In Defense of Gentleness

Circumstances have led me to look for full-time work after nearly twenty years of being a stay-at-home mother. At a recent job interview, they asked a very typical question: what are your best qualities?  

The answer came tumbling out of me: "I'm gentle." Where did that word come from? I knew as soon as I'd said it, that it was the wrong thing to say. I thought immediately of a few close synonyms: 'kind' or 'friendly'. But no, I said gentle. Gentle? Who even uses this word anymore? When is the last time you heard someone list "gentleness" as one of their strengths? How often is gentleness listed as a virtue to strive for? It's actually perceived as a weakness in some competitive, prove-yourself circles.

Dandelion Allison Photo.jpg

When the word 'gentleness' is mentioned, how many of us think of children, infants, or pets?Smaller, weaker beings need someone to be gentle with them, to care for them. Women -- themselves considered to be weaker creatures in comparison to men-- have long been the caretakers of children and infants. Thus it seems natural to attribute gentleness as a feminine attribute; we are the gentler sex. But does gentleness necessarily equate with weakness?

Far from it, gentleness requires great strength. Gentleness, true gentleness -- not forced politeness -- is love. Gentleness is evoked from caring about or considering the condition of another. It has a foundation in unselfish love. This is its strength. For it takes no intelligence or self-command at all to follow our selfish, base impulses. Gentleness, however, demands a mastery over self. It puts aside self-absorption to care about others. The determination to be gentle in this world isn't easy. It takes practice.

I could go on speaking of the nature and value of gentleness without mentioning a word about North and South. But I find that whatever topic I find vital to life, I ususally find woven into the fabric of Elizabeth Gaskell's story. And indeed, gentleness is a foundational factor in Gaskell's treatment of John Thornton. Gaskell uses the word "tender" to describe an essential component of John Thornton's character. She explains in a letter to a friend that in writing her novel she wanted to "keep his character consistent with itself, and large and strong and tender, and yet a master."

Hannah softens at the bedside of the dying Mrs. Hale

Hannah softens at the bedside of the dying Mrs. Hale

In Thornton, the gentleness is all the more beautiful because its so carefully guarded. But it comes pouring out when he can't help himself: in bringing fruit to Mrs. Hale, in speaking soft words of condolence to Margaret, in ensuring that his financial stress does not explode into harshness with his employees. 

Mrs. Thornton looks down upon any signs and signals of weakness. "She had an unconscious contempt for a weak character." The softer virtues verge on weakness in her mind, so she attempts to keep her tender emotions sealed up behind a steely exterior. It's especially touching, then, when her "icy crust" melts enough to reveal the tenderness inside.

John Thornton follows his mother's practice in attempting to hide his gentleness.

He had tenderness in his heart -- 'a soft place,' as Nicholas Higgins called it; but he had some pride in concealing it; he kept it very sacred and safe, and was jealous of every circumstance that tried to gain admission.
The BBC's John Thornton has a tender moment with Boucher's son.

The BBC's John Thornton has a tender moment with Boucher's son.

Truly, it's the gentleness in Thornton, in Margaret, in Mr. Hale, and in Higgins that  make me admire them so fervently. I admire gentleness in characters. They cannot rise to greatness in my estimation without it. This is why Colonel Brandon , Gabriel Oak (Far from the Madding Crowd), and Roger Hamley (Wives and Daughters) are my some of my favorite literary heroes. There's so much gentleness in these men. It's their greatest power.

So why hide our gentleness? Why be ashamed of it? We should be enthusiastically committed to gentleness in our everyday lives. Make gentleness an attribute that great men and women attain and exhibit. 

With all the harsh, violent emotions swirling in the world today, I champion gentleness as a greater strength. It takes self-discipline and humility to meet every circumstance with a resolution to firm kindness. Being gentle means being constantly aware that your individual actions have the power to affect all those you come into contact with.

Let's not hide gentleness, but get better at practicing it. Especially when it's difficult to do so. And we should be gentle with ourselves as well while we're at it.

About that job I applied for? I didn't get it. But I'll never change my determination to be a force for gentleness in the world.

Here's my gentleness battle cry, from the words of a hymn I've always dearly loved:

Speak gently, it is better far To rule by love than fear;
Speak gently, let no harsh word mar The good we may do here.
Speak gently to the erring ones, They must have toiled in vain;
Perchance unkindness made them so; O win them back again.
Speak gently, 'tis a little thing, Dropped in the heart's deep well;
The good, the joy that it may bring, Eternity shall tell.
(poem by David Bates)