Editors note: You only need to hit ‘reply’ to this email if you wish to tell me how I’m wrong.
“Tenderness is the ability to feel with and for the whole person, to feel even the most deeply hidden spiritual tremors, and always to have in mind the true good of that person.” — Karol Wojtyla
As the future-Pope (John Paul II) understands it, tenderness is a form of sentiment or affection which arises within the virtue of chastity. Tenderness indicates our aliveness to the other person as a person, as their own center of thoughts and willingness and emotions. But it is more than that: while it is disinterested, it also takes another’s emotions and thoughts into one’s own inner life, and communicates as much. It is a form of compassion, in that way, but one which reflects the shared, sympathetic feelings outwardly through signs of affection and love.
Yet despite this inclination to share another’s emotions, tenderness is still disinterested. In this, tenderness is distinct from sensual or sexual forms of love, which fold the other’s well-being and personhood into one’s own. The “concern for the other and their inner-situation” that tenderness reveals need not entail that one’s own self is the remedy for what the other needs, as a sexual or erotic interest presumes. There is no expectation of reciprocity, in other words.
Yet because tenderness is so closely aligned with an interest in the other person as a whole, and desires to demonstrate itself corporeally, it is exceedingly close in its character to sensuality or sexuality. As such, tenderness can only arise properly when it is governed by continence, by a “perfected self-control” which ensures that sexuality remain within its appropriate spot. Even within a marriage, tenderness often becomes aligned with the hopes of reciprocal desires and sexuality. Manipulators and seducers will display tenderness in hopes of attaining such broader ends; husbands, alas, sometimes do so as well. I should say that again: chastity preserves tenderness, rather than extinguishing it. It allows disinterested affection toward another person (regardless of their sex) to arise and flourish, to animate care and concern for another’s interiority and personhood to extend into one’s own.
Yet chastity preserves tenderness not simply by demarcating its boundaries, but by determining its substance and its form. Only when affections and sentiment are possessed by modesty, self-control, and temperance may tenderness be allowed to flourish freely and openly. The form that takes is different within and outside marriage, of course. Within marriage, chastity might require the deferral or delay of erotic activities so that there is no conflation of them with tenderness, and no hint that the latter was simply a means or instrument of attaining the former. Beyond marriage, the prohibitions upon sexual activity or desires become boundaries which allow displays of tenderness without reducing such interactions to those which are inherently governed by sexual desire.
This is a rich portrait of the possibilities of affection within human relationships, a much richer depiction than we are often given these days. One of the difficulties of a world in which sensuality is rampant is that nearly every form of relationship is reduced to it; as such, we forget to see how fraternal or paternal forms of affection and love might inform a much wider variety of relationships than we think. The education in ‘tenderness’ we need is partially an education in learning to see individuals as whole persons, without reducing their lives to ‘mine’—as sexual desire and appetite inherently does. Our failure to do so leads to a flatter, less colourful world.
None of that is an excuse for imprudence, of course. One main problem is that our lives are fragmented in such a way that genuine tenderness for other people would often require such displays happening in a context without one’s spouse present. (‘Work siblings’ is a concept that no one should ever indulge in, for instance.) Additionally, few of us live within a context where chastity is widespread, where tenderness can be experienced and disclosed without it creating confusion. The sexualization of a society touches everything; protests to the contrary are nothing in its face, and if anything, are often indicators of self-deception. For many of us, actual sibling relationships or parental relationships are the last opportunity we will have to cultivate tenderness for a member of the other sex outside of marriage. (What role declining birth rates might have on our formation in this regard I tremble to consider.)
To those problems I would add this: without chastity, tenderness is soon destroyed as well. The instrumentalization of other people that sexual sin requires destroys real sympathy, the ability to perceive another person as a whole. The effect of such a lack of chastity is harshness; it hardens one to every human person, not simply the individual who was instrumentalized.
None of this answers how we might be formed into chastity, either as a people or as individuals. But it does attempt to provide a glimpse of a form of love we might be missing, and why.