Last weekend I spent a day at the beach with my grandchildren, their cousins, aunts, uncles, and parents. At one point, my four-year-old granddaughter started crying inconsolably on the sand - the result of an altercation with her brother following her reckless destruction of their sandcastle.
Her parents, knowing the whole story, ignored her. Her aunt tried consoling her, which added fuel to the fire of her story of grave mistreatment. At this point I went over to her, helped her up to her feet, and walked her back to the shade of an umbrella. There, I wrapped her in a towel and sat her on my lap. She stopped her heated monologue about how unfairly she had been treated. We just sat there quietly for a few moments, away from the fray.
This same weekend, the Catholic Church celebrated the second annual World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly. In the Pope’s message, he charged grandparents and elderly people with a great responsibility: to teach the women and men of our time to regard others with the same understanding and loving gaze with which we regard our own grandchildren. He called this a revolution of tenderness.
This is a call to a spiritual and non-violent revolution, but a revolution nevertheless.
Tenderness is equal parts gentleness and kindness - two virtues sorely lacking in our polarized society. In their recent General Assembly, the Paulist Fathers identified this social phenomenon as “Toxic Polarization” which, they write, has led to the current socio-cultural landscape that is marked by:
· Feuding divisions among family members, friends, colleagues, parishes and communities.
·The growth and spread of anxiety, addiction, depression, fear, trauma, suicide, and increasing acts of violence.
·The perpetuation of an illusion that this crisis in intractable.
·A loss of hope.
It is in this milieu that the Pope is turning to the elders of society and asking us to engage the world and its woes with a grandparent’s love. What is it about grandparent love that Pope Francis writes: can cause a profound change, a conversion, that disarms hearts and leads us to see others as our brothers and sisters?
It has something to do with experience. Grandparents have lived the ups and downs of parenthood. We’ve seen relationships develop and change and have the wisdom to know what we would do differently if we had the chance to raise our children all over again. Grandparents are a little bit parent, a little bit teacher and a little bit friend. We enjoy our grandchildren as they are, rather than trying to mold them into what we think they should be. As a result, grandchildren sense that they are truly seen and understood. As one friend puts it: We love them in a way that is like God’s love: unconditional and forgiving.
A grandparent plays the role of “chief encourager.” The socio-cultural landscape, which the Paulist Fathers identified, suffers greatly from a lack of genuine encouragement. The loss of hope and the illusion that what society is currently experiencing is intractable, leads many to despair that things will ever change. Grandparents and Elders have experienced many illusions that appeared at one time to be intractable:
The unassailable Berlin Wall, Big Tobacco’s stranglehold on America’s health, the Sexual Abuse Scandal in the Church, and the Pandemic, to name just a few. Elders understand hope because we have also seen: Germany reunited, smoking demystified and banned in most public areas, sexual abuse exposed and no longer tolerated in multiple quarters of society, and the people of the world coming to an awareness of our interconnectedness.
Perhaps the revolution of tenderness is simply asking Elders to step out of our comfort zones and spend a few moments sitting quietly with someone away from the fray. Perhaps toxic polarization will abate as more and more Elders try a little tenderness.
Let’s befriend someone in the market, at work, on-line, at a gathering, or meet them for coffee, and love them like a grandparent – unconditionally.
We will listen closely and respond tenderly, especially to those whose social, religious, or political opinions differ from our own. With luck, they will feel seen and accepted for who they truly are – not simply for the positions they hold. With luck they will begin to view others as different from the positions they hold. A revolution of tenderness understands that the illusion of intractability is just that…an illusion.
(To learn more about the Paulist Fathers’ 2022 General Assembly Resolutions visit paulist.org)