness towards others is more effective than brute competition. This is the moral imagination of which I often speak. Selfish strength wins for a moment, but cooperation, compromise and gentle power is stronger and more lasting.
We find this is true for ourselves, our families and our nation. Selfish anger, competition and hatred seems powerful. But nobody wins in the end. Survival of the fittest is not a winning strategy. Humanity survives because we continue to learn that moral imagination – that mutual gentleness – works better. How can I change for the better instead of being locked in ineffective self-recrimination? How can you and I work together so that the best of your ideas and the best of mine combine to create something good for everyone?
Ultimately, if others share in progress and well-being, there will be fewer wars, less anger and reduced unfair competition. How might our strength be used calmly, peacefully and cooperatively – for everyone?
One of the most gentle of contemporary world figures was Nelson Mandela. A man who was unjustly imprisoned, beaten, tortured and humiliated for his ideals on human equality, emerged from prison with profound peace in his heart. With the collapse of apartheid and newly elected as South Africa’s President, he commanded immense power. Anger and retribution could have determined his actions. Instead, through his gentle ways, he guided his nation through acts of reconciliation – establishing truth councils to understand the horrors of the past while offering forgiveness in return. One of Mandela’s previous enemies came to say about him that one felt safe in his presence – he was so kind, warm and gentle. Mandela was determined in his beliefs – that the races must come to terms with the sins of their past – but his actions guided South Africa through great change. Peaceful cooperation between the races is now much more prevalent. Such attitudes were achieved not by anger but by gentle strength.
And so strength under calm and gentle control might be an overlooked New Year resolution we ought to consider. How might I become more gentle? First, I must resolve to forgive myself when I make a mistake. Admit it, forgive it and learn from it. Second, I must resolve to remain calm and at peace when big and small troubles come my way. Third, I must watch my speech. I must resolve to speak gently to others – even if they hurt me, attack me or disagree with me. Fourth, I should respect everyone I meet – from the homeless man on the street to a very wealthy acquaintance. Nobody, no matter how powerless, should be beyond my attention, concern and time. Fifth, I should practice moral imagination. I must seek to cooperate and compromise with others – humbly acknowledging that the beliefs and thoughts of others have validity too. If my politics, my spirituality and my understanding of ethics were so perfect and so right, then I ought to be immediately elected President and God all in one! Cooperation and compromise, I firmly believe, are not dirty words.
Finally, I must move through life gently. I must walk quietly, I must speak softly, I must listen far more than I speak, and I must carefully handle all created things and forms of life. Ultimately, I must resolve to be a presence of peace, safety and calm.
As I make such resolutions, I should exhibit the same gentleness with myself in trying to meet them. Setting a realistic goal is important. I will not change overnight and I will occasionally fail. I should examine where I fall short in being gentle and then consciously adopt strategies for change. To intelligently counteract my failures, it will be wise for me to ask others to hold me gently accountable – to tell me when I fall short.
We each have great power within ourselves to help in life, or to do injury. With our words and our actions, we can inflict serious hurt. Too often, such hurt is directed at those whom we love the most. But no matter the situation or the person, we can use that great power we have and still be in calm control – thus creating effective families and communities of peace. Our words to others can be laced with tact and courtesy. Our response to the insults and anger of others can diffuse the situation as we use calm voices, words and actions. Our attitudes about life, politics, religion or other beliefs need not be discarded but they can be wisely practiced and gently shared. Most importantly, in doing so, we can extend hands of cooperation and understanding to others with whom we disagree. We can live out the moral imagination that exerts intelligence and ability in ways that uplifts and empowers, but never hurts. Whatever resolutions you make this year, let one of them be to practice strength under gentle control.