Finding Gentleness

(The scene: Starbucks. 5pm. My 13-year-old son and I are set up with laptops, editing a shared Google document that contains his upcoming speech. In typical just-became-a-teenager mode, he has zero…zero…attention span at present.)

Me: We’ve been here for an hour and you haven’t finished this speech. Come on buddy.

Son: (types two words. Picks up a pencil to read “Ticonderoga” carved into its side and sets it back down. Types something else. I look at my screen and he’s just sent me two emoges. He looks across the table at me and smiles.)

Me: Seriously. I’m starting to get irritated. I need to get home to make dinner.

Son: Mom, I’m trying to think. I really am! Ok, I’ll try to hurry.

(Minutes pass. Nothing is added to the speech).

Me: This is ridiculous. Can you please just finish this? Why do you keep looking everywhere but the computer screen? Can’t you just focus? (This is somewhat of a rhetorical question.)

Son: (smiles and then types on his computer keyboard. The message pops up on my screen: “I don’t think so”)

Me: I sigh, pack up my things and tell him with my “I’m over it” mom eyes, “It’s time to hit the road.”


A dictionary would describe it as ‘a person of mild temperament or behavior. Moderate in action, effect, or degree; not harsh or severe.” I would describe it as something I think I lose a little more each day.

And I’m desperately trying to get it back.

Writer Mary Ann Becklenberg said this: we are short on others because we are frustrated with ourselves. And reading that was like having a cast iron skillet smack me in the face. Holy shit that hurt.

It’s never easy to be confronted with a shortcoming. It’s even harder when our own conscience is the one doing the dirty work.

When I reflect on that interaction with my son, I could easily justify my frustration. He was disregarding my (justifiable) prodding. And I did have good reason to be frustrated, feeling the urgency to cook, feed and clean-up before bedtimes.

But what bothered me most about that hour at Starbucks (and too many more like it) is that really I wanted to do a Homer Simpson strangle on my Bart. Internally, I was anything but gentle in spirit. And although outwardly I think I passed the test of displaying some level of gentleness, the irritation of my heart, mind and spirit told the real story.

Kind, tender, sympathetic, considerate, understanding, compassionate, benevolent, good-natured. These attributes are what I want to know myself for. I have them in doses, at times. But I want them, in larger doses, to reside throughout every molecule of my being.

Is there anything stronger than possessing gentleness? To do so is to have character that is consistent, reliable, and steady. A weak person cannot do that. Leo Rosten goes as far as to say, “Gentleness is to be expected only from the strong.”

I have a small, but ever-growing, list of people I admire. A few are bold. Adventurous. Risk-takers. Achievers. Leaders. Others are what most would consider to be quite ordinary. Predictable. Mundane, even. I began writing out their characteristics a few months ago --- what was it I really admired in these people? The common denominator was gentleness.

Paul Newman has been my lifelong crush. No brainer. Those eyes. Lawd. His smile? Get outta town. I’ve watched old interviews he’s given. He always avoided reactionary responses to questions. Instead, you could almost see the mental step-back as he answered thoughtfully, gently, and with wisdom. Not sarcasm, brashness or flippancy. And yet, Mr. Newman – in all that blue-eyed glory- was a competitive racecar driver and swore like a sailor. (Newsflash: Embodying gentleness of spirit doesn’t mean you forgo your spunk.)

So how do I embody more of it? In a daily routine of deadlines, demands (both self-inflicted and otherwise), travels, speeches and chasing dreams, how do I ease my soul back towards gentleness of spirit? I listened to a podcast recently with a Hebrew professor talking about repentance. The interviewer asked, “Isn’t repentance about making an abrupt change…the 180 degree turn?” In my previous spiritual readings I have always been led to believe this, so I was nodding my head in agreement as she asked the question. His response surprised me. In essence he said, “Any slight turn in the right direction will get you to a different destination.”

Yes. Yes!
Baby steps.
Striving for improvement, not perfection.

My first baby step back towards a gentle spirit is learning to be gentle with myself. Referencing back to Becklenberg’s quote, I totally resonate with the truth that I lose gentleness because internally my spirit is spinning. Being gentle with myself is requiring me to let go of some expectations. Whether it’s to have dinner on the table within a certain hour, have a proposal arrive in someone’s inbox ahead of schedule (I error on the side of overachieving), make huge decisions that I’ve let sit on the backburner, or reading my kids a book before bed each night, I need to just chill the heck out on myself.

“How terribly hard many of us are on ourselves. Our reactions, and manner of response, to our unpleasant circumstances so often result in self-punishment administered in creatively cruel ways.

And to what degree is the management of our situations based upon an inability to lower self-expectations, as well as the pervasive fear of losing ourselves?”

Mary Ann Becklenberg

My second baby step towards gentleness is letting go. It’s the only way to truly free myself from that internal spinning.

When my jeans won’t button….let it go. (Hard one.)
When my business meeting gets cancelled 15 minutes before….let it go.
When my husband checks his phone in the middle of my story….let it go. (Verges on impossible.)
When my idea is claimed by another….let it go.
When the cookies get over baked…let it go.
When the coffee shops blares b-side 70’s rock tracks at 6am…let it go.

When I can start letting things go, then these daily frustrations however miniscule they may be, no longer own me. They no longer reside in my belly to fester and then bubble up to a moment of unreasonable irritability towards another.

I want to start moving to a place of choice. To have the insight to see the implications and consequences of all of my actions. And reactions. Not giving over to the angsty feeling that arises because I feel I’m missing the mark.

Most people, including myself, haven’t always been surrounded by gentleness. Which makes its power even more visible when it’s present. Every day I’m turning my radius just a bit more in the direction it needs to be headed. Just don’t ask me about it when the third batch of cookies has burned. I’m nowhere close to that kind of sainthood.