Guest post by Dr Geoff Arnold
In Praise of Gentleness
“Nothing is so strong as gentleness nothing is so gentle as real strength.” – Francis de Sales
Confusion about Gentleness
Psychologist James Hillman, writing about beauty, observed that “in pursuing what we mean by beauty we are obstructed by the word itself. Beauty strikes the ear as so effete, so ineffectual, lovely and etheric, so far removed from the soul’s desperate concerns”.
Something similar might be said about the word ‘gentleness’. It’s as if we are beguiled by its connotations – both the subtle and sublime associations with softness, tenderness and mildness in thought and behaviour. And yet few things (perhaps nothing) indicates the strength and character of a person more than her or his capacity for gentleness.
Truly gentle people are generally more helpful in resolving difficulties, calmer in a crisis, less reactive under provocation, more respectful to others. Their gentleness can absorb ambition but not afford pretension. If we look beyond the stereotype, they are not necessarily reserved ‘quiet types’ or always introverted. Perhaps, at the internal level, they are simply more accommodating of life’s ambiguities and uncertainties.
In psychological language we might say they have higher capacities for impulse control and emotional regulation, higher thresholds of frustration tolerance, and more acceptant ownership of changing feelings. Turning to more common parlance, I’m inclined to think of truly gentle people as people with ‘lots of soul’. When they are expressive and ‘spirited’, they don’t impose on others. Boundaries are understood and respected.
If we confuse gentleness with weakness we can also confuse aggression with strength. But this is not to say that gentleness is the equivalent of being passive or docile. Gentle- hearted people can be pacifists without being ‘absolute pacifists’ in every imaginable situation involving conflict. There’s no contradiction in being ‘gentle but firm’ in dealing with challenging situations or difficult people.
There’s also no necessary contradiction when the gentle person is non-conforming, defiant, audacious, gutsy or unshrinking in a volatile situation. It’s just that the gentle person can show restraint when needed. Rather than being energised by inflaming tense situations, the energy of restraint is more like poise. There’s an uncanny stillness to poise, not to be mistaken for a lack of decisiveness. It’s a matter of timing.
And so ‘restraint’ is not a reference to inaction here. Restraint is indicated by self-control and the willingness to be more conscious of indiscriminate and dysfunctional urges. The gentle person with this kind of restraint is more likely to subvert unjust power systems by non-violent resistance. Here we might consider Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela to be historical exemplars.
Gentleness as a ‘Mode of Being’
The eminent place I’m upholding for gentleness here is quite deliberate. The conventional view of gentleness is too limited for me. It is often viewed as a mere quality of an interaction, a kind of subsidiary component of being ‘nice’ to others, kind or well-mannered. Just as polite as a ‘gentleman’ or feminine ‘niceness’ can be! Gentleness here becomes limited to mere acoustics and appearance, bounded by culturally sanctioned civilities.
No wonder then that gentleness rarely appears on any Western short philosophical listing of classical human virtues. Perhaps ‘temperance’ on the ancient Greek list of cardinal virtues comes somewhat into play (with its emphasis on sound-mindedness and moderation). In the Eastern traditions gentleness features more explicitly.
Taoism, for instance, celebrates gentleness as an immensely powerful trait. Referring to the metaphor of water, Taoists observe its effortless capacity for following its own pathway, formlessly and shapelessly adjusting to whatever it meets along the way. Water is also sustaining of all life. For humans and animals, water has a cooling effect on the body, dissolving impurities, conducting nutrients and waste, replenishing the hydratic balance within energy systems of the body and its reserves.
Gentle people are accordingly therapeutic people, less punishing of others, more empathetic, flexible and adaptive. As with flowing water, they can preserve their own character. And so it’s not surprising to me that people who engage a lot of meditation are often gentler in disposition. Meditation itself is a way of practising gentleness with oneself, others, one’s environment and the world.
Gentleness can accordingly be understood as a ‘mode of being’ rather than simply a ‘characteristic’ of a person. In other words, being gentle belongs to the processes of one’s being, as something that comes from the inside-out. And so gentleness essentially is a matter of who we are and who we are becoming. Gentle people behave their way to the virtues of gentleness without necessarily being able to say what gentleness is.
Gentleness from a Lifespan Perspective
In the case of gentleness, the confusion with weakness is a particular way of failing to acknowledge the fullness of who we are. When you think about our lives from a whole-of-life perspective (or what psychologists call a ‘lifespan perspective’) the importance of gentleness becomes critical at every stage.
As infants, our nurturing required gentleness. As children, we experienced love through parental and familial gentleness. We grew some more … And then at some stage we discovered love afresh in the gentleness of sexual intimacy. With ageing, there is often a mellowing process whereby the mature temperament becomes more gentle and tolerant. Finally, when death approaches we make our peace with it by gently and humbly accepting the place of the dying process in the cycle of life. Upon death, family and friends will grieve and be approached with understanding and gentleness.
In all these stages of the lifespan, the critical role of gentleness is integrated with mental, emotional and physical changes. Mellowing, for instance, may have biological antecedents (such as changes in hormone levels), but mellowing can also be a characteristic of the aged person’s character and wisdom. Character and wisdom and gentleness go together, hand-in-hand.
A Thought Experiment
Wherever human beings begin to lack gentleness, problems soon emerge. It’s here that gentleness can be conspicuous by its absence. One way of illustrating the point might be with a thought experiment: Imagine there is no such thing as gentleness.
With no gentleness in the world there’s an immediate separation between nature and nurture. Nothing in nature can be nurturing anymore. There’s the sheer indignity of an impatient world, shaped by brinkmanship, prone to aggressivity. An ominous turn to brutality looms large here. Hell is two steps away in any direction.
If you’re like me, there’s no pleasure in the thought experiment until we switch to the counterpart experiment and imagine a world where gentleness is sacrosanct, universally prized. At this stage I’m reminded of John Lennon’s most renowned song “Imagine’, the relevant lyrics being “Imagine all the people, living life in peace”.
There’s no problem (in this imagined peaceful world) understanding that gentleness is an attitude, not merely a quality of things. And because one can’t be truly gentle without some understanding of the fragility of life, we find people caring for each other here and caring for their environments. Heaven is found in every step in every direction.
GUEST WRITER’S BIO
Dr Geoffrey Arnold is an experienced counsellor who has worked with people with anxiety and depression issues (including ‘at-risk’ of suicide), grief, and general adjustment to life’s challenges. He is also a marriage counsellor and educator. He has a multidisciplinary PHD in education, philosophy, psychology and theology that focused on the big topic of ‘wisdom’.
To me, Dr Arnold goes by the name of Dad, Dadsie, Daddy, or Daddo. He is my rock. The person who I’ve always been able to rely on. The person who has been my guiding light through every crisis, small or large, that I’ve ever experienced. He is the most caring and giving person I have ever met. The first person to help loved ones, and strangers, who are experiencing difficulty. The ultimate advocate for the underdog. He has saved more lives than he will ever know. He is my hero, in every sense of the word. I’m so happy to be able to share some of his knowledge with you on my blog.