"Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." ~Eph 4:32 "Because your heart was tender, and you have humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard what I spoke against this place . . . I also have heard you, says the Lord" ~2 Kings 22:19
These are the things we’ve been taught: survival of the fittest; eat what you kill; climb or be climbed over; be tough. It is a world of do or die, and so society teaches us to do from the outset.
We are taught that brains and brawn are the key to success. “Develop physical strength and mental toughness and the world will be your oyster,” we promise. We point to star athletes who throw game-winning touchdown passes in the closing seconds, to performers who “leave it all on the stage,” and businessmen who achieve the pinnacle of success. We marvel at their mental and physical toughness, extol those virtues above most others, even if only by implication.
What about the others, though?
There is a boy with a lazy eye. His vision leads him to believe that, at times, the sky is the ground and the ground is the sky. He is perpetually off balance and out of sorts. Picked last for ever dodge-ball game, he is ever the first target. He has bruises on his body from every ball he never dodged.
Know this: even at seven the spirit of American exceptionalism can be stolen from a child.
The high school girls model sorority life, make snap-judgments about who’s in and who’s out. Does the newcomer dress like the pack; does she think like the pack; does she have the right apps? They single out the weaker fawn, the one with no thigh-gap, too much tooth-gap, or chronic depression. Then, they bully. Snap judgments, SnapChat—these are the ways to steal the teenage spirit.
Know this: teenagers understand the us versus them dichotomy.
We grow into adulthood, graduate into a survival system. We scratch and claw--often with a smile and a handshake--and fight for the next promotion, reach for the next wrung of promise. We march on, and some of us advance without any thought of those over whom we are advancing. And this is not to say that this sort of progression is malicious. But it’s not to say that it’s tender, either. After all, only the toughest thrive in this system.
Know this: the systems of the world are Darwinian in nature.
The tough-minded persevere and become successful, it is said, and at some very base level this is true. What’s more, this sort of tough-minded perseverance is encouraged by nature.
On the sixth day of creation, when God breathed life into the dust, he wired us with a neurological system that rewards achievement. In fact, according to a Psychology Today article entitled “The Neuroscience of Perseverance,” Christopher Bergland writes,
“[e]verything necessary for the survival of our species - eating, mating, sleeping, and physical perseverance - is rewarded by a flood of neurochemicals that make us feel good. This is a very generous biological design and at the same time necessary for our survival. All animals seek pleasure and avoid pain.”
Yes, we are neurologically hard-wired toward tough-minded perseverance, success, and survival. But what happens when this survival instinct goes askew? Are our brains rewarding us for achievement and perseverance at the expense of others?
Yesterday, I was researching tenderheartedness, and I ran across a few notes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In “Tough Mind and a Tender Heart,” King extols the virtues of developing mental toughness. After all, he says, a tough mind does not settle for easy answers; a tough mind does not settle for status quo oppression; a tough mind is not persuaded by candy-coated television marketing campaigns.
But, he goes on to say, “tough-mindedness without tender heartedness [sic] is cold, and detached[.] It leaves one [sic] life hardened… without the warmth of spring and the gentle heat of summer. There is nothing more tragic than to see a person who has risen to the displaced heights of a tough minded [sic] and has sunk to the passionless depth of hard heartedness.”
King continues, turning to scripture for examples of this dichotomy. He notes:
“The good Samaritan was good because he was tough minded enough to gain economic security and tender hearted enough to have compassion for wounded brother on life’s highway. … [Lazarus]… went to hell because he was so hard hearted that he guarded compassion and made no move to bridge the gulf between himself and his brother[.]”
King concludes, “[t]he greatness of our God lies in the fact that he is both tough minded and tender heartedness.”
We have been wired toward success, toward perseverance and survival, yes. But when we allow our biological penchants to override our compassion for those around us, we fall into Lazarus’ folly. What’s more, when we fail to rein in our children’s penchant toward this sort of survival-of-the-fittest mentality, we lead them into the same folly.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t teach our children that success and perseverance aren’t important, nor is it to say that we discount the achievements of Beyonce, Tom Brady, or the Fortune 500 CEO. This is to say, though, that it’s time celebrate a different kind of cool. It's time to embody a different kind of cool.
Dr. King had it right: our God is tough-minded, but his tender heart never fails. Jesus was tough-minded, endured the cross; but he was tender-hearted, too, laying down his own life for the life of the world. So if, as scripture says, we’re to be imitators of God, perhaps it’s time for a shift.
Perhaps it’s time to see tender as cool. Perhaps it's time to live tender as cool.
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