It was irresistible reading, especially on Valentine’s Day, from the New York Times: “Try a Little Tenderness.”
I can’t say that we contemplate tenderness very often. If anything, we restrict mention of these warm and fuzzy feelings to moments with babies, children, at times our elders, and frequently our pets.
In looking at the definition of tenderness, it should come as no surprise that vulnerability is suggested, and that motherhood is one of the first examples used to describe tender feelings.
What’s not to like about that?
Tenderness is defined as follows:
(a) Considerate and protective; solicitous: a tender mother… (b) Characterized by or expressing gentle emotions; loving: a tender glance… (c) Given to sympathy or sentimentality; soft: a tender heart.
Who Cares About Tenderness, Anyway?
As for the importance of tenderness? Some say it’s a fundamental ingredient to loving deeply. Others? They’ll stick to a definition that applies to a steak cooked to perfection, or a sore spot after surgery.
Tenderness as a necessary item in the accessible toolkit of emotions?
Not so much.
Along those lines, here is the passage from the Times by Gordon Marino, that knocks the wind out of me, as it seems to sum up so much that is ailing in our society:
In the United States, we lionize resolve, determination and resiliency. Although we have a strong nostalgic streak, we are a hard people who no less than the ancient Romans entertain ourselves with a steady diet of throat slitting and torture images that can only work to pound the tenderness out of us… To feel tenderly is to feel vulnerable and vulnerability is not a favorite American dish.
Tender is the Night
So why do we devalue the softer side of human nature? What causes Americans to be such a “hard people” – and why “lionize resolve, determination, and resiliency,” which, I might add, go hand in hand with our Success At All Cost culture?
Did I just answer my own question?
Personally, I believe all three characteristics are useful in life; it’s the extreme tipping of the scales toward these outward signs of strength that is concerning, as compassion and tenderness find themselves relegated to the shadows.
Does it follow that we are less reluctant to show considerate, solicitous, loving) tenderness in the context of our nighttime trysts, when we’re literally and figuratively naked? When we’re more at ease admitting to insecurity or fragility?
Is tenderness reserved for poignant moments with our children, but otherwise tossed aside in favor of those bright banners of “I can do it” and “We’re just fine” and “Pick yourself up by the boot straps?”
My preference is to stow my cynicism on this score, and believe there is a Silent Majority extending random acts of tenderness where warranted so that we may, indeed, become more “caring and connected” as Professor Marino suggests.
But I have my doubts.
Think More, Feel Less
For the past few weeks, this phrase has dogged me, and I couldn’t say why. Think more, feel less. For some reason, these words appeared and pinned themselves to my mental bulletin board in full, prominent, and stubborn view – where they remain.
I can guess this is the output of my current inner dialog, as I try to resolve an issue that requires considerable thinking outside the box. I sense that feelings own too broad a foothold on my decisions, whereas analysis followed by action are more suited to the necessary heavy lifting. And saying as much, I note that “analysis and action” possess those same bright, hard, potentially deceptive qualities that neatly dovetail with “resolve, determination, and resiliency.”
I am, after all, a product of my (American) upbringing and education, which is admittedly hybrid.
But the Times article strikes me as a warning flag: I may be misguided in my Notes To Self attempts at managing life. Emotions inform choices and initiate action; tenderness, like other aspects of the softer side, serves a purpose.
Children, Pets, Parents… Spouses?
We allow tender feelings for our children – especially when they’re young. We express adoration for our pets, occupying a special place in our hearts. Aging parents? We’re caring and conciliatory.
If tenderness is akin to admitting a degree of vulnerability, are we afraid to show our tender selves in relationships, or embarrassed? How does tenderness stack up against its more fiery companion, passion? Do we need both in order to achieve emotional intimacy?
Is there any involvement of the intellect in this equation? Of explicit choice?
Can’t we choose to express more gentleness, and therefore come from a more loving (helpful) place?
Does Passion Rule the Roost?
I found this resource of interest, placing tenderness on a higher scale of importance in relationships than passion:
Passion as an emotion could be sexual and stimulating in nature, or it could be an arousal, or a more intellectual passion. An intellectual passion in love would be a strong appreciation for the target person that generates passion – you are passionate about the other person because you appreciate them for who they are…
A sexual passion in love would be more stimulation based, you are passionate for the other person because they make you sexually stimulated.
… The statement, “tenderness is more important than passion in love” would seem to imply that love involves less sexual, stimulating, violent emotions and more calm, tender and caring ones…
Does love involve more tenderness than passion? When “love” or marriage fails, is it in part from lack of tenderness – as in consideration and caring?
Emotional and Intellectual Choices
Some of us are more ruled by emotion than others. Some of us are more ruled by intellect. I’m not addressing gender differences here; I’m looking at elements of circumstance and also, mindful intention.
Naturally, individuals act according to their temperament and experience. Certain life events unleash emotions over rational thought, but generally, don’t we possess the capacity to fine tune what we feel, what we think, what we say, and how we behave – even if we don’t exercise that fine-tuning?
Possibly. Under the right circumstances. But as a tactic for protecting ourselves from life’s bumps and bruises? To minimize risk? To feel more “resolved, determined, and resilient” – in other words, less vulnerable?
Maybe yes, maybe no.
I find myself returning to the balancing act of thinking and feeling, and acknowledgment that feeling – deeply – is a gift. Why does it cause us embarrassment? Why can’t we give reign to those gentler feelings, not only toward the ones we love, but society as a whole?
A dose of idealism stirred into my cynicism?
But aren’t we smart enough and confident enough to balance those shiny All-American “virtues” of determination and resiliency with appreciation for vulnerability? To show our softer side, knowing it doesn’t negate our strength?