I wanted this year to be a year about “softness”, I wrote six months ago. It was the beginning of a new year, I wanted a good word, I was inspired by Mary Oliver and had just spent weeks cutting out the letters to her poem and sticking them to my wall (a project I am quite proud of, if I might add).
I liked that word, softness. I liked thinking about living in such a way that isn’t about “fractions and facts” as Oliver says. The poem alludes to a kind of softness that is gentle – that is learned through loving and discovering.
Lest we would sift it down
Into fractions, and facts –
And what the soul is, also
I believe I will never quite know.
Though I play at the edges of knowing,
Truly I know
Our part is not knowing,
But looking, and touching, and loving,
Which is the way I walked on, softly,
Through the pale-pink morning light
Six months later, and I do still want to “walk on” like this.
I want the discovery, the learning through loving, the people and places that process brings you.
What I wasn’t thinking about in that moment, was that softness hurts. Oliver knows this — I think she writes poetry because of it. Her words bring softness into a world that is sharp with its daggers. I have no doubt she knows the depth of pain those daggers cause.
As I think about softness, I think how much easier it would be to match the thorns with something equally sharp, to counter cynicism with sarcasm, to receive the punch while planning your method of attack. It would be easier to reply all to the rude email with your own bitter comment, to throw someone else under the bus when they have just degraded you publicly.
It would be easier not to be soft.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the years since college dreaming about bravery. I’ve written a lot about it, talked my friends’ ears off about the women (and men) who inspire me to be about it, and dreamed of being the heroine of the story who isn’t phased by anything thrown her way.
But real bravery has so much to do with softness, doesn’t it? Real bravery isn’t always full of exhilarated movement, combating one obstacle after the other. Sometimes it’s sitting, picking up the pieces after you’ve gotten kicked or bruised, or holding someone else who’s already on the ground.
That process of picking up the pieces? That’s hard work.
Bryan Stevenson refers to this in his book Just Mercy as the “stone catchers”. He meets a woman outside a courtroom who decided that the people inside the courtroom needed a person of peace amidst all of the stones that were cast during intense trials. So she sits there and comforts the grieving. She simply shows up to a war zone, and sits there.
Bravery is in the softness. It’s in the kindness, the whispered words of encouragement that speak above the chaos, the hope amidst doubt and fear. It’s in the perseverance, when you don’t have many reasons to keep trying – but you still show up.
I believe this softness is pretty bad ass. Softness has so much to do with bravery and vulnerability and a willingness to keep after hope and love, even when there are a million reasons to throw rocks and cynicism and fear and doubt right back to the people who are throwing it at you.
I’ll keep looking at that poem on my wall, and keep wondering aloud how to be softer, how to be brave when the rocks are thrown, and how to softly catch them.