A Tenderness Toward Existence

J U N E   2 0 1 9

Like you, I too have stood by a window and stared out at nothing in particular and sensed the presence of my long life there with me, and felt a tenderness toward existence I couldn’t describe, a tenderness toward my own existence and yours, a tenderness toward all that has happened in my life. It seems to be a sense that arises of its own accord, a simple revelation of what matters.

Like you, I too have held a baby wrapped in a soft blue blanket, her little hands waving in the air, and wondered, like you must have, at how her fingers were formed, the little hinges in them and the miniature fingernails, her hands reaching up, clutching the air. Somehow my wonder could touch her and hers could touch me at the same time.

seedlingsLike you, in the garden I too have pressed seeds into shallow furrows and covered them with warm earth and patted the earth over them, and for a moment felt myself, as you must have, suspended between heaven and earth, as if something so much bigger than us was smiling to see that this simple act had been done right.

Like you, as a child I too stared at pictures of old battles in a grade-school history book — the charging cavalrymen, swords upraised, trampling the bodies of defeated enemies. My little heart recoiled, like yours must have, not understanding why people would do this to each other.

Like you, I too have held a lover’s naked body to my own and felt the same tenderness toward existence at the heart of our desire, a tenderness shared and wondrous and forever unspeakable, yet unlike the desire, complete in itself.

Like you, I too have stood over a casket and beheld the body of someone dear to me lying there, completely still, and felt this same tenderness so enormous I couldn’t bear it, although I did.

Where does this come from, this tenderness that seems to live in the space of our hearts? Like you, I have witnessed it in people in every culture I have ever visited. Sometimes it seems to be absent, especially in the greedy and the powerful, but even in their eyes we can see a glimmer of something hidden, something hurt and afraid that feels the absence, and is wounded by its loss.

A philosopher once said, “All desire is the desire to be.” Is that where our tenderness comes from? Our loyalty to life, to being? Perhaps our tenderness toward existence is both at the beginning and at the end of desire. It calls to us, we seek it, and we arrive in its presence in these moments of wonder — at a baby, at a tiny seed in the earth, at the violence of history, at the embrace of a body, at the power of death. Without it we would be lost. With it, we understand everything that matters.


(Note: I have borrowed the phrase “a tenderness toward existence” from the poet Galway Kinnell.)