We were sitting in a private room in the ER, X-rays done, waiting for the doctor to arrive to show us the pictures and prescribe a course of action. That’s when my 14-year-old daughter had what was her first, I think, enlightenment moment, fully grasping, in a personal and urgent way, the strange tragic happenstances that can alter life in a brief blink. And thankfully, the in-breaking bit of wisdom didn’t cost her very much by way of bodily injury.
“It’s so weird,” she said, a shallow laugh coming into her voice somewhere near the top of her throat. “This morning I woke up and went to school and everything was all usual, and now I’m in ER with a broken finger.”
She’d been playing first base for her high school’s JV softball team when she reached to dig a throw out of the dirt and the ball struck her non-gloved hand in just the right freakish way to dislocate the joint at her knuckle and cause a small break in the forefinger. “My middle finger!” she noted with quickly emerging jocularity not two minutes after we gathered up her gear and started walking across the field to the parking lot, headed for the emergency room. (When it happened, she had been ambushed by brief frantic sobbing as she beheld her grotesquely ballooning and wayward joint. And just like that, laughter, with the tears still wet on her cheeks.)
But it was her response over the rest of that evening and through the next morning that caused me to behold once again the relentless waxing and waning of all that is best and at least “decidedly subpar” in the human spirit. Most all of you know the standard drill with a 14-year-old: The parents are impossibly lame and richly deserving of dripping sarcasm and the shortest, coldest and most hostile possible answers to their relentless, unwarranted probing into your life. (I’m reminded of a book I’ve never actually read but whose title I experience living within every day: Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall.)
But as we left the field and got to the hospital and then home to dinner where her mother awaited us, there was a very different spirit inhabiting her body. Softer by a factor of, oh, a million. Engaging, warm, whimsical, accommodating, and most of all, tender. In other words, all of that good-higher-divinely-infused best self business that the mystics and your neighborhood Buddhist sage are always going on about.
She hadn’t lost the finger or severed her arm or been diagnosed with a rare cancer, but it didn’t require that level of severity for something to abruptly shift within her, for her to plug into her most loving and relational self. Just a small crisis, an in-breaking of vulnerability and need. All the trumped-up puffery of being 14 and thus Free to Disdain All That She Beholds: gone. Broken with that small crack and wayward thrust in her knuckle.
In a lovely recent essay in the New York Times, philosophy professor Gordon Marino notes the paucity of writings on tenderness among the great thinkers. Virtually everyone digs into love, but tenderness tends to be love’s “poor stepchild,” he notes. From what little has been written, he manages to cobble together a few wispy definitions centered around “a softening of the inner self” and of the “heart.”
Perhaps the short shrift given to tenderness has something to do with the fact that every thinker he cites—Socrates, Plato, Rousseau, Hume, Kierkegaard, Camus, Tolstoy and the one living figure, Cornel West—all have a Y chromosome in common. Maybe the definitive treatise on this softer and more liquid spiritual/psychological quality awaits the attentions of one granted double Xs, but my own feeling is that tenderness is inextricably tied to the profound sense of vulnerability every last human being shares with every other human being on earth, despite the perfectly understandable bulwarks of denial we construct so we can go about our daily business with the faith and confidence that the next moment can be as peaceful and “usual” as the last. (“This morning I woke up and went to school…”)
What is interesting about this is that vulnerability isn’t some liquid squishy sentiment at all, but about as factual and hard-scientific as a math equation. We are going to suffer and die, all of us, no exceptions, and sometimes—too often—it comes with startling immediacy. Sure, you were going to lunch, but now you’ve had yourself a stroke on the sidewalk. Take that, oh armored one…
My daughter’s tender accommodating stance lasted till about the next evening, when her trusty teen tonality managed to reinsert itself with its usual elan. But every experience of our nakedness before fate goes into a storehouse, I want to believe, becoming a touchstone for remembrance and a kind of bank we can draw on when our slender threads of denial are set all a-quiver.
Stripped of our carefully wrought delusions that we are different and more secure than all the rest of God’s creatures who fall all around us with heart-rending regularity, we come more fully and knowingly into the human family, huddled together, holding on, hearts torn open but warmed by the presence and reality of oh-so-tender love.
Is there anyone like Otis Redding? (Answer: No.) According to the You Tube post, this was recorded the night before he died, tragically, suddenly, with an in-breaking of fate, in a plane crash.
Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Mother-and-child photo of Gustav Vigeland sculpture courtesy of “mattlemmon” under Creative Commons license, see: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mplemmon/2383758048/sizes/z/in/photostream/
Parents-with-child photo of Gustav Vigeland sculpture courtesy of “Beamillion” under Creative Commons license, see: http://www.flickr.com/photos/beamillion/3713549764/
The Vigeland Sculpture Park in Oslo, Norway is itself a remarkable enterprise, worthy of exploration here: http://www.vigeland.museum.no/en/vigeland-park
Weeping woman sculpture by Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926) is part of “Sagrada Família,” a still unfinished Roman Catholic cathedral in Barcelona, Spain, part of the artist’s mammoth undertaking that has long outlived him. (Stock photo, photographer unknown.) For more on this amazing project, see: http://www.sagradafamilia.cat/sf-eng/
For the Gordon Marino essay on tenderness, see: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/13/try-a-little-tenderness/