The Beauty of Gentleness: A Divine Grammar
My favorite fairy tale, “A Quiet Spirit,” is about identifying and nurturing the best attributes in our lives. In the story, fairy Princess Sylvia must choose a gift bestowed by the Queen. Which gift should it be—Attractiveness? Eloquence? Wit? The Power to Please? She journeys around to see what others have chosen, and discovers flaws in each of these gifts. She notices, for instance, that the fairy who chose beauty has surrounded herself with admirers but lacks any meaningful connection with others.
So what gift does Princess Sylvia finally choose? A Gentle Spirit. “This lovely gift makes life a constant happiness to its possessor, and to all who are brought into contact with [them],” the story says. All who encounter the princess’s spirit discover that they too have “the beauty of gentleness.”
As a clinical psychotherapist, I see both the violence and gentleness in people. There is violence; we cannot deny that. Good people do evil things. This potential we all have—this freedom of choice—makes it all the more urgent that we all tell ourselves a “Gentle Story.”
I love this fairytale. It reminds me that gentleness holds a special kind of power—a power that indwells first in the recipient, then extends outwards to “all who have contact with them.” This child’s story holds ancient wisdom: the more we seek and meditate on the gentleness within ourselves, the more we will seek and notice it in others. It reveals a divine grammar that infuses us all, and is accessible to all.
In Touch With Tenderness
As a clinical psychotherapist, I see both the violence and gentleness in people. I would be delusional if I did not attest to the potential of destruction and harm that everyone has. Evil does exist, as the fairy stories also warn us.
There is violence; we cannot deny that. Good people do evil things. This potential we all have—this freedom of choice—makes it all the more urgent that we all tell ourselves a “Gentle Story.” If the fairy stories are correct, and people’s surroundings do reflect their thoughts and dispositions, then what does this say about our current engrained system of social patterns of distrust and division? Should we despair and resign ourselves to the fact that there is no end in sight to the callousness and violence we see on the news and in everyday life? Is it delusional to think that everyone is inherently gentle, that gentleness is within daily reach?
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
I raise this question because I’m reminded that the same minds that conjure up harshness are also capable of creating gentle, tender worlds—conditions of affection where we all treat each other with warmth. My professors at Yale Divinity School taught me the power of the human imagination. It can be weaponized and used as a tool for derision, or we can take out our metaphorical paintbrushes and create worlds where gentleness reigns.
I think we are perilously mistaken if we think the stories we tell ourselves do not mold our identity and sway our environment. We internalize the stories that we tell ourselves—or those stories that have been forced upon us. Words are like seeds, and from those seeds an identity will grow. If a client believes that he is an addict, and that is all he ever will be, then his identity will conform to that story, and healing will be a near-impossible feat. But if the therapist is able to assist the client in remembering parts of herself that are gentle, then the client is able to take her pen and claim a new narrative for herself.
Shame and self-loathing internalize the core belief that “I am inherently bad,” which leads to a spiral of destructive behavior, reinforcing the false belief that “this bad action is all I am capable of.”
A Hidden Force of Healing
The therapist must be careful, for she can unwittingly conspire in her client’s self-loathing narratives. The therapist must be cautious not to become a co-perpetrator when the client is determined to prove to the world that they deserve to be hated. Confirming this shame-based narrative only reinforces her clients’ addiction and self-harm cycle. If all a person is is “bad,” then what good is it even to attempt to heal and make amends to others? Clients often challenge me when I ask them not to refer to themselves as “alcoholics.” But I persist, askingthem to change their self-understanding and perhaps refer to themselves as someone who is seeking sobriety, or someone who struggles with alcohol use.
Maybe labels such as “addict” and “substance abuser” are convenient ways for our existing social orthodoxy—the unspoken rules of power that enforce standards of behavior, self-esteem, expectations, and taboos—to victim-blame and distract from its own crimes. Maybe one of the cures is to give people a gentle story again. Gentleness is, in the deepest sense, a liberating myth—not because it isn’t true, but because it reveals gentleness as a creative force.
The therapist holds a unique position in helping individuals see these possibilities, but so do we all: we can reflect back the gentle parts of each other that we see, and with sincerity and honesty help people see parts of themselves that shame has hidden from them. This is not delusion—we are not ostriches, hiding our heads from the instinct we all have for violence and harm. This is radical gentleness: opening our eyes to one another, honoring the potential we all have for tenderness. As philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle writes, there is innate to human beings a “trait of a primal ‘gentleness drive’ of protection, of compassion—even of goodness itself.” It’s possible to choose to align ourselves with the primal force that first breathed us all into being—Gentleness—which waits for us to access again. “In the beginning was the Word…”, and this Word was gentle. In this light, gentleness is an act of remembrance, for when we look deep within ourselves and cling to the soft and tender parts of our identity, the more those parts of ourselves come alive.
Look in the Mirror
That’s the message of the fairy stories—the more you search for the gentle parts of yourself, the more gentle you will become.
But what of wrongs done? Perhaps you have hurt others and treated loved ones with harshness, violence even. Gentleness does not excuse injustice, but honors the pain from which the harm came. In that case, I invite you to tell yourself a gentle story. Look into the mirror, and instead of judging those parts of yourself that you’ve hidden away in shame, I want you to embrace them with terrifying sincerity and honor whatever pain it was that pushed you to act out of harshness. View those parts of yourself with grace. Tell yourself a gentle story, and that gentle myth will grow, and you will inevitably act from that softness.
Mirror, mirror on the wall; you are gentle, as are all.
As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins writes, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God …” Even more, I think the world is charged with a divine grammar: those gentle murmurs that hovered over the face of the waters. “In the beginning was the Word …”—those gentle words live within you now. You can choose to live into that fully, or close your heart off to the tenderness that is innate within you. Remember, you are gentle. Whoever you are reading this—you are gentle. Even now as your eyes blinked tenderly to read this sentence, the way you inhaled just now—everything about you is gentle.
Mia Tabib ’20 M.Div. is a social worker, licensed clinical psychotherapist, and writer. She is a graduate of the joint M.Div./Master of Social Work program of YDS and the University of Connecticut.