Letters to the Living No. 5: On Gentleness, Wrestling with a Wounded Angel

Tuesday, October 28, 2014 - 5:14am
Photo by Erin Nekervis

Letters to the Living No. 5: On Gentleness, Wrestling with a Wounded Angel

Part 1: The Single Mom Inside
I have been trying, for days now, to write about gentleness. It is such an important concept — something I struggle with inside myself, and that I feel is lacking in the world at large. But for some reason, despite multiple drafts, revisions, and asking friends and family for insight, I still feel no closer to understanding gentleness or its application in our daily lives.

So this morning I decided to sit down, take a deep breath, and actually feel the space in my body.

More often I concentrate on heaviness, the pressing weight of being human and all that actually means. All I have to be and achieve. Switching perspectives — from being stuck in this dense physicality to being made mostly of water and air — helped me reach an understanding that has little to do with argumentation, and more to do with honesty.

I realized it’s okay to be groping in the dark, enlightened by my own confusion. Yet, I am also trying to be kinder to myself, letting those ripples touch every one of my actions and interactions. I fail so often, and I think I’ve been dwelling on those failures recently, clinging to all the times I let the voice inside my head beat me up. Sometimes I wish I could grab that voice by its shimmering throat and knock some sense into it.

That is precisely where gentleness comes in. Instead of beating up my harsh task-master, I know, deep down, that I must treat this constant companion with the greatest love and respect. At the same time, I know I must stand up for myself too. But how? How can I treat my inner dictator with love, while also being my own defender and friend?

(Erin Nekervis / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).)

This is at the core of my attempts to write about gentleness. It is this constant pull-and-tug between who I think I should be, and who I am, right now, this minute. This dialogue creates a lot of internal friction. Which is why we need gentleness in the first place!

Riding the El in downtown Chicago, I saw a young mother with two small children. She was slumped in her seat, expressionless, exhausted. The kids were growing tired and cranky. Every time they got rambunctious, she would plop them back in their seats and tell them loudly to be quiet. Every time, I felt my own heart quiver. I wanted to intervene, but knew I mustn’t.

Now, reliving that scene, I see how personal it was. I have such empathy for that mother — tired, alone, trying to do her best, but feeling the weight of never doing enough. Hmmm, now who does that sound like? Well, like all of us, at some point in our lives. She certainly reminded me of me — my inner single mom trying to raise me up right.

Those kids, her kids, I love them. I loved them as I sat on that juddering train, as all the other passengers tried not to look annoyed, but darted sharp glances in the direction of their screeches. I am those kids too, or at least, some of their untamable spirit dwells in me.

Reimagining my inner dictator as a struggling single mom helped so much. If I have compassion for this mother on the train, a total stranger, how could I not have compassion for my young, tired, trying-her-hardest inner parent?

(Erin Nekervis / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).)

And, if I love those crying, playful, unruly kids so much, how could I not love the bawling, dancing, I-don’t-care-who’s-staring self I usually keep locked up? How could I not treat both inner parent and inner toddler with equal if different modes of kindness until, and here’s the real magic, they both mature? Until they reach their own understanding that has nothing to do with pull-and-tug, and everything to do with the space and flow of my ensouled body?

Wherever we are, sitting with a cup of tea, or at a computer, or on a commuter train, every bit of us is in flight. Thoughts are flying across synapses, cells are migrating to heal a wound, memories are churning up by the whiff of perfume floating off a fellow passenger.

And that harshness or loving-kindness inside our heads is flying too. He or she is fluid, and as full of space and change as we are. Our beings are not solid granite. We are evolving constantly — the parts of us that are immature or always have a foot out of line. And the sweet, beautiful parts too. Flying. Every blessed bit of us.

I may not have a grasp on gentleness yet. I may not know how to juggle the demands of being a young, single mother to myself — much less to the world around me. But when I shook out my thought-wings this morning, they looked strong and ready for a journey — however long it may take.

(Erin Nekervis / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).)

Part 2: The Fruit of the Spirit
They say: Learn the beauty of scabs and thick skins. Learn to give as good as you get. Learn to speak loudly, whether you are carrying a stick or not.

"They" are the voices of conventional wisdom. And they do speak loudly, advising us to, "Sell yourself. Push yourself forward. Don’t take guff. Use your elbows."

The world’s a harsh place kid…

Yes, the world is indeed a harsh place. Part of my growing-up years were spent in Israel, a splintered land that embedded itself in my soul. Those years were like a palmful of broken glass: sparkling, jagged, light-filled. And potentially lethal.

