Try a Little Tenderness

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Love of Neighbor

If you’ve found yourself struggling with others lately, you’re not alone. This many months into a global pandemic, in the midst of enormous social division, and with all that comes along with a ride on this crazy coronacoaster, that gospel call to love our neighbor may not come easy.

Many of our kiddos recently returned for their first day of school—in some form or another. With my own return to teaching on a university campus looming, I spent a morning deep in prayer. I asked the Lord for an increase in tenderness among all people. Here in the midst of all the divisiveness as schools attempt to navigate a highly dynamic, highly unusual start. Knowing that none of us has exactly the right answer, we could all use a little tenderness.

In my prayer that morning I heard God set a word into my heart: Tenderness. I want you to show tenderness through my tenderness toward you. Let me tenderize you. How can we possibly hope to be tender towards one another if we have not first received the tender love of God ourselves?! Our ego, our pride, our vanities and group identities, our divisive beliefs and our shame… all are deeply human characteristics reflected in our social discourse today. When we hold tight to our way of being, without mindfully and intentionally opening ourselves up to the grace and tenderness of God, we aren’t nearly as tender as we think we are.

As I Have Loved You

Our society bears so much division we are choking on it. Black men being choked until they cannot breathe, a virus choking the lungs of the sick, and face masks that have few of us breathing easy. Here we are as a nation of brothers and sisters fighting over who is right and who is wrong.

Today I hope to shed some light onto how we can use current practical neuroscience to support our prayer lives. Can you turn that ick toward another into good will? Can you show tenderness to the other despite their gristly side (and yours)? Why yes, yes you can! With God, all things are possible.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

You may be thinking, “Heidi, you just don’t understand. You are so naive. You do not know the pain and hurt they have caused me. You do not understand how wrong they were… are… ” And I tenderly accept that this very well might be true. But will you humor me and hear me out anyway?

Not By Our Own Power

I cannot make myself tender. You cannot make yourself tender. Our ability to become tender is proportional to how much we have opened ourselves up to be “tenderized”. Sure if we were perfectly living in a perfect environment we could be perfectly tender…but none of us have experienced perfection. v

“We do not have to become saints by our own power; we have to learn how to let God make us into saints” Jacques Philippe (“In the School of the Holy Spirit”).

Being tender with another, showing them kindness, and forgiving their trespasses can be easy concepts when we have not been unduly harmed, or when they apologize quickly. That capacity is naturally highly limited, however, when this is not the case. You know in your head that harboring ill will toward others is a sin, yet in your heart you still feel justified, and you find a way to rationalize the ick toward them. And so over time, we become gristly, our emotional and mental elastin thickens and stiffens if you will, and so we must be spiritually ‘tenderized.’ Just like a hunk of meat cannot tenderize itself, neither can you.

Getting Out of the Loop

If you recall from my previous writing, our thoughts impact our feelings, our feelings impact our actions, our actions impact our thoughts. Our feelings alter our thoughts, our thoughts compel our actions and so forth. And these inner loops can, at any given moment, only exist in either a negative (ick, ill will, gristle) or a positive state (grace, good will, tenderness). We often intend to be one way, and yet often find ourselves doing the opposite. But we can CHOOSE to learn to recognize the loop and ask for help.

Our most powerful way to become tender is through the grace of God. We are much too muddled and biased and egoistic to even really know where we need that tenderness. And while He can break down any amount of our gristle He asks us to choose it, to consent to be tenderized.

The following are a few practical ways to make inner changes to the way our body responds during times of stress:

  • Cultivate the Positive: We can truly, daily, deeply seek to cultivate positive emotions and experience. We do this through focusing on joy, gratitude, and peacefulness, which settles the body down. The physical body has an autonomic nervous system that is functioning constantly outside your conscious awareness. This system throws out hormones, neurotransmitters that impact our glands, muscles, organs, blood vessels and so forth. While in the stress response you are necessarily much less tender and the gristle starts to take over. However, your inner nature is tenderness. It is love, joy, and peace. But disagreements and discord cover up your very nature. How can two people who once loved each other so much come to extreme dislike? Because of this internal gristle that is formed when we are hurt and we did not open ourselves up to being tenderized is. We have a built in nervous system that disconnects us quickly from our inner nature, from resting and digesting.


  • Smile: When we smile, truly smile, this helps to settle down our body…so can you find ways to smile more throughout your day? Even if just to yourself and for no other than reason that smiling is exercise for your face? Unless we practice tenderness in times of unease, division, difficulty, and stress, we will continue to do what we have always done. We will see through our very limited eyes, judge the other harshly, not forgive their transgression, and fail to allow love to tenderize us. St.Teresa of Calcutta said “Let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.


  • Notice Your State: Are you in a state of fight or flight (avoidance) or in a state of peaceful rest and digest? If you have lost your breath control, I can tenderly say you are venturing toward fight (arguing, being gristly) or flight (plumb avoiding it altogether). Tension begins to build on our face, in our voice, in our body, in our hands. We are hardening and moving away from softening. Most of us live very loud, very busy, very full, traffic-filled, activity-packed lives. (Indeed one of the hidden blessings of this global pandemic is the forced slow down.) This means we are primed toward tension and ill will toward others because any amount of stress/worry/fear/pain moves us to justify and rationalize our perspective and our feelings. There is a biological reason why being hungry can make us more susceptible to anger (being ‘hangry’).


  • Soften: If you capture the growing tension you can choose to take immediate steps to settle your physical body – remember the pause, soften, breather, pray, surrender practice? This is where the softening comes in. If we have not softened our face, voice, body, hands…we cannot show tenderness. Eat something nutritious, take a warm shower, lay for 10 minutes in ‘legs up the wall’ position, soften and then open up your body posture (ever noticed statues of Mary most often have her arms in an open turned out position and not crossed tightly across her chest?), open a devotional, seek God and say “thank you for being with me as I struggle with my gristle, please tenderize me some more.”

“Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.” 1 Peter 3:8-9

Today with Your grace, dear God, may I have tenderness in my thoughts, tenderness in my words, and tenderness in my heart as my hands and feet come across others. I am nothing and yet I am so beloved. I want to be tender where I am most often gristly and so I ask for You to tenderize my mind and heart. Amen

For our purpose is love, our mission is peace, and together in tenderness is our way.

Copyright 2020 Heidi Lepper Barrett

Heidi Lepper Barrett

Heidi Lepper Barrett is a native born Californian (Santa Barbara to be exact!) who made her way to Iowa after earning a Ph.D. in Social/Personality Psychology from the University of California in 1996. After completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Iowa, Heidi began teaching at Drake University in 2000. That was also the year, at age 30, she was baptized Catholic alongside her first newly born son. Heidi is married to Joe and they have two sons.