by Carol S. Hyman
In these days when individual psyches erupt in unthinkable violence and our social fabric seems to harbor dark and toxic stains, it can be tempting to turn away and ignore the ugliness and hatred. After all, even if we suspect that we are all parts of a collective body of humanity, what can one person do when it feels like that entire body is afflicted with a self-destructive and potentially terminal condition?
Here’s a humble suggestion based on something I learned very early in life: just because you don’t want to feel something doesn’t mean you can afford to ignore it. I was eight when my family moved out to the country. We had a pond out back and a lake big enough to swim in if you kept an eye out for snakes. An alligator lurked in the lilies on the far side, so there was always a sense of impending danger.
On the nearer shore, there was a fallen log that bridged the muck, extending into the shallows. Maybe because I was struggling with inner balance, I practiced outer balance on that log until one day when I lost my footing. As I scrambled for purchase, a shard from the log sank deep into the soft crevice between two of my toes. Too shocked to register pain, I pulled the wood out and, with blood flowing, hobbled home.
My mother relied on a common remedy to treat a variety of ailments – an Epsom salts soak. My foot was soon immersed. “As hot as you can stand it,” she said. I tried to convince her I’d gotten it all out, but lurking dark spots told her otherwise. So, armed with a sterilized needle and tweezers to dig out the lingering splinters, my mother worked with tenderness and tenacity.
I believe those two traits are exactly what we need to meet our present circumstances. Being human is a challenge. When bad behavior is busting out everywhere and we don’t know what to do about it, we can start with ourselves. Whether we acknowledge it or not, our species exists in deep connection with each other and our environment, and every action begins with feelings and thoughts within one or more of us. When we demonize others and try to ignore our fears, we allow the split off parts within our collective unconscious to fester. People need to realize that our minds are workable and that it is through working with our minds that healing begins.
To manifest our best selves and benefit others, we need to open our minds and soften our hearts. We need to avoid falling into the trap of believing everything we think, and thereby adding to confusion and contention in the world. If we’re willing to clearly see suffering – our own and that of others – we realize that to meet each moment fully and skillfully is a lifelong task. It calls for tenderness that’s willing to feel sadness; and it takes tenacity to stay steady without giving up, or giving in to distraction or hopelessness.
Interestingly, even though they seem to point toward very different qualities, the words tenderness and tenacity both stem from an etymological origin that means to stretch.
Nobody likes to hurt. I didn’t want my mother to dig out that splinter, but I’m glad she did. The news brings us stories that we don’t want to hear—alligators are lurking—but if we stretch beyond our habitual reactions of horror and helplessness, we might access the reservoir of wakeful presence, the ground that underlies human existence. Guided by inner reconnaissance, we may be able to see clearly enough that, with tenderness and tenacity, we can bring the splintered darkness afflicting our collective unconscious into the light.
Want to dig deeper on this topic? Join Carol June 8 – 25 at the Atlanta Shambhala Center— livestream and recording options available—for her new mindfulness course: Tenderness & Tenacity: Meeting the Challenge of Being Human.