There were times when I felt those shards surround my whole body, as if I was walking in an envelope of bright danger. At any moment, if I was incautious, I could lose my life — any of us could. So each of us, in our own way, developed an ability to slip from this knife’s-edge reality into the daily flow of school, running errands, meeting friends. It was an odd, dreamlike existence. Normal, and yet, not.

Perhaps because of the existential anxiety floating through the air, each person became their own inviolable universe. There was no need for social pleasantries. No one waited in line or moved aside for you on the sidewalk. We were invincible. We were self-sufficient. We were razor-sharp and could deal with any shrapnel flying our way.

Except that I couldn’t. I don’t think any of us really could, not Israelis, Palestinians, Arab-Israelis, pilgrims, expats, or tourists. But this early experience of living in a society that is abrasive almost by necessity made me acutely aware of abrasion of all kinds. I developed a heightened sensitivity to harshness, and instinctively withdrew from environments that reminded me of the death-sparkle in Israel’s air.

I remember walking into an American public high school on my return to the States. My abrasion-radar went wild. The low, institutional brick building was a warren of sharp objects — high-energy particles called teenagers zooming through the halls and classrooms. We churned through eight classes a day, with little meaningful connection between classmates and teachers. I would come home feeling tired, cross, and convinced there was a better way to learn.

(Erin Nekervis / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).)

It’s not just schools that often lack gentleness. Workplaces can rub us raw too, as can public transit, shopping malls, restaurants, and daycare. The levels of noise, advertising, and stressed-out people dealing with other stressed-out people can leave us feeling bombarded and drained.

Creating more spaces of refuge, like public parks, is one option. But another option is to integrate gentleness into all our spaces and daily interactions. It could be something as small as turning down the music in cafés. Or as radical as a mother making the commitment to care for herself with as much tenderness as she does her family.

What is essential is reorienting our minds and relationships toward a quiet that has little to do with physical noise. Rather, it is the quiet of being attentive to ourselves and others. In these moments, our energy is less frenetic. Our voices drop a register and no longer seem on the verge of snapping.

Gentleness is not a showy virtue. It’s not something you can put on a résumé. American society, in contrast, praises daring, open-mindedness, and self-confidence. These traits fit a mythology of pioneers and entrepreneurs. At the same time, we’re also beginning to explore the value of vulnerability, which goes hand-in-hand with the capacity to be expansive and courageous.

But I believe that vulnerability by itself is not enough to cultivate the openness to life that, when nurtured, is deeply transformative to soul and society. In order to be open in the first place, a person needs some caring support. If the air is glittering with harmful words, ignorance, and unkindness, we’re unlikely to breathe deep and launch into the truest, most hidden aspects of our story.

A level of trust in oneself and one’s environment is a prerequisite to baring one’s soul. And trust grows through encouragement not criticism. I know some people advocate "tough love" as a form of strong medicine. But most guidance can be dispensed with a light touch and lots of respect and real love for the person on the receiving end.

(Erin Nekervis / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).)

Which brings me back to gentleness. It is found in the Lotus Sutra:

“Dwell in the abode of great compassion
Wearing the robe of gentleness and forbearance…”

And it appears in Galatians 5: 22-23, again paired with "forbearance" or patient endurance:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”

There is no law against these nine virtues because they form the law of ethical relations itself. Through their practice, we receive our freedom, as individuals and as a society. In a world that acts like a body at war with itself — and bracing for new and unexpected blows daily — analysis and retaliation are not enough. Our very beings must radiate the cure.

The phrase "fruit of the Spirit" is a potent one. It means that gentleness is one of the offspring of our higher selves, not the seed but the purpose of the seed.

And if gentleness strikes you as a rather soft and tasteless fruit, I’d like to reveal its robust and vivid core. Think back on your own lives. Gentleness shines out in memory. It forms the scaffold upon which we rebuild our fire-bombed selves and communities. I came across this quote by an anonymous therapist on Tumblr:

“What trauma survivors need is gentleness. Because no one was ever gentle with us.”

It was shared nearly 2000 times.

Gentleness forms the under-song of survival — the hidden face of evolution, wars, famine — and the partner of resilience. It is the loving touch that reminds us we are not alone, and there is hope. There is healing.
Gentleness exists between people. And it dwells within each of us.

It is me saying to myself: I’m so in awe of you, I must treat you as if I truly understood what noble means. It is me saying to others: I get it. We’re wounded and taking a thousand risks simply by showing up. And I see that. I honor you.


