Chaplain's thought for the week
Revd Tom considers the virtue of gentleness
People often think of gentleness as being rather a weak virtue, something which shouldn’t really be valued as it means they might be pushed around. If we’re too gentle, this line of thought goes, people will walk all over us and we’ll never get what we want out of life. Those who are successful, we may be told, are not gentle but strong.
I think, however, that gentleness is not only a vital human quality but actually a sign of true strength. The very fact that as babies all humans need gentle care means that none of us would be alive today if it weren’t for this important virtue. In fact, if we are to flourish, each of us needs to be treated with gentleness at many key moments in our lives. There are, of course, moments when we may need more forceful motivation, but I think that gentleness is nearly always more valuable and empowering in the long run. It’s also my experience that treating others gently is far more effective!
So, gentleness is a sign of strength because it calls us to restrain ourselves from our instinctive reactions. It might be our natural response to shout another down, to push ourselves forward, or to bang our fist and assert our view, but gentleness means that we overcome these urges and respond differently. Francis de Sales said: ‘Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.’ Gentleness takes inner strength. This doesn’t mean that we aren’t assertive on occasions, but we can be assertive in a gentle spirit.
After all, who wouldn’t wish to be treated with gentleness by others? When we’ve made a mistake and go to apologise, we hope for a gentle response. When others treat us gently it is usually because they are trying to see things from our point of view, they are seeking to be understanding, responding to us in the way they would wish to be treated. Conversely, when we are aggressive towards others it is because we see them as ‘other’ than us, a problem in our way, blocking something which we want.
In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul writes that we should ‘clothe’ ourselves in the virtues of kindness, humility and gentleness. This is a good reminder that gentleness doesn’t necessary come naturally to us. Just as we need to get dressed in the morning, it may be that we need to literally ‘put on’ the virtue of gentleness – get dressed up in gentleness – until it becomes second nature. That’s often how virtue works: it takes time to change habits.
My final thought is that there are times when the most important thing is for us to be gentle with ourselves. We’re often our own worst task masters because we have such high expectations of ourselves. There are times when we need to put these expectations down, give ourselves a break and be more gentle inside. Again, Francis de Sales gets it right here:
‘One important direction in which to exercise gentleness, is with respect to ourselves, never growing irritated with one’s self or one’s imperfections; for although it is but reasonable that we should be displeased and grieved at our own faults, yet ought we to guard against a bitter, angry, or peevish feeling about them. Many people fall into the error of being angry because they have been angry, vexed because they have given way to vexation, thus keeping up a chronic state of irritation, which adds to the evil of what is past, and prepares the way for a fresh fall on the first occasion.’
If we can learn first to treat ourselves with gentleness and compassion, we might also be more likely to treat others in the same way.