“My little girl, you need to try again, and try harder!” A storm of tears erupts, even more than last time. At this moment, I’m firmly convinced that our 4-year-old daughter is in imminent danger of growing up without any work ethic or strength of character! Well, perhaps not, but it is a father’s job to build strength and character in the children, right? Amid the perpetually falling standards of our society, I genuinely do worry about being too soft. Later that evening I read this quote from Pope Francis: “Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil.” (emphasis mine)
Tenderness. I hadn’t really stopped to think about that word, and how it is different from “softness.” When my wife accused me (note entirely incorrectly) of being too hard, I had believed she was suggesting that I be more soft. That is the opposite of hard, right? I’m pretty convinced that men aren’t supposed to be soft, there’s little about me that is soft. Tenderness, on the other hand, that might be different. Maybe. At least the Pope used the word “aggressive” with it, that makes it a little bit more palatable.
So, as a Christian, my triumph is to come through aggressive tenderness…What, then, is this “aggressive tenderness?” Let me start with Saint Francis de Sales: “Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.” We’re coming near to yet another seeming paradox of Christianity. In order to be strong, you must be gentle. That’s hard for me. There are two ways I tend to respond to a tough situation: Ignore it, or solve it with a strong hand. This gentle strength is a third path that I’m not particularly good at. It is, however, essential to each of the callings we men have.
Why a Man Must Be Tender
1. For his wife. Wives do not respond to brute strength. Want to have a meaningful interaction with your wife that leads to greater unity? Try tenderness; try gentleness. Did you brute-force anything at all while dating?
2. For his children While children can be made to obey through force, they will not love through force. At some point they will grow up and you will not be able to apply that force any more. If there’s nothing deeper to sustain those good values you tried to build, they’ll vanish outside the walls of your house. Tenderness opens their hearts to love, a love that is lasting.
3. For Society As a man, we are called to do good in our society and build up virtues wherever we go. You cannot, however, force people to be good. Instead, we men must do as our model, Jesus, did – we must tenderly minister to the needs of our society and defend what is right in a meek and gentle way if we want to create real genuine change.
5 Steps to be More Tender
1. Examine your heart. Many times through the bible we read about the “hardness of heart.” Imagine the last time you got frustrated – how did your chest physically feel? Was it tight and constricted? That is a hardened heart. The first step to a soft heart is to recognize when it’s not.
2. Ask Jesus for help. I’ll let you in on a secret: you cannot fix this yourself. You need help. When you recognize your heart has hardened, offer a quick prayer. Here’s mine “Jesus, I want to love [this person] as you would, but I need your help. Soften my heart and minister to [this person] through me.”
3. Give a problem some distance. Even with the best intent, I’m not always successful at being tender in my response to a negative situation. When you’re in that moment of frustration or anger, I want you to imagine bright red klaxon strobe lights going off “WARNING, WARNING!” Don’t react the way you want to. Give it some space, calm down, let Jesus work in you. Words are like arrows: once released they can never be called back.
4. Ask others to help identify your not-so-tender moments. First I want to emphasize that you have to ask the right people. A spouse, a spiritual director, a close friend, your parents (even as adults) or a trusted confidante are good choices. Sometimes even with the best of intent we fail to notice our failures. You need to put on your humility cap first, expect their answer is going to hurt a little bit. Are you strong enough to accept their feedback and grow?
5. Celebrate small steps. Often we men get frustrated when we cannot quickly solve a problem. Learning how to be tender is a life-long process. You will have setbacks, and you will screw up. Don’t become despondent, but simply pick yourself up and try again. When you do it right, give a mental high-five to Jesus who was helping you out.
Question for you: What habits or tricks have you learned to help you be more tender, especially when frustrated?