A little tenderness goes a long way

September 21, 2013 

In recent days, my mind has been on peace and cooperation, and more specifically, on tenderness.

In the midst of worries over chemical weapons in Syria and the need for shelter for the homeless so evident in Olympia and elsewhere; despite my concern about drivers who drink and drivers who text; and after losing my last three uncles to cardiac arrest in one month’s time, I pulled from my bookshelves a wonderful volume of stories and essays collected by the late Raymond Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, and published by Random House, titled “Call Me if You Need Me.” There, in a short essay on, to my surprise, Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila, Carver quoted Teresa: “Words lead to deeds. … They prepare the soul, make it ready, and move it to tenderness.”

Tenderness. It’s not popular, trendy or appealing to the clever. It’s a bit shy, decidedly careful and often lovely. The day before he died in a tragic plane crash, Otis Redding performed one of the great songs of his or any time, “Try a Little Tenderness.” I’m ready to try to cultivate this virtue.

In 1948, poet W.H. Auden coined the term “The Age of Anxiety” in a poem that won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and I suspect that was because the term itself was, even then, clearly relevant. It became prophetic.

Somehow in my lifetime we have skipped from rampant commercialism after World War II, and its legacy of waste and pollution, to assassinations, to carnage in Vietnam, to genocide in East Timor and Rwanda, to devastation in Iraq and at the World Trade Center, to horrific oppression in Afghanistan and Palestine, and now to terror in Egypt and Syria. Death is rampant in our world, and anxiety is pervasive.

So how can we move from words (sometimes effective but often self-serving and duplicitous), declarations, threats, and slurs to tenderness? One way we can quell our fears and prepare our spirit for tender ministration to a broken world is to dwell in gratitude and be truly thankful for our families, friends, co-workers, community members, neighbors – people who struggle like we do to find meaning in life. But we must also get out of our comfort zones and act.

All this means a bit more to me now than it did a few months ago. On the cusp of “retirement” (a less than felicitous term for repurposing our lives) after 44 years of teaching literature, I’m anxious to make new commitments and strengthen old bonds, but, nonetheless, I’m a bit terrified.

I’ve decided to begin mentoring in The Evergreen State College’s Gateways for Incarcerated Youth program and Olympia’s Sidewalk Program, as well as practicing homeless advocacy and support through Interfaith Works.

I’ll continue to find spiritual solace in Holy Wisdom Inclusive Catholic Community and social inspiration from the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Yes, I will also find time to take nature walks in the Northwest rain and sunshine, play wicked Scrabble, respectable racquetball and less-respectable golf.

I’ll try to be a guest lecturer and book maven whenever and wherever I can. If I remember to be grateful to all whom I love and who have loved me, I’ll trundle into my new post-70 world with renewed purpose and a full heart.

Don Foran is a former Jesuit priest, loving husband, and proud father. His deepest wish is that all people not only survive but flourish.

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