“Do everything you can in the most gentle way possible,” my friend Anna told me.
I’d recently confided my exhaustion at how fast life suddenly seemed to be moving. So many places. So many people. After a year spent largely at home, my husband and I were fully vaccinated. Doing more was finally possible, but our scheduling muscles were weak. How many night meetings at church were too many? Would our toddler’s nap schedule flex if we wanted to make late lunch plans? How could we say no to getting together with people we hadn’t seen in person for months, even if an overwhelming number were asking to see us soon?
I expected Anna, dear friend that she is, to advise me to do everything in the easiest way possible. To go easy on myself and look for the easy option. I’ve given that advice out dozens of times to others. It’s part of our cultural vocabulary. Easy now. I was not expecting the word gentle.
If kindness is the most undervalued fruit of the Spirit, gentleness isn’t far behind. Tender and strong, gentleness is the palm tree that bends under the winds of a ferocious hurricane but remains safely rooted. Gentleness is playful, pliable, resilient. Gentleness is strong.
It’s also effective in a way muscling through, forcing our hand, or laying down the law never can be.
I cannot think of a single thing that wouldn’t be improved with greater gentleness.
“Oh! that gentleness!” wrote Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre, “how far more potent is it than force!”
I cannot think of a single thing that wouldn’t be improved with greater gentleness. Except maybe the Olympic shot put.
Anne Lamott, my favorite irreverent Presbyterian, once wrote that this world is basically one big hospital waiting room and those of us who are more or less okay for now need to take the tenderest possible care of one another until the healer comes.
I’ve thought of her words every day over the past couple of weeks. They chasten me as I remember the seemingly infinite times—even today, even this hour—I led with stridency or impatience or irritation or fear.
A writing friend took his own life this month. He and I never met in person, but like many companionships forged over faith and the pen, we’d walked together through raw places of doubt and hope. I’d connected him with his latest editor. We shared a book launch manager. We’d laughed together on his podcast.
Now he is gone.
The news floored me, as it did many others. I sat on the living room floor in the shock of early grief, scrolling Twitter to read tributes from his friends and colleagues.
“Oh Steve,” I whispered.
My husband sat beside me.
“Tell me how it feels,” he said.
Steve advocated for those struggling with mental health. The most recent book he wrote—the one coming out this summer—was about the church’s struggle to notice and nurture those going through the valley of the shadow. Steve’s platform was honesty, humor, faith—and gentleness.
Perhaps the hardest edge of gentleness to accept is the one that points back toward us.
“Gentle with yourself,” Anna told me. “Gentle with your kids. Gentle with your marriage.”
The word itself felt like a balm. I wasn’t a quitter looking for the easy way out or a slacker aiming for the bare minimum. Instead, I could go gently, offering this gentleness as a gift to those around me. To myself. I could gently say no to the social invitations. I could gently hold space open on my calendar. I could gently ask another question, holding a disagreement in curiosity rather than judgment. I could gently stand my ground.
Gentleness is everything.
In elementary school I tried my darndest to fall in love with the grizzled, shaggy lump of a chestnut horse I was allowed to ride at our local stable. Pony was nearing retirement, but even with the many years she’d given to beginning riders, she never warranted a decent name. Pony sighed as I saddled her, sighed as I mounted her, and sighed as I guided her into the ring for lessons.
I loved horses, but even I never fell for Pony.
Then, one day, my instructor slid open a stall door near the center of the barn.
“I think you’re ready,” she said. “Here’s Ricky.”
Ricky was also chestnut, but there the resemblance ended. While my former mount was stiff and stocky, Ricky’s coat rippled like maple syrup and shone like velvet. My head barely reached his muscled shoulder. He snorted and stamped, tossed his head to move his long forelock out of his eyes. I drew a breath.
“Oh,” I said. “I can’t. I usually ride Pony.”
“Do you want to go back to Pony?” she asked.
I looked at Ricky. He looked at me. He was beauty incarnate, and like all truly beautiful things, terrifying.
“Don’t worry,” the instructor said. “He’s very gentle.”
I hiked myself up into the saddle. I’d spent years digging my heels in with Pony, but I could sense that Ricky fell into a different class entirely. I applied the tiniest bit of pressure to my calves, a signal for him to walk forward.
He tossed his head and started off. Such power, such fluid movements, under such control. I immediately fell in love.
For years I’d viewed gentleness as weakness, a softness that signaled a lack of concern with truth. Or worse, perhaps, as synonymous with doormat-itis, the inability to ever say no. This anemic understanding undermined my love for a fruit of the Spirit we are each called to savor.
Gentleness is everything.
So I say to you what my dear friend Anna said to me. What I wish I would have been able to say to Steve one more time. What I hope we can each swallow down into our guts until it absorbs into the very cells of our bodies.