As any artist knows, using only harsh black and white to draw a picture renders a lifeless portrait. In order to give an object life, you must use shading to give dimension, add depth and show movement. Those shades of gray imbue the inanimate object with life.
It is not only with an artist’s pencils that we find the beauty in shades of grey. Every human being has their metaphorical ‘pencils’ and we go through life drawing our experiences and observations in our minds. But when we only use harsh black and white to depict what happens around us, we fall prey to the cognitive distortion often called ‘splitting.’ Splitting happens when we use our pencils to draw lines of division between ourselves and others. Using only black-and-white thinking forces us into a world of extremes.
In my clinical work as a social worker, I see this in my clients with statements like:
“If I make a single mistake, I am totally worthless.”
“There is nothing good about her, because she said this hurtful thing to me!”
“If this project isn’t perfect, I am a total failure!”
All-or-nothing thinking prevents us from seeing the nuances of what it means to be a human being. These thoughts, at their core, are a form of self-harm. The healing balm lies in using gentleness to shift our perspective from one of harsh dualities, to soft shades of grey. Viewed in this light, gentleness becomes a source of strength and power.
We also see it in our political system, which is designed neither for nuance, nor thoughtful discussion. Regardless of past intent, it is a system that divides and alienates. However, it is possible in this current election cycle to be gentle, regardless of the harshness around us. Continue to have discussions with your family and friends, and engage in active listening. Before we speak, we might ask ourselves “how can I phrase my words in a way that honors myself and the other person?”
Voting is a practical example of gentleness as power. It is an act of political resistance. While it might be easy to feel overwhelmed in the upcoming presidential election, do not give into the lie that your voice doesn’t matter. Voting allows you the power of choice, regardless of how futile your opinion might feel. Voting draws upon the liminality of gentleness, as it occupies the in-between space of agency and activism.
Gentleness is not passive; it requires a resistance to brutality. Gentleness does not submit to tyranny, but it responds with a tender awareness of others’ experiences and pain. Much like voting, gentleness responds. It senses, then moves. Philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle wrote that “Gentleness is a force of secret life-giving transformation linked to what the ancients called ‘potentiality’ [puissance]. Without it there is no possibility for life to advance in its becoming.”
Gentleness is both soft and fierce, and so are you. Remember this when you feel overwhelmed by the violence on the news.
So how do we allow gentleness to become a source of our inner-strength? Dufourmantelle wrote, “Life places gentleness within us originally.” With Dufourmantelle’s wisdom in mind, I have composed six rules of softness, that I believe will help you in rediscovering your own gentle-power. First, study yourself — gentleness is less a feeling, more an epistemological stance. it is a way of knowing. Practice self-intimacy as a way to facilitate inner-gentleness. Second, honor your harshness — no one is gentle all the time. Observe areas in your life where you are harsh or resentful. Ask yourself, “why?” without judgement. Third, relinquish control — gentleness never dictates nor demands. Be gentle with yourself, so that you do not become your own tyrant. Then, honor your pain — what hurts? Validate your feelings. Next, make your pain “pay rent” — gentleness asks us to acknowledge our trauma. Integrate your discomfort and allow yourself to process the hurt. Only once we validate the wounds, can we channel them outward as empathy. Finally, you are already gentle — you can’t force it or demand it; gentleness just is. You were born gentle. Only you know the unique way that you embody gentleness.
In our society that profits from harshness and division, use your gentleness as a power, by resisting rancor. Occupy the liminal spaces. Notice the in-between worlds. Like an artist, take out your pencils and use shading to soften any dichotomous thinking. It is in those shades of gray that you will discover the power of your gentleness.
MIA TABIB YDS ’20 is a therapist and social worker in New Haven. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.