A Little Tenderness

A few weeks ago, over coffee with a friend, our conversation turned to our shifting opinions on approaching political issues with others. I had left the fundamentalism of certain Christian theologies to join the fundamentalism of certain social justice practices. Eager to join the cause, I lost sight of my own habits of engaging the world and began to mirror the popular ones of the day, particularly on social media. Forgotten were the words of activist Angela Davis, who wrote that we need a “constellation” of alternatives to oppressive structures, rather than a one-size-fits-all model.

Instead, if other, more conscious people were doing it, I believed it was the Right Way, and followed suit. This is not to denigrate any movement, nor to suggest that particular methods of activism are necessarily wrong. I simply mean that I began to tweet opinions as if they shaped the people who followed me, when this had never been my way of living and moving in the world. The only tangible result was that I created tension among loved ones, within my former church community, and maybe in other circles I am still unaware of. Though unintended, I had not changed anything for the better: I had only isolated people who I wanted to be in relationship with.

I do not consider myself an activist, but I work to educate myself and talk with people in my life about what matters to us. That said, this writing is not a critique of the work of activists committed to dismantling structures of oppression to build a more just society. I merely mean that when I tried to share my own learning in public, I only felt myself hardening and changing in ways unrecognizable to myself.

I had forgotten that, as a former minister-in-training and a current high school teacher, my impact has always been realized through loving relationships that transform both me and the person I grow alongside. While social media can be a great tool for education (definitely) and connection (for others), it is not the place where I foster relationships. It drove my worst impulses of perfectionism, self-doubt, and intolerance: What if I say the wrong thing? I don’t know as much as others, should I stop talking? How am I so far behind? How could anyone think that way?

I eventually learned to log off and slowly forgave myself for not being vocal on Twitter just because I felt pressure from some vague force. Amy Poehler’s advice on life came in handy: “Good for you, not for me.” Poehler’s point was that someone else’s way of living does not have to be treated as either gospel or garbage. We can simply acknowledge it as one way to exist, but one that need not be for us.

While discussing this realization, the word “softness” came up. My friend used it first, then it clung to me. I expressed regret at the ways in which I had mirrored the Internet’s cues rather than honoring my own wholeness, and, surprising myself, I said, “I want to be known for my softness.”

As in, I want to shape my small corner toward justice, but not at the cost of shaming or severing myself from the people in my life. As in, I want to honor people’s complexities, and not treat them as static binaries like so much of online discourse encourages. As in, I want people to not only find me approachable, but to find me gracious, loving, and kind.

Social media hardens our edges and forces us into either-or categories that reduce us to less than the sum of our complexities (Jenny Odell speaks to this in How to Do Nothing). As users we create content and develop our brand, and in the process we come to resemble products more often than people. As with all marketing, a product must have a clear function that does not confuse consumers. But when people mirror products, we are pushed to scrub out the ambiguities in our selves in order to be more palatable to our audience. We absolutely should refuse terms of profit when it comes to growth as humans.

Social media is certainly not the only driving force behind this stratification, and, in some cases, it might not even be all bad. I shared my desire to move toward “softness” on Instagram, after someone asked me what I had recently learned about myself (this is the type of interaction I want on the Internet—nothing more). Once I shared this response, two friends who live on separate coasts and have never met each other messaged me that they just so happen to be working toward more tenderness this year.

Once this idea settled in, I found evidence of its transformative nature everywhere. In Hannah Gadsby’s emotional, heavy, and brilliant special Nanette, she encouraged such an approach to life. Talking about the oppressive practice of men who insult women by telling them to “lighten up,” not take “jokes” so seriously, and stop being “so sensitive,” she inquired, “Why is insensitivity something to strive for? My sensitivity is my strength.” Gadsby proves that tenderness does not equate to cowardliness, does not mean turning away from the world and being polite to oppressive notions. In fact, sensitivity opposes such injustice.

And comedian Jenny Slate, in a truly wonderful interview with The Believer, said in this month’s issue, “I’m not willing to add sourness to my sap just to serve a dish at a restaurant for wimps… My sweetness is the most interesting and relentless thing about me. And it’s what makes me such a tough guy.” By situating sap alongside resilience, Slate argues that we are only strengthened by denying sour, cynical edges to the dire conditions of today.

What Gadsby, Slate, and my friends know is that—more than ever—we need people unafraid to be soft, tender, and sensitive. As a man in a society that discourages me from embracing any of these emotions, my own personal act of refusal against toxic masculinity is to strive for such tendencies. In the end, people who know me won’t read my tweets to remember who I was. Only my embodied life will be a testament to my person, the ones I loved my only accountants.

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