Belief, Restoration & Reconciliation, Spiritual Formation

Living with purpose: Caring for the tender-hearted

I’m reflecting this week on my own process of living with purpose.  In my first post, I wrote about speaking for the unheard.  In this post, I’ll explore how caring for the tenderhearted emerged as another life purpose for me.  I’ve loved how this is remarkably transferrable between contexts, for I’ve learned that nearly everyone is tender-hearted, or vulnerable, in some way or another.

When I was younger, I thought caring for the tenderhearted looked ‘edgy’, and impressed everyone around you.  As I matured, I began to see that often caring for the tenderhearted was the bland story rather than the exciting one.

A young mother, I found myself caring for the tenderhearted, stumbling to form a new identity as a mother and care for precious new life, screaming toddlers, and curious preschoolers.

As an urban middle school teacher, I cared for the tenderhearted by working with adolescents navigating the reality of both their hormones and the harshness of the streets they called home.

Caring for the tenderhearted meant sitting with my mentally failing grandfather, helping him plant a seed in a flower pot and decorating it with stickers that spelled the name he no longer knew.  It meant sharing tears with my grandmother when he couldn’t remember our names either.

When I taught at the university, I often walked alongside students attempting to fit the pieces of their life together for the first time.  Their questions echoed the tenderness of their hearts, “Why is my family broken?  How do I heal from my loss?  Where is my faith?  How do I make sense of the world on my own?”

My current work with immigrant language learners gives me frequent opportunities to care for the tenderhearted.  Learning a new language is especially humbling for adults who have once been competent communicators.  Simple actions like encouraging mistakes, listening carefully, or speaking slowly expand and challenge my understanding of how to care for people in vulnerable situations.

On some days, I find myself the tenderhearted one.  At times, I have found myself bruised from years of racial and cultural isolation, struggling to find understand my purpose in a new context, or lost in a sea of sleeplessness and diapers.  In these moments, I’m grateful that my purpose includes caring for myself with a deep breath, a cup of tea, a good book, a wise counselor or a long chat with an old friend.

In conversations big and small, regardless of personalities or politics or personal histories, everyone has a tenderness somewhere deep down.  Small town life helped me see understand this idea in a way that the city cannot.  We were all smooshed flat on microscope slides; so you could barely have diarrhea without someone overhearing it at the pharmacy.  Because my path repeatedly crossed the same stories, I was often forced to remember that people are multi-dimensional.  The guy who yells more than he listens at work could very well be far kinder to the gas station attendant than I have ever been.  The teddy-bear sweater wearing women that I assume I couldn’t possibly have anything in common with has a gift for hospitality that I would do well to learn from.  The neighbor who won’t ever look me in the eye has a backstory I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

Living to care for the tender-hearted reminds me of God’s unconditional love for us.  It humbles me – one whose weakest spiritual gift is service – to step out of myself and toward others whether or not they can offer me anything at all.

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