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Andréana E. Lefton

is a writer, traveler, researcher, and educator. She has an BA in International Relations and Education from American University in Washington DC, and an MSc in Philosophy & Public Policy from the London School of Economics. She is also interested in finding connections between education, social justice, and creativity. Andréana has lived and traveled throughout the United States, UK, Europe and the Middle East. She has worked with Ashoka, the Institute for Educational Leadership, Eastside Educational Trust, the European Press Prize, and The Guardian. She has also worked on documentaries for broadcast on National Public Radio and the BBC. She recently designed and taught course at Central European University on “Voice and World” exploring the intersection of self-expression and social justice.

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This is such a beautiful, incisive essay. Indeed, in her landmark book "Cultures of Peace," the late great peace researcher Elise Boulding mentions gentleness, and "gentleing" many times as values related to what she projected would be an emergent culture. And, as Arudhati Roy penned, "on a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."

Dear Richard, thank you so much for bringing up the 'emergent culture' of gentleness. I hadn't heard of Elise Boulding but quickly looked her up. Wonderful, and very relevant. I look forward to reading more about her life and work. Many thanks again!

Love this piece!

Many thanks Karen!

Thank you for this, it was perfect timing for me to read.

I'm very happy it resonated with you Tracy. Thank you for reading.

I'm very happy it resonated with you Tracy. Thank you for reading.

In our sangha there is a quiet gentleness of spirit in (most of) our interactions that somehow nourishes my soul and awakens the gentleness in me. My voice gets softer. The corners of my mouth tend to rise. My eyes soften. That abrasive inner voice melts into the stillness that abides within, riding in and out on each breath. When I come home from sangha the three pups are tailwaggingly happy to hear a softer step. Peace. A'ho.

Dear Steve, as I read your words, I too can feel a softening within. Thank you for sharing the nourishing and awaking aspects of gentleness with us.

Reading this piece was like looking into a still lake and letting the soul delight in its reflection... it delved deeply into humanity and our convoluted natures, and planted and watered, yes, tended!- that fruit of the spirit that blooms when we are brave enough to be gentle. The meek shall indeed inherit the earth.

Dear Lina, I'm honored by your words - which read like a poem! I love the courage dimension you bring to gentleness. Agreed.

Thank you for this essay. I especially like the idea of "..we're wounded and taking a thousand risks simply by showing up..." If we could look at each other that way, with true compassion, the world would indeed be a gentler place.

Dear Kristina, I'm very happy the essay resonated with you. Many thanks for reading

ANDRÉANA -- Thank you for this. As I read your reflections, I think of Jeanette Winterson's words, "Love changes molecular structure." We read of how a 20-second embrace causes oxytocin levels to rise in the brain and blood ... and of how holding a beloved animal lowers blood pressure ... Even a gentle gaze, held for a few seconds, can soften the soul. We all need this medicine ... It saves lives and sanity. I am including here a post from my own blog that tells three brief stories of how gentleness impacts our humanity and can turn the effects of shock and trauma into quietude and healing ...

Dear Alexa, I had a look at your lovely blog, and was moved by the simple phrase 'stay here...stay now.' How often I need to say this to myself! And how true, especially when we are accompanying the healing process, both in ourselves and in others. Thank you for sharing

This is one of the best articles I have read all week. I had to take my husband of one day to the airport in California this morning at 4am for a 6am flight. He had traveled a long distance to celebrate our marriage in a small, intimate ceremony with my parents since my father is battling cancer and was not strong enough to come to us in our hometown. Sitting under fluorescent lights in this sterile environment with hundreds of people around us, security announcements being projected over through speakers, and this need to be careful and aware of everything and everyone around us -- even having to wake in the dark and leave the warmth and intimacy of sleep in order to speed to the airport on a 6-lane highway was the complete opposite of what I felt like doing one day after the open-hearted tenderness and emotion of our wedding ceremony with my parents at their home. I felt like turning inwards, being quiet and soft and gentle. Holding ourselves and our marriage with love, tenderness and kindness as we experience this major life change. I was expressing the very sentiment you do in your article to my husband. That it feels totally unnatural to be thrust into this harsh, disconnected and chaotic world of international airports right after the intimacy and vulnerability of uniting our hearts. We cannot always change company policies that give employees just 5 days off work to get married. But finding ways to be more gentle with ourselves truly is essential. One way I have done it is to choose to live on an Island in Atlantic Canada where life moves slower and community is tightly knit and supportive. An environment/home that is more gentle. There are so many ways to nurture gentleness in our lives. Thank you for bringing our attention to this essential virtue and way of living Andreana.

