By Ricardo Márquez
In recent days, I had an opportunity to reconnect with my three grandkids, Santiago, Sofía and Carmen. It had been a while since I had thrown myself on the floor to play with them. The pandemic and each family’s plans kept us away, even though we would see each other through Zoom.
Being with them put me in contact with tenderness, which I saw in their gestures, hugs and gazes; and which awakened feelings inside me. It’s not easy to describe what I felt: a re-energizing mixture of joy, peace and an impulse to protect and nurture them, a preview of eternity in an instant.
It’s not common to experience moments of tenderness these days, as we face anxieties, frustrations and disappointments. Tenderness is an expression that today can be considered “counter-cultural.”
Our society does not achieve success nor fame through tenderness; tenderness is not the value that guides our interactions. Tenderness is not imposed, doesn’t seek to convince, isn’t arrogant; tenderness simply “is,” radiating by itself, giving warmth, embracing, touching the heart, melting barriers and building bridges.
Tenderness is that feeling that springs from the heart to protect, care for and console. Tenderness awakens when we see traces of it around us; it spreads, although it only grows on fertile ground that’s watered and maintained.
In our process of socialization, tenderness is seen as a more feminine approach. Labels such as “strong” and “forceful” are more connected to men, “tender” and “sensitive” to women.
Every time we separate and divide to simplify, we lose. The educational challenge for the new generations is to integrate strength with tenderness in both sexes.
I had an opportunity to read “The Night of the Rusty Armor,” a book written by Robert Fisher. Reading it reminded me that, during our life, we surround ourselves with armor, defenses, to protect ourselves from our reality.
At a moment of frustration, sadness or pain, our tears fall, and that’s where the road to transformation begins. The tears begin to rust the armor, the defenses, until they are weakened and cracked.
Grace flows from those cracks.
To feel something you have to open yourself up, but in doing so, you can be hurt. But without the heart opening, without the experience of feeling vulnerable, it’s not easy to develop tenderness or to feel the power of emotions.
In the end, it will always be a personal decision: Open yourself up and risk the consequences of feeling or loving; or close yourself off, covered with armor, and protect and isolate yourself.
Tenderness is cultivated looking attentively at “the other” with admiration, without biases, with compassion; looking beyond appearances until finding that “the other” is the same as me, and has the same dignity and value that I have.
The practice of being tender begins with ourselves, in our own house. How can we be tender with others if we’re not tender with ourselves?
“We must learn to look upon our weaknesses with tender mercy,” Pope Francis urges us to do in “Patris Corde” (With a Father’s Heart). “We know that God’s truth does not condemn, but instead welcomes, embraces, sustains and forgives us. That truth always presents itself to us like the merciful father in Jesus’ parable (Luke 15:11-32). It comes out to meet us, restores our dignity, sets us back on our feet and rejoices for us, for, as the Father says: ‘My son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
If we do the same, we will be tender.
Today, we can be tender with whatever gesture that expresses or radiates respect, compassion and admiration for the sacredness of each life that we encounter.
Blessed are the tender-hearted because they will see God’s tenderness in everything.
Ricardo Márquez is associate director of the Diocese of San Diego’s Office for Family Life and Spirituality.