1. Showing gentleness and concern or sympathy
2. (of food) easy to cut or chew, not tough
(of the body) sensitive to pain
1. gentleness and kindness
2. sensitivity to pain
A quick Google search tells me that the word tender, in all of its various forms, has fallen out of use steadily and dramatically since the 1800's. Maybe that’s why, early in my tenure at Physical Therapy, I noticed it as it drifted gently across the far side of the large, open room. I lay on my own table alone, staring at the ceiling and exercising my abs, when my ears caught wind of the word floating softly like a butterfly on a summer breeze.
I listened as a young therapist asked, in a gentle, rolling central Pennsylvanian accent, “Is that tender?” Although I couldn't see the other patient, I imagined the therapist gently moving his or her arm through a slow stretch, palpitating the muscle with deep attention and focus.
The beauty of the word moved me as did the concern and care evident in the therapist's voice. The fluttering word landed inside my chest, opening and closing its gentle wings and I gazed upon its intricate beauty as I continued my own careful stretching, flexing and bending.
Later that night I told my husband, “I heard the word ‘tender’ today. It’s not something you hear very often, is it? I was so struck by its beauty.”
Noodling around online, observing the forms and uses of the word, I notice the breadth of its application. Tenderness might describe a concrete physical reality, like a perfectly cooked pork loin or bruised muscle, but it also refers to an inward stance, a posture of the heart, if you will.
For me, moments of tenderness, feel like a softening, a movement of openness toward the other that, inherently, leaves me vulnerable to pain – either the awareness of another's pain or the personal pain I might face if someone responds to my openness with attack. It is often our most tender places that root us most deeply in the reality of our human vulnerabilities and, in that way, my own tenderness points beyond itself to yours, to the truth of our shared humanity.
I don’t know if the decline of the use of the word signifies a hardening of the heart among English language speakers, but I do find it interesting that the phrase’s demise parallels the advent of industrialization and the movement from tactile and interdependent agrarian life to more isolated and automated ways of life. The less I depend on the natural world and my neighbor for my own well-being, the less I need to worry about your places of tenderness, the less I need to risk telling you about mine, in order to ensure survival.
Of course, we lose something when we lose awareness of our tender places - in the physical realm we might compensate with a limping gait or inactivity. In ignoring the tender places, we shut ourselves off from the possibility of their healing and become less tolerant of the tenderness of others. Our current culture, here in the United States, is one in which it is often unsafe to either reveal or respond in tenderness. In such an environment we lose not only connection and companionship, but also a fundamental truth about who we are and how we were created to live in relationship others and with the natural world in which we live.
I’d wager too, that when we lose the ability to be treat one another with tenderness, we also lose the ability to recognize tenderness as a key attribute of God. Even without checking a concordance or delving into Greek and Hebrew word studies, I’m prone to accept Brennen Manning’s affirmation that “Scripture suggests that the essence of divine nature is compassion and that the heart of God is defined by tenderness.”
Signs of this – the tenderheartedness of God – are all over scripture. The willingness of God to be moved on our behalf, even at the risk of pain, is evident in the thread of love that weaves its way throughout the entirety of the Old Testament all the way through to that fundamental verse of the New Testament that declares, “God so loved the world that he sent . . .”
Maybe this is a bit much to be making of a word that drifted into the focus of my attention one afternoon. But maybe it's also possible that simple words and postures like tenderness and kindness hold the key to our future as a human race. And if that's the case, then I'd like to suggest that we might start a return to tenderness by simply paying attention to the tender places that reveal themselves right in the middle of our daily lives.
The next time you feel the impulse to lash out at your spouse or that faceless troll online, it might be worth it to pause a moment or two to palpitate around in the depths of your being. Gently ask yourself, "Is that tender?" Or maybe, simply begin by paying attention to the way the people around you limp - emotionally, spiritually, physically - and spend some time daydreaming about what it would take to create a space where tenderness births an environment where real healing and recovery can begin.