The Stone, February 13, 2013, Try a Little Tenderness, by Gordon Marino
The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.
The philosophers, the lovers of wisdom, have pondered and written a lot about love, even erotic and romantic love, but they have given a cold shoulder to that offshoot of love tenderness. Indeed, I dont believe I have ever heard a member of the Socrates guild even mention the lovely word in a remotely philosophical context. In Platos account of love in the Symposium, the description of the first tingling visits of eros swings by the door of tenderness but ultimately passes by. Of course, Rousseau gave tenderness a pat but not much more. And I once heard the philosopher Cornel West give kudos to the quality of tenderness on a TV talk show. The young Camus, whose work is taught in philosophy classes but who by no means considered himself to be cut from the same cloth of mind as a Bertrand Russell or Sartre, knew the tincture of this neglected feeling. As a young man, almost sounding like Walt Whitman, Camus cast this powerful and tender constellation of thoughts:
The breeze is cool and the sky blue. I love this life with abandon and wish to speak of it boldly: it makes me proud of my human condition. Yet people have often told me: theres nothing to be proud of. Yes, there is: this sun, this sea, my heart leaping with youth, the salt taste of my body and this vast landscape in which tenderness and glory merge in blue and yellow. (from Nuptials at Tipasa) Conceptually considered, tenderness has always been regarded as a blossom of love. It is in the context of being hit by cupids arrow and smitten that many of us first experience that dizzying, enchanted feeling. Kant insisted that inasmuch as love is a moral duty, it cannot be a feeling because it is not within our power to command emotions. The great Scottish philosopher, David Hume, who taught that sympathy is the taproot of our moral sense and that reason ought to be the slave of the passions, had some kind words for the soft feelings of friendship, but more or less left tenderness out in the hall. Kierkegaard, a high priest of the importance of the emotions and author of that tender but demanding Works of Love, daubed love as a duty, a need and a passion, but in his massive tome there is hardly a nod to that poor stepchild that is tenderness. At the risk of seeming glib, perhaps contemporary masters of abstract argumentation could take a cue from Otis Redding and Try a Little Tenderness. If a primary aim in life is to develop into a caring and connected human being (admittedly, a big if), rather than, say, thinking of oneself as a tourist collecting as many pleasant and fulfilling experiences as possible, then surely a capacity for tenderness must play a role. Of course, that softening of the heart does not guarantee our humanity. After all, Hitler teared up over his pooch and perhaps Genghis Khan did the same over his horses. Still, an otherwise upright person who could walk by a little girl greeting her soldier dad coming home from war without a feeling of heat coming to the cheeks is lacking something. The person who is stopped in their tracks by the sight of a hunched, old woman, bags in hands, waiting in a thick snowfall to be picked up from a shopping trip, might be in a better spiritual place than those of us marching with our heads down, consumed with the pressing problem of how we can get to the gym for some cardio before meeting the wife for dinner at Chez whatever. Most of those who identify themselves as philosophers begin discussions with a search for a definition. But the perturbations of the inner world are not like tables and chairs and can most readily be spoken of and distinguished from one another vaguely and with the use of metaphors. Nevertheless, the images that float to mind around tenderness always involve a softening of the inner self. The ancient Greeks, who understood psychological matters in terms of the elements, believed that too much Spartan tough-guy training literally desiccated the soul, rendering it hard and insensitive. For them, tenderness would have involved a moistening of the psyche and an opening up to the impingement of the outer world. In general, tenderness involves increased sensitivity. When we say that an injury is tender, we mean that it is hyper-sensitive to the touch. And in moments of tenderness it is as though the ego and all its machinations momentarily melt away so that our feelings are heightened and we are perhaps moved by the impulse to reach out with a comforting hand. For raw-edged instance, my wife Susan and I were recently in a bad car crash in the frozen tundra of the Minnesota countryside. Looking down into her fluttering eyes and quivering lips, I held my emotions together as the medical team strapped her to a board to get her to the helicopter that would take her to the trauma center. But then I glanced at one of my twenty-something sons, who had raced to the scene and glimpsed his cheeks working with love and fear for his mother. He was trying to keep his inner world from exploding. And in a tidal sweep of tenderness, all my stoicism and calm reason began to fly with the geese winging overhead. Leo Tolstoy was a man possessed of gargantuan talents and ego, but this Godzilla of the will knew something about the power of tenderness to fling open news vistas of feeling and insight. In his immortal The Death of Ivan Ilych, his protagonist has led a life whose lodestar was status and material success. It was an existence remote from authentic relationships, even from his wife and children. But then in the very midst of his career, the sickness unto death suddenly came a calling. Ilych is hours from the end. Tolstoy writes:
Just then his schoolboy son had crept softly in and gone up to the bedside.The dying man was still screaming desperately and waving his arms. His hand fell on the boys head, and the boy caught it, pressed it to his lips, and began to cry.
At that very moment Ivan Ilych fell through and caught sight of the light, and it was revealed to him that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified. He asked himself, What is the right thing? and grew still, listening. Then he felt someone was kissing his hand. He opened his eyes, looked at his son, and felt sorry for him.
Almost by definition, every culture cultivates certain qualities and feelings. In the United States, we lionize resolve, determination and resiliency. Although we have a strong nostalgic streak, we are a hard people who no less than the ancient Romans entertain ourselves with a steady diet of throat slitting and torture images that can only work to pound the tenderness out of us. Of course our TV tough guys always shroud their violence in some mollifying narratives that render their acts of slaughter righteous and emotionally satisfying. But for the most part in our culture, we leave the feeling of tenderness in a small pot in the mudroom. To feel tenderly is to feel vulnerable and vulnerability is not a favorite American dish. When it comes to the humanizing sentiments, we Americans place placards in public schools and in general harp on the significance of respect. While I have all the respect in the world for respect, it is a chilly sort of feeling if it is a feeling at all. Respect is a fence that prevents us from harming one another. But strengthening the ties that bind and make us human requires something more pliant, more intimate. We need to be visited by that weird and neglected angel that is the feeling of tenderness.
Gordon Marino is a professor of philosophy and the director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. He is the editor of Ethics: The Essential Writings and the forthcoming The Quotable Kierkegaard.