Practicing Parents

The Strength in Softness

~by Jill Clingan

to be soft

photo by Amélie Clingan

This morning I was sitting on the couch praying the morning office from Phyllis Tickle’s Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime when my son Jack walked out of his room in tears. I thought maybe he had woken up from a bad dream. We had watched an episode of Stranger Things before bed, and while we both love the show, sometimes I worry it’s a bit too intense and scary for him. I put the book aside and held out my arms to him as he climbed into my lap.

“What’s wrong?” I asked him. “Did you have a bad dream?”
“No,” he answered. “I just don’t want to leave.”

“I know, buddy.” I said. “I don’t want to leave either.”

We have spent the last three nights at a resort in Hollister, Missouri. Some incredibly dear and gracious friends both gifted us the use of their timeshare condo AND offered to chicken/duck/dog/cat/house-sit for us. That was an offer we couldn’t refuse! We have spent the last couple of days walking along the lake and playing miniature golf and laser tag and bowling and swimming and even playing late-night tennis and volleyball in a deserted air-inflated dome. Also, since we live in the country and our internet is sketchy (and expensive), we have invested some quality time watching Netflix like normal Americans.

But this morning we have to go, and we are sad. As Jack continued to sit in my lap, we talked about what we have enjoyed about our time away, and he noted that he was going to miss his bed. Jack has slept on this horrid blue futon for over four years now. It’s lumpy, and you have to curl yourself up just right so that your hip bones are not pressing into hard, punishing metal. We have asked him multiple times if he wants a new bed, and each time he has said no. However, three nights stretched out in a big, soft, comfy bed finally changed his mind.

I asked him (hypothetically of course) if we should try to carry out the mattress and bring it home on top of our car. He said we might have a problem getting it out the door. Then he paused, and I went on to think random thoughts while, apparently, Jack was considering other strategies to get this mattress out to our car. A couple of minutes later he said he thought it would be better if we dropped the mattress out our third-floor balcony. I agreed that yes, that would probably be a better idea. And then he said this:

“You know, it’s interesting how you would think that a mattress is weak because it’s soft, but it’s actually stronger than something hard we might throw out the window.”


On a literal level, of course, he was right. If we decided we wanted to take the dining room table home with us and dropped it onto the sidewalk below, it would, indeed, splinter into a hundred unusable pieces. But if we had, in fact, decided to toss the mattress out the window to take it home, it would have survived the three-floor descent just fine. Because it is soft.

That idea of softness as strength is counterintuitive to our usual ideas about strength, isn’t it? When I think of strength I picture rock-hard muscles, steely resolve, impenetrable boulders. But there is a soft side to strength, too.

My daughter Amélie introduced me to the poetry of Rupi Kaur, and in her poetry collection Milk and Honey, she writes this:

to be
to be

What does it mean to find strength and power in softness? I think one way to find strength and power in softness is to practice empathy. I believe that the soft threads of empathy can weave strength into the fabric of a nation, a family, an individual. However, I feel like we currently live in a climate that lacks empathy. My ears (and Facebook feed) are continually inundated with dogmas and dictums and debates instead of compassion and empathy and understanding. Yet when I look to Jesus for direction, I see that he embodied empathy. Literally. He became a man so that he could walk in our shoes and feel our hurt and hunger and joy and grief. We see him, over and over, sensing hunger and then feeding, sensing pain and then healing, sensing death and then resurrecting.

I believe he calls us to find strength in the softness of empathy, too. He even commands us to have empathy. He tells us to “love our neighbors and ourselves” and to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”

When we sense hunger, we should offer food.
When we sense pain, we should offer healing.
When we sense death, we should offer resurrection.

It’s not easy to do. There are some shoes that, quite frankly, I would rather not walk in. But if we trade the hardness of indifference for the softness of empathy, there’s a strength there that can withstand some bending without breaking. There’s a power there that can, quite literally, heal our world.

I want my kids to learn empathy from me as they see empathy in me. I want them to see me feeding and healing and resurrecting, even when it’s uncomfortable or messy or inconvenient.

I want them to learn that

to be
to be

May we find strength in softness.




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