I’ve had the chance to speak and write a lot about loving your neighbor. My time leading into becoming a missionary and the past six years as a missionary have solidified my belief in the importance of community and the normal everyday need we have for connection and relationship. These lead to opportunities for loving our neighbor. But I think the problems that can occur from the commandment to love our neighbor lies in the word “love.” Let me explain.
The downside we have in the English language with the word love is that we only have one word, “love.” In the Greek language they have upwards of seven words for love and different types of relationships. We have “love.” And guess what! I love my wife. I love pizza. I love boiled crawfish. I love Lord of the Rings. I love scary movies. Do you see the problem here? My love for pizza better not be the same as my love for my wife. I think she’d have a thing or two to say about that.
Another issue is how we choose to love. We have people who say they are loving by letting their neighbor do whatever they want. And we have the other extreme of what some people call “tough love,” where one enforces certain constraints and punishments, or forces them to take responsibility for their actions. In the grand scheme of love and dealing with our neighbor (who could be our actual next-door neighbor, a family member, child, spouse, stranger, etc.), at some point in time different strategies of how to love can be applied. In our current circumstances in dealing with people around us in life, online, at work, or in our families, I think we need to be more concerned about how we discern exactly how to proceed with love. I believe Pope Francis gave us that starting point at one of his recent Wednesday audiences.
“Tenderness is something greater than the logic of the world. It is an unexpected way of doing justice. That is why we must never forget that God is not frightened by our sins: let us fix this clearly in our minds. God is not frightened by our sins, he is greater than our sins: he is the father, he is love, he is tender. He is not frightened by our sins, our mistakes, our slip-ups, but he is frightened by the closure of our hearts – this, yes, this makes him suffer – he is frightened by our lack of faith in his love. There is great tenderness in the experience of God's love…
Without this ‘revolution of tenderness’ – there is a need for a revolution of tenderness! - we risk remaining imprisoned in a justice that does not allow us to rise easily and that confuses redemption with punishment.”
In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “tenderness” is defined as:
1. gentleness and affection
2. the quality of being succulent and easily chewed (I also saw “easily cut” elsewhere)
3. sensitivity to touch or palpitation
It seems that if we come from a place of tenderness, we can remove the fear and anxiety in the other person. It forces us to stop and look at the person and the situation they may be in or have experienced. In order to be gentle and tender we are forced to slow down. And this is hard. In those moments where we may be frustrated with someone else, we want it fixed immediately. We want them to see the light, come to the right conclusions, behave appropriately (our light, our conclusions, the way we want them to behave) in our time. Tenderness forces us to be curious.
Why be curious? We know that behavior is communication. We must be curious to be able to investigate and get to the root cause. “Bad” behavior is communicating that something is wrong. Something is off. The person has experienced something that has thrown off their equilibrium. I’ve learned this very simply with my daughters. If after school they are disobedient, rude, or hurtful to each other, most of the time something happened at school. They were picked on, struggling with a new concept, or worried about someone. Yesterday was one meltdown after another. As the evening went on, I remembered my youngest telling me that she was really tired right after school. Tired! Huh, adults never behave badly when they are tired right? With that knowledge my wife and I were somewhat able to keep cool heads.
If we are able to zoom out into our current times, we have all just gone through (are going through) many things. Pandemic, deaths due to the pandemic, racial injustice, loss of jobs and income, disagreeing with people in our lives on how to handle all of this, and now war. These are the reasons that domestic violence has increased, as well as divorces, car wrecks and road rage, mental health issues, and problems at school. During these times we ourselves are in fact “tender”; b. the quality of being succulent and easily chewed or easily cut. It then takes a tenderness, a gentleness to be handled in such a state and not be ruptured or cut, c. sensitivity to touch or palpitation. In such times a “revolution of tenderness” is needed.
In this moment the cardinal virtues have come to mind: temperance, prudence, justice, fortitude. To utilize these virtues, especially when they are necessary with our relationships, one must be tender and curious about the moment and person in front of them. With temperance we are able to stop ourselves from taking the quick way out. We can take into consideration what is best for the other and not just easy and pleasing to us. Prudence can help us take steps to healing and correction instead of the immediate jump to extremes. Justice allows us to stop and take a look at the situation at hand and see what is owed, needed, necessary and not just what will make me feel better. To utilize fortitude, I need to first stop and be honest with myself and see if I’m the right person to even deal with the situation. Then I’m either brave enough to admit that I am not, or that I am and move forward. Examining these cardinal virtues is one practical way to start a revolution of tenderness in our own lives.