The world most of us occupy most of the time is seldom a particularly gentle place. Gentleness is not a characteristic much valued in our culture. It frightens most people.
What makes gentleness so hard?
If you look for pictures depicting gentleness, you will inevitably find illustrations of infants, young children, and small pets. Gentleness feels like weakness, frail and easily hurt. It is not safe to be gentle. We feel unprotected and at risk. Gentleness is hard because, when we are gentle, we feel exposed.
We associate gentleness with vulnerability.
The world “vulnerable” has its origins in the Latin word “vulnerabilis which means “wounding”. We all carry wounds, some large, some small. We resist the pain of those wounds and determine to avoid at all costs opening ourselves to the possibility of “wounding” in the future. The wall of protection we build around our lives makes gentleness impossible.
Life feels like a competition; the reward for the winner is a life free of pain and discomfort. Gentleness is not a winning strategy. Gentleness is tender and tender is for losers. Gentleness is soft; winners are severe. They take control and run the show. They cannot be hurt because they are ruthless and invulnerable.
When we are gentle, we feel we have given away our power. We fear we will be taken advantage of. No one will look after us and we will be unable to take care of ourselves.
Gentleness is not in control. It feels helpless and incompetent. There is not much about gentleness that is attractive to the world at large. Everything we have been taught about life encourages us to resist gentleness.
We want power and strength. We want to approach life from a position of invincibility. We want to have an impact on the world, to control the circumstances of our lives and make things turn out the way we have determined they should. We want to be able to “get a handle on things,” to “wrestle life to the ground.”
It curious that, on one of the few occasions when Jesus chose to describe himself, he used the word “gentle.” He said,
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:29)
Jesus was certainly not weak. He does not appear to have experienced himself as being vulnerable. Even in the midst of a terrifying storm, Jesus was able to rest securely “in the stern, asleep on the cushion” (Mark 4:38). When his life was threatened and his disciples rushed to his defense, Jesus rebuked them asking,
Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? (Matthew 26:53)
The power of the universe was at his disposal. But Jesus chose not to exercise that power in his own defense. He renounced the instruments of violence. At his moment of greatest vulnerability, Jesus chose gentleness. Gentleness was not hard for Jesus because Jesus knew that, at the centre of his being there was an indestructible core that nothing could ever destroy. He had found the “one pearl of great value” (Matthew 13:46). He knew that it was worth sacrificing everything else to find this treasure at the heart of his being.
It is not gentleness that is hard. It is letting go of all those obstacles in its way that is challenging. When we grasp that “one pearl of great value,” we will follow Jesus who “went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Securely in possession of that “one pearl”, we will no longer have anything to protect; gentleness will become our natural stance. The world we inhabit will be a more gentle place.