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Quotations I love: Try softer

Lynne Baab • Wednesday May 12 2021

Quotations I love: Try softer

“If trying harder doesn't work, try softer.”
—Lily Tomlin

“Trying softer isn't about knowing or doing the right thing; it's about being gentle with ourselves in the face of pain that is keeping us stuck. Because no matter how hard we try, we can't hate or shame ourselves into change. Only love can move us toward true growth. This is the love given to us by a gentle, kind, compassionate, good God — and  the love we are invited to give ourselves too.”
—Aundi Kolber, Try Softer

Our son Mike, a journalist, has done quite a bit of research and writing on the impact of stigma in obesity and in the gay community. The research he has explored indicates that feeling criticized and ostracized raises cortisol and other stress markers, which ultimately damage the body in numerous ways. In the case of obesity, in an ironic twist, stress hormones actually make gaining weight physiologically easier, quite apart from the stress eating that so many of us indulge in when we feel tense or anxious.

The tension we experience can come from outside ourselves, perhaps when people tell us to try harder in the face of whatever obstacle we are dealing with. For many of us, however, the greatest source of stress comes from within, from all the negative messages we tell ourselves about how we should have done things differently or how we could have had more self-discipline, perseverance, or strength of character. We tell ourselves we should be trying harder.

Aundi Kolber’s words — “we can't hate or shame ourselves into change” — took me decades to learn, but I am trying to lean into that reality now. Without using the language of “trying softer,” I have been trying for several years to draw on God’s love rather than self-criticism as a foundation for growth. In a Sojourners interview, Kolber recommends helpful books in learning to try softer, and her book list made me think about three ideas I’d been pondering long before I heard about her book.

Self-compassion. The word “compassion” is used 15 times in the New Testament, attributed several times to Jesus, and commanded for Jesus’ followers in several places. Dave and I chose Colossians 3:12-17 for our wedding scripture 45 years ago this week, and I still find the Apostle Paul’s words compelling. The paragraph begins: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12). If we are to clothe ourselves with compassion and kindness, wouldn’t that extend to the way we view our own weaknesses, struggles and pain?

We have believed for too long that the way to strive for excellence and faithfulness is to criticize ourselves – while showing compassion to others. The inconsistency in that stance is impossible to maintain, and when we criticize ourselves a lot, we too easily slip into criticizing others.  

Vulnerability. I’m so grateful that Brene Brown has brought vulnerability into view as a key component of supportive relationships. (She has a popular Ted Talk and a book, plus spinoff books.) Christians affirm that relationships matter in so many ways, and vulnerability is a key component of honest, supportive relationships. If we can view our own struggles, sorrows, and losses with some degree of self-compassion, we will be more likely to reveal the truth about our journey – or portions of it – to others, which builds intimacy.

Living as God’s Beloved. Whenever I teach about spiritual practices, I always talk about God’s voice calling us “beloved” as the foundation of God’s invitation to draw near. I use a quotation from Henri Nouwen’s powerful book, The Life of the Beloved, where he says that when we hear that voice from God calling us beloved, we want to hear it more, because hearing that voice is like finding a well in the desert. Prayer, Bible study, and other spiritual practices have too often been presented to Christians as “shoulds,” perhaps even ways to earn God’s approval. Instead, they are ways to draw near to the God who already loves us and who wants to help us find living water.

If we live as God’s beloved, we will be so much less likely to engage in self-criticism. We are much more likely to “try softer.” We will extend compassion to ourselves as we extend it to others. We will be vulnerable with others about weaknesses and pain as well as about successes and strengths. As Kolber writes, “Only love can move us toward true growth. This is the love given to us by a gentle, kind, compassionate, good God — and  the love we are invited to give ourselves too.”

(Next week: a primary task when listening. Illustration by Dave Baab: balloon man at the Pike Place Market, Seattle, pre-pandemic. I love getting new subscribers. Sign up below to receive an email when I post on this blog.)

Previous posts related to this one:

Our son Mike writes as Michael Hobbes. He wrote long, well-researched articles about stigma and obesity and the stigma experienced by gay men. On his podcast with Sarah Marshall, "You're Wrong About," they have an episode about stigma and obesity.

[1] Aundi Kolber, Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move us out of Anxiety, Stress and Survival Mode – and into a Life of Connection and Joy, Tyndale Momentum, 2020, 194.

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