Ours is an era marked by aggressiveness, combativeness, and crudeness.
Do you feel the pressure that comes from it? The pressure to respond in kind. The pressure to fight fire with fire.
Do you feel like the idea of gentleness sounds weak, timid, and powerless?
Don’t be fooled. Gentleness is not weakness. Gentleness is wisely controlled strength.
Aristotle hints at this, when he says that gentleness is the golden mean between anger and indifference. “Now we praise a man who feels anger on the right grounds and against the right persons, and also in the right manner and at the right moment and for the right length of time.” (Nicomachean Ethics, Loeb Classics Edition, pg 231. Emphasis mine)
The problem here is that Aristotle limits his discussion to anger. Anger is only one kind of strength, and that is not even the most useful. We can also draw strength from inner sources such as conviction, idealism, vision, excitement, passion, etc. Even when we draw our strength from these places, we need to learn how to wisely use strength.
Cal Newport gives us a picture of what this looks like in his book Deep Work. He tells the story of blacksmith Ric Furrer, who was featured on a Nova Documentary called “Secrets of the Viking Sword.”
Furrer starts his work with an ingot of steel roughly about the size of a really thick paperback book. And he has to shape this into a long blade. He heats the ingot, then hits it with a mighty blow of the hammer, turns it, and delivers another blow. Then he returns the ingot to the flames. This will take about 8 hours of work for him to shape it into the rough shape he needs.
“As you watch Furrer work, however, the sense of the labor shifts. It becomes clear that he’s not drearily whacking at the metal like a miner with a pickaxe. Every hit, though forceful, is carefully controlled. He peers intently at the metal … turning it just so for each impact. ‘You have to be very gentle with it or you will crack it,’ he explains. After a few more hammer strikes, he adds: ‘You have to nudge it; slowly it breaks down; then you start to enjoy it.’” (Cal Newport, Deep Work, pg 73)
Fix that picture in your mind. Picture the forge doors opening out onto a Wisconsin countryside. The heat of the forge being tempered by a spring breeze. The smell of the fire and the sweat of the smith. Hear the crash of the hammer on the ingot; see the sparks fly. And then hear him say “you have to be very gentle with it…”
If you have that picture fixed in your minds, then you get the gist of gentleness.
Gentleness, contrary to popular opinion is not weakness.
Gentleness is wisely controlled strength.
Gentleness is strength trained through years of experience, controlled by an attentive mind, and guided by a vision of the result.
Gentleness is an art that produces far better results than raw aggression, pugilistic confrontation, or cutting crudeness
How do we develop gentleness?
1) Pray for it. Gentleness is, after all, a fruit of the Spirit that Christ will grow in us
2) Spend time in reflection on your actions. Learn from your results. Reflect at the end of the day on two or three actions you too and how you could have been more skillful with them.
3) Be clear about your intentions. If you go into a situation knowing what you want to achieve, you’ll already be ahead of the curve in being skillful.
4) Begin a deep study of wisdom literature. The Book of Proverbs is an ancient curriculum for developing wisdom. Ecclesiastes and Job are advanced studies in wisdom properly applied. In a future post, I’ll give some more detailed tips on how to start a study of Proverbs and mine riches of wisdom from it.
Soli Deo Gloria