Dear Ariana, I am so honored that you shared this beautiful story with us. And I use the word 'beautiful' to convey the honesty, compassion, and loving sacrifice your story embodies. As I read it, I had a vivid image of the ceremony, and also the stark disconnect between intimacy and sterility that you conveyed. I hope we are able to reclaim and re-humanize our travel systems and public places, especially since so many of us spend a good chunk of our lives in transit. Thank you for your reflection - which caused me to reflect

Wonderful piece -thank you for your thoughts and expression of them through your words. We are all human, and in that we share a profound connection and the richness of human experience, regardless of, and often in spite of, the stories used to define ourselves. Cultivating and celebrating sameness instead of difference might just open up our lives and societies to expressing and receiving gentleness and kindness, compassion and empathy, and the meaning which accompanies it.

Dear Fred, agreed! Stories can connect us, divide us, but need not define us completely. It is the quality of our connections and our loving insight that must guide us toward a new understanding of human relations...

Interestingly, today I read a line in Gaylon Ferguson's book, Natural Wakefulness, on gentleness - "Gentleness expresses confidence in the inherent goodness of our original nature."

Thanks for this. It was excellent.

As a companion to this offering, I suggest the following online essay titled, "Why Be Gentle". It begins with this line: "‘Why be gentle?’ my philosophical friend asked me. ‘That is a good question,’ I said."

The brief essay can be found here: .

As for me, the answer to "Why be gentle?" is, simply, that it's time to be. For without it, we simply continue with the deception.

Thank you again, Andreana, for a most thought provoking and well articulated offering.

The phrase, "Gentleness forms the under-song of survival" is wonderful. Thank you for putting this essential truth into words so perfectly.

We can both excavate and plumb the depths of gentleness firstly through the practice of gentle breaths. If we allow our breath to gentle itself, we can eventually become aware of the oh so subtle spaciousness and gentle expansiveness of our soul. If we think of the gentleness of a baby's breath, and that still-strong connection to God and the heavens we associate with babies, and let our breath grow ever more refined and gentle, and let these gentle breaths dismantle our tense armorings and interior barbed wire fences...And let these breaths out to massage the atmosphere around us.....

Amazing! Thank you for sharing your thoughts so eloquently.

Heart opening--that's what this reflection is to me. And isn't gentleness just that? Our compassionate, aware, connected hearts opening to ourselves and others. I am midway through a MBSR group where our teacher encourages us to lay a hand over our heart and say gently to ourselves "It's okay, honey."when self-denigrating thoughts arise as they most always will. As I read your article, I laid my hand over my heart and said "It's okay, honey." in gratitude and forgiveness.

Dear Nancy, your comment was heart-opening for me. I'm just so happy my words could connect with what you're going through. And you gave me a gift with your image of placing a hand over your heart and telling yourself it's ok. How many wounds would be healed if we all learned to embody such an act. Thank you so much

The tears...

Thank you, truly. 'There is a sacredness in tears' - Washington Irving.

"And God said, Love your enemy, & I obeyed Him & loved myself." ~ Khalil Gibran

You have nocked me over with truth. Eastern teachers say that the Western culture is bathed in self-hatred. I cling to this truth you bring forth, seen with new eyes, thanks to you, as I reprogram my self-demeaning assumptions and enter the sacred territory of self-love...Imago Dei. Thank you.

a day's reflection…a lifetime challenge.

thank you for this great thought provoking and eloquent reflection!

Beautiful writing, beautiful thinking, beautiful being. Thank you for your courage and honesty. I am A COMMITTED GENTLE-IST. I have learned, on my journey to loving myself, through confronting my harsh inner critics and judges, that the surest way to joy and peace is through being gentle with myself. Practicing gentleness with myself leads me to being gentle with other: my students,lover,friends and parents. It means I am always willing to look again (and again) at my own behaviour, to acknowledge when I am not being gentle. It means I am willing to see my abrasiveness, impatience, fear, and to accept that they are all human feelings that lead me to behaving with harshness and abruptness sometimes. and I am willing to start again, with gentleness. Because we are all doing the best we can, and we are imperfect, utterly human. Because life is difficult. There is so much fun, so much beauty surrounding us, living inside us. It is easier to see, to be that beauty, that joy, when we are gentle with ourselves and others.
The writer Helene Cixous says: " If you could see yourself, how could you help loving yourself." This is what I believe and what I teach at the Centre for Loving Inquiry, where I support women to be creatively brave and authentic and to be gentle with themselves too!!! www.lovinginquiry.com

This is lovely. Thank you, Andreana!

