This was the word imprinted on the heart-shaped stone I plucked from the velvet pouch Rory offered. I don’t recall the specific occasion, now some twenty years ago. It was likely a birthday celebration or holiday party at work and Rory, our chaplain, had us each reach into the bag she passed around, instructing us to choose a red clay heart, each of which was inscribed with a word. She added that we might want to consider the word as a theme for the coming year, perhaps a quality we might like to become more aware of and to nurture in ourselves.
At that time, tenderness was not a part of my natural repertoire. I was far too irritated, far too often. Impatient. Judgmental. Hard-working as all get-out but unacquainted with the concept of humility.
In my 20's and well into my 30's, I didn’t respect many people, mostly due to what I perceived in them to be an inferior work ethic. I had an ego the size of Texas though I would have denied it to you because I honestly wasn’t that aware of it. I wasn't openly boastful but I did take more than a little pride in being the smallest one on our work team, always lugging the huge water bottles to the cooler. “No, this little lady doesn’t need your help. She’s a lot stronger than she looks,” my smile would say as I heaved the jugs into place.
In a very real sense, though, even in my harsher days, I was genuinely focused on service. My brother once said it seemed I always needed a crusade. It was just that I always had to add that sigh before saying, “Sure, I can do that, too.” I always had to announce my part in all I did and raise an accusatory eyebrow at those who weren’t keeping pace with my efforts...a pace that I, myself, had difficulty sustaining.
I looked at the word a long time, consciously trying to muster what I hoped was a knowing and appropriately deep expression on my face but you may as well have told me I’d be taking up tap dancing or playing the trombone in the coming year.
The concept simply didn’t register with me, but I never forgot that tile.
In the many years that have followed, if someone were to ask me what had been the most valuable thing I had learned in my life, I would tell them “to have patience.”
Patience and Tenderness are siblings (I think their mom is Compassion and Empathy is their Dad.) I find I need patience before I can be tender. Tenderness is slow and if you aren't patient, you'll never get there. You may try to be tender but it will feel forced and won't be sustainable. It will be a thing you try to do rather than a way you are actually being. Anyone on the receiving end (human or animal) will know the difference. If you are lucky, they will call you out on it.
Tenderness and Patience are the qualities I wish I had more of when my aging and increasingly confused dog Sachi was coming to the end of his life. They are the qualities I consciously practiced as Luigi’s life drew to a close (due in no small part to insights gained reflecting on Sachi). It’s what I had to learn through my friendship with a man named Michael, who you will meet at this blog before long. A quadriplegic for 35 years, I had to learn to exist on “quad time” in his presence or reconsider how I was defining the term "friend." They were qualities that my father was frankly astonished to see expressed in me as we neared the end of his life (the learning curve of which you can read about in the essay series underway here.)
It’s as though that little heart shaped clay stone, which itself is no longer anywhere to be found, has been working on me all these years, whispering at the back of my mind, “gently, gently now” over and over, as teacher after teacher has appeared, working me through the same lesson plan.
Tenderness is a quality that has a way of erasing you, easing you through what Ram Dass calls “nobody training” until you find yourself not so much eradicated from existence as much as dissipated into it.
It’s almost as if one becomes more verb than noun. More presence than pronouncement.
At least it feels like that in the moments I am able to live into it. I'm still very much a work in process and the teachers keep coming...same lessons, maybe even the same teachers, just showing up in different costumes. Currently they show up as rescue dogs and rescue workers, both of which have pointed out where I might benefit from some remedial work.
But there have been those moments, and I'm so deeply grateful for that. Tenderness is the single quality which most tells the story of those loves of my life that have passed before me. It is their legacy to me and, in turn, mine to them as I try to take what each has taught me and live a better version of myself with every turn of the page.
Tenderness is the one quality that lingers of those who have gone before, long after the body has failed and returned to the earth. I can feel its presence in each of my most precious memories, the same way I can feel it when I am most attentive to those still present, like a single thread running through my life, as I am being woven through this tapestry in which each of us has a thread to sew.
To become the very quality you wish to express, to be mercy, to be tenderness, to be compassion. This is what the people and animals who have had the deepest impact on my life have been teaching me. Their hands (and paws) will continue to have a part in every good thing I will ever do.
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Filed under: Spiritual Path