Whenever I see pictures and cartoons that poke fun at us humans, I generally save them to my phone. And then when the time is right I post them to Facebook, or text them to someone who needs to hear the message even more than I do. For instance, the latest one reads, “If I manage to survive the rest of the week, I would like my straight jacket in hot pink and my helmet to sparkle.” Another favorite of mine is an image of Beaker from the Muppets saying, “Trying to understand the behavior of some people is like trying to smell the color 9.”
I feel fairly confident I’m not alone in this – even if I am, I’m going to pretend I’m not because I feel better if I think someone else is just as baffled as me. This is my “bonus” of choosing to live life unrehearsed – some people I just don’t get. I don’t understand their thinking, their actions, or how they treat the world. I want to take out that weird little hammer in my mother’s container of kitchen utensils – you know the one, it has a square head with odd, spiky things on one end – and give them one good whack. I was told it was to tenderize meat, to hammer on the beef or chicken to make it less tough, to stretch it, to soften it. Frankly it always seemed a bit Neanderthal to me.
Yup… that’s my theology for the week. Somedays that’s about as enlightened and compassionate as I get. But back to those people who may drive me to drink one day – and I am clean 26 years! The annoying part about these annoying people is that the minute I have typed these words on this page, I can pretty much guarantee one of them is saying the same thing about me!
And that is the practice of “being tenderized,” because I allow the suffering to touch me, to stretch me – to soften me. When I used to think about the word “tenderize,” of course I couldn’t help but imagine being beaten with that weird shaped hammer with spikes! Who the hell wants that? It’s like a modern-day version of a medieval morning star! Is it any wonder we shy away from being tender, or softening ourselves? But – being tenderized is where the juiciness of life is, it’s how aliveness overflows. Let me explain.
In my book, Who Have You Come Here To Be: 101 Possibilities for Contemplation, one of my favorite qualities is “I have come here to be TENDER.” The image on the page is that of a tiny, fluffy baby penguin flanked closely by its parents. What could be more tender, gentle and delicate than a baby with its parents – especially one so darn cute? Yet, if I stay with the penguins for just a moment, I realize the harsh realities of their lives, as well as the immense likelihood of this baby never actually reaching adulthood. Tenderness is alive as a result of moments in life that are harsh, unpredictable, cold and scary. By allowing those cold winds to blow through us, we are tenderized.
The reality is suffering and pain are always around us and emerging from within us – they break the heart open. And we can be broken open in ways that are tender, or we can be shattered into thousands of shards. If I have lived my life dodging what’s really behind “smelling the color 9,” not allowing the pain of others, or my own, to land on my heart, then my heart becomes dry and brittle and easily broken into pieces.
But if I live my life allowing what is uncomfortable, confusing and painful to be placed on my heart then the heart becomes tenderized, it literally is a muscle that is stretched, extended and made soft and supple. It is only when we allow ourselves to be tenderized that we expand our capacity to hold suffering, which then stretches us even further into loving and living our lives in new ways. Like plants, we create tendrils, those buds representing new life, climbing and reaching to another plant for support. Is this not what we humans do?
To be tenderized, we must allow everything to come into our heart, with no anesthesia. Whether the end of a friendship, the loss of a job, the mean-spirited words of a loved one, the uncertainty of any given moment, a child’s failure at a task, or death of a beloved. But we must also allow the moments of rejoicing deep within, whether large or small, we must take it ALL in. The laughter of a stranger, the sound of rain on the window, the smell of freshly baked bread, the seeming softness of the clouds from the view of an airplane window, and finding yourself in the Sunday comics.
In his book Letters from a Modern Mystic, Frank Laubach says, “Somebody was telling me this week that nobody can make a violin speak the last depths of human longing until that soul has been made tender by some great anguish. I do not say it is the only way to the heart of God, but I must witness that it has opened an inner shrine for me which I have never entered before.”
The confusion that is behind “smelling the color 9” is really my knock on the door of that shrine, to step into the unknown and face myself, as well as others, with deep and abiding tenderness. It’s what the world is asking for – and even more than that – it’s what the world is yearning for and depending on from each of us.