I always took that verse in Galatians to mean "in light of" the fruits of the spirit there's no need of the law. Rather than stating there's no proscriptive law against them, there's no law needed when they are present. Does that make any sense? I'm probably taking great liberties with the Greek but that's how I've read it. Gentleness is a precious commodity in a world where we arm ourselves for battle before we walk out the front door. Gentleness is the elixir we all need for our troubled hearts. Thanks for this!

That's a very interesting and thought-provoking interpretation of this verse of Scripture...feels like the seed for another essay. Thank you for sharing it!

so so so very lovely, thoughtful, responsive, observant, heartfelt, and mind open. thank you for this inspiring and loving piece of writing...

Very nice reflection. One caveat - gentleness and confidence are not mutually exclusive. In fact, in a world that seems to not understand gentleness or value it as a way of relating and empathizing with our fellow human beings, it takes confidence to be a gentle soul, to go about the world gently, and to stand up for those who have been mishandled - not handled gently. Gentleness is what children can learn when they are young, and with empathy comes gentleness. It is the expression of how we value one another, how we are humbled by each other, and it is often reviled by those who have never experienced it. Thank you for writing about gentleness - it is a gift to embrace gentleness in one's own life.

Thank you for this. I know that my life is shaped by the moment-to-moment focus of my attention. And that it therefore matters greatly that I reach for the best thought or feeling I can at each moment. This is what I coach myself constantly to do, and what I constantly forget; it is a choice in a thousand moments a day. You have made me aware that gentleness is both the nature of my inner coach, and also the coaching itself--part of all the best thoughts and feelings I can conjure.

Andreana, this is a wonderful tribute to love--of self, of others and so well put. Gentleness is not exactly something held up as an aspiration in this culture. Sad that it must be learned again and again, for some of us, when we are older. Just as we gaze with soft eyes at children, an Icon, a sunset, you remind us we can softly gaze at ourselves, too.

Dear Mary, I hadn't thought of this as a tribute to love - but I'm so happy you saw my words in this light. And you're right, gentleness is indeed a form of love - a subtle and sometimes difficult form, but nonetheless essential. Many thanks!

be kind, you can always be kind!

Exactly. Everyone's fighting a hard battle, right?

This is very true. I am a single mom, trying to be just as gentle and compassionate with myself as I try to be with my boy. Whenever I loose my grip, when tiredness and hopelessness make me act like the lady in the tube, I apologize to my boy. I explain to him that me loosing it, doesn't mean that I don't love him, or care for him. It means I am a human being, flawed, imperfect, but with a heart filled to the top with love for him. This way I hope to change a potentially damaging experience into a powerfull learningtool for both of us. Practicing forgiveness, and loving our imperfect selves.

When I'm not mothering I coach people. One exercise I find extremely powerfull is a women practice from the lineage of the 11th-century Tibetan yogini Machig Labdrön buddhist. It's called feeding your demons. Instead of fighting the struggling parts of yourself, you ask them what they need, and nurture them in abundance.

Dear Carla, I'm so honored by your reflective, compassionate honesty. I've learned a lot by your sharing, and look forward to exploring the practice of nourishing our shadow-selves. I have no doubt your son will carry on your legacy of forgiveness and loving-kindness...

Andreana, you are doing beautifully. Trust. Smile. You are a wonder and a gift to the world.

your gentle honesty is very brave. writing like this inspires me to reveal more of the subtle thought processes that traverse my soul/mind every day. I have forgotten to be kind, to enlist my inner coach instead of the critic. But even tenderly loving and gentling the critic will be helpful, as Thich Nat Hanh says, rock your anger like a crying baby. I want to smash its head in or make it disappear, but that only increases the reaction....sigh. Once again, the lesson of lovingkindness, to be with what is....

Thank you so much for your essay. It is beacon of light to me; I didn't know if others considered these things too. Especially the last few paragraphs I will re-read many times I'm sure. As a way of framing some of the "walls" we all run into every day, it's refreshing to read of gentleness. Also just as a resource for your task-master, I recommend Tara Brach's book Radical Acceptance. Sit down with your task-master, have tea with it! Again, thank you Ms Lefton.