When did this beautiful quality become associated with being weak and boring?
Somewhere along the line we lost something that is no less important now than it was in the past — gentleness. Gentleness in manners and as a personal quality.
First, let’s talk about the word itself. It’s been a while since I heard anyone say that someone is “gentle” — at least in any kind of a flattering way. (You may occasionally hear the phrase “gentle soul,” but it can feel a little condescending depending on the context.) I have, however, seen the word used in terms of a laxative, a laundry detergent, and a dermatological dermabrasion procedure. The first impression when you see it on a bottle like this is two-fold: It shouldn’t hurt, but it won’t be as effective either.
And a quick search for synonyms online doesn’t yield much better associations: docile, mushy, bland … not great. Actually, pretty pathetic. No wonder people don’t want to be labeled as gentle.
Maybe that’s because we’re so often told we need to fight — for our rights, for ideas, for expression; for our place in life. Instead of conversations, many of us engage in word battles. Instead of exchanging views, many exchange blows. Rather than admit that we are beautifully different, sometimes it feels like people just want to dance on the enemy’s grave. (Especially given our current heated political climate.) The internet is echoing loudly with the idea of: If you’re not with us, you’re against us. But what about “turn the other cheek”? Or maybe even just the word “forgive”? Nope. Not likely these days.
Gentleness gets bad PR
Today, being strong and incisive are considered to be positive traits, while gentleness is usually associated with weakness. But this association is a mistake because gentleness is strength. One has to have a strong character not to just explode with anger every time something upsetting happens, or, say, Uncle Billy says something insensitive on your Facebook wall. This doesn’t mean you need to lose face; you can stick firmly to your opinion, but with respect for the other person in the conversation. Just because we must love our neighbors doesn’t mean we have to like them all. But strong opinions that are conveyed through quiet words are probably even more effective. In this case, I might say being gentle could be another name for having class. Or maybe even imply nerves of steel.
Gentleness has no gender
Or at least it shouldn’t. It doesn’t need to be an exclusively feminine trait. Gentleness doesn’t have to have doe-eyes or even a cute dimple in the cheek. It can go hand in hand with firmness and consequence. A gentle woman, just like a gentle man, says yes or no when she feels like it. Gentleness stands its ground, because it knows why it is being offered: It engages the deeper certainty underneath the surface of any words or actions. But it does not harm or humiliate anyone by it.
Gentleness also goes together with love and respect, but does not allow itself to be run over. Lack of wish for revenge or retaliation does not mean giving up the fight for justice; that is what “turning the other cheek” means. It’s all in how we go about it.
We can be fiercely gentle
I’m thinking of Pippi Longstocking, the uncouth redhead, and the happiest girl in the world. By her lack of humility and total disdain for the conventions of the adult world, Pippi became an icon of non-conformism. In that sense, we all (at least sometimes) would like be be like her. Who doesn’t yearn to get out of the boxes life puts us in? Who doesn’t want to throw their papers off the desk, or to deny some silly social convention or another?
Oh, yes, Pippi was sometimes impudent, and she was also very strong physically, magically, because, well … it’s fiction, after all. But she never ever, hurt anyone, and she always protected the weak. Those were the only moments when she got angry and used her strength. She was not aggressive; she was gentle, even though this is probably the last word that comes to mind when we think of her.
A pity, because contrary to the conventions, gentleness understood as the kindness and love which “is patient, is kind, is not lifted up with pride, does not boast, does not rejoice from injustice,” as opposed to being a wimp, would be very good for us all.