Some virtues are prized by pretty well all societies and cultures. Courage, for example. Perseverance. Gentleness – not so much. In fact, it is prone to being considered a weakness. Even in cultures that do place a value on gentleness, it’s often only valued in certain people – women and girls, for the most part. With guys, the word “gentle” is generally only used when followed by the word “giant” – it seems that it’s ok to be gentle only as long as you’re huge enough that everyone knows it’s a choice.

Jumbo and Matthew ScottThis is wrong on two levels. First, the idea that it’s good to not be gentle. This suggests that it is good to be the opposite of gentle: aggressive, harsh and demanding; strident. I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of a single person I like, admire or respect who demonstrates those qualities. The second mistake is to think that gentleness is the same thing as weakness – the puny of this world making a virtue of necessity.

Gentleness and its twin, meekness, though often mistaken for weakness, can only exist in the presence of strength, whether strength of muscles, mind, heart, voice or anything else. Meekness is strength not wielded. The weak cannot be gentle, only feeble. Those who don’t possess any strength don’t need to be gentle, because they can’t do any damage if they try. It is the strong who must be gentle with the weak, not vice versa.

Of course, there is more than one kind of strength. A person whose body is weak, but whose tongue is a weapon of mass destruction is not gentle, regardless of how feeble they present themselves as being. A coward is not truly gentle, because they don’t have the guts to be anything else: there is no strength which they are holding in check.

Kober Anna Jagiellon as a widow (detail) 01
Gentleness is not weakness. It is a form of strength. “€œOh! that gentleness! how far more potent is it than force!” wrote Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre. Of course, like so many virtues, it can be misused – the above quote comes from the passage where (spoilers!) St. John Rivers is attempting to persuade (one might almost say blackmail) Jane into marrying him – not because he loves her, but because he thinks she’ll be useful. (It was this that earned him a spot on the list of People I’d Like to Smack Upside the Head.)

But Jane is both gentle and indomitable – the two are not mutually exclusive, but complementary. Like Fanny Price, Jane would face down an army if she had to. Gentleness is not weakness. It may not push its agenda with force, but that doesn’t mean it will give way, either. Gentleness can charmingly, politely, say no – and keep saying it. “Now for the hitch in Jane’s character,” Rochester says when she won’t give way to him. “Now for vexation, and exasperation, and endless trouble!” She is gentle, but inexorable, and she carries her point. As he himself points out, he could kill her – he has the strength for it – but he can’t make her do what he wants. And fortunately for her, his love for her makes him keep his strength in check: it gentles him.

P422bGentleness doesn’t always get you what you want, though – if it did, it would just be a means of manipulating others. A gentle answer proverbially deflects anger, “but in desperate hours gentleness may be repaid with death,” Denethor warns his unloved second son. ‘”So be it,” said Faramir.’

That is the essence of gentleness: doing what you believe to be right with every courtesy and consideration towards others. Gentleness is a difficult opponent to beat, because it won’t fight. It is true that gentleness can be repaid with violence, or even death, but the antagonist will always be seen to be in the wrong. And the gentle will not yield.


12 Replies to “Gentleness”

  1. Interesting! I can honestly say I have never pondered the pros and cons of gentleness. I agree with you now that it is most definitely a virtue. But yes, if someone called me “gentle,” I’d probably take it as a code word for effeminate or passive. Fascinating how so many words are loaded with meaning. I find your gentle writing very persuasive!

  2. “unloved second son.” I was with you until this. Sorry, but the Tolkien-fanatic in me cannot let this slide. Denethor loves Faramir deeply, so much so that his “death” throws him off the edge of despair into madness (one of my biggest kicks against Jackson’s LotR (which I love, for the most part) is his misrepresentation of poor Denethor). Denethor favored Boromir because he thought that Boromir had the strength to turn the tide against their enemy, a strength that he didn’t think Faramir had. With Boromir, the last of Denethor’s hope died, and he took his despair out on everyone, including his younger son. But that is not the same as not loving him. 😉
    Ok, Tolkien-rant over.

    Other than that, this is a powerful and moving post. My mother has a reputation for being blunt, and for being a bull-dog, but she’s also dearly loved because she speaks out of love and doesn’t aim to wound. I wonder if you would consider her gentle. I think that I would call her gentle, but I have a hard time calling her (or myself,) meek.

    1. Yeah, I wasn’t too certain about the unloved bit, given the whole death-insanity thing, but constantly running someone down, deriding them, and telling them they’re not good enough does not look like love to me. What good is love if you don’t ever express it to the loved one?
      I would say your mother is gentle – blunt isn’t the same as harsh, I don’t think – but meekness is a difficult one, mostly because we have the mental equation of “meek” with “mouse.” I don’t think it’s an accurate equation, but it’s hard to break. Maybe the meaning of the word has changed with time, but then it’s important to remember that older texts may not mean the same thing by it that we do.

      1. Well, I’d say that loving, and acting on it in a functional way are two different things. Especially considering how broken humanity is. Denethor is nothing if not dysfunctional in his relationship with his sons.

        I’m usually pretty good with archaic meanings, but that one escapes me. I guess because I don’t have any historical context to pin it on. I don’t know what, exactly, our ancestors meant when they described someone as meek.

        1. This begs the question of whether love has to be felt/experienced by the love-er or the love-ee to count as love, but let us not quibble over words. Perhaps I should have said Denethor’s non-favourite son.

          1. Unfortunate the English language is severely limited in terms of words for different kinds (or quality) of love. I also suspect that Faramir did experience his father’s love at least sometimes when he was younger, though that’s just speculation of course.

            He is certainly that. Poor Faramir. And poor Boromir! I can only imagine the pressure involved in being Denethor’s favorite/hope.

          2. Favouritism: rough on everybody. And you are so right about the limitations of English in that respect. How can a language with so many words be so vague?

          3. Another shortcoming of the English language: the word maneuverable. Manoeuverable? Manoevrable? Manoeuvrable? I feel we seceded from Norman French long enough ago that we should have come up with a better way to spell that one by now.

          4. Lol! English is an insane language. And that it probably why I love it so darn much.

            there’s a meme I ran across once that made my day. It went something like “English doesn’t borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them down, and goes through their pockets looking for loose grammar.” XD

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