“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.”
– Kurt Vonnegut
In college, we had this mantra among our swim team: hard core. As the phrase might imply, to be hard core meant maintaining physical and emotional strength in spite of pain and setbacks – whether it was enduring the grueling three-hour long training sessions, withstanding the mental challenges involved with competing at the collegiate level, or surviving the social dramas and angst of college life. Hard core was a compliment in the highest regard, synonymous with strength, resilience, competence, confidence, and independence. To be hard core was to be respected and admired.
And so, for many reasons, I was hard back then (though probably not as hard core as I would have liked to be). I saw things in black and white. Questions had one “right” answer. Success (and, consequently, happiness) had a path that must be followed without deviation. There was little room for doubts, mistakes or uncertainty, and almost no room for acceptance, tolerance, and patience.
And, although being hard core as an athlete may have been helpful, I have found that it isn’t all that valuable to me as a person.
Being hard just doesn’t make much sense to me anymore.
I am learning that life isn’t a series of Either/Or conclusions, but a multitude of Both/And possibilities. It is possible to be soft and strong, to be vulnerable and confident, to be patient and resilient. It is possible to swim around in the doubts without drowning; to say “I don’t know” without being unintelligent; to say “I’m sorry” without being weak; to change my mind without being erratic and unreliable; to be generous without being abused; and to be merciful without being manipulated.
So these days I’m taking a softer focus. I’m looking for beauty in the complexities and differences, appreciating our multi-hued world instead of straining to create a monochromatic one. I’m enjoying the mysteries and unknowns, becoming more comfortable with the questions that have no easy answers. I’m saying “I don’t know” and “I’m sorry” more often and more sincerely. And, impatient as I am, I’m even trying to find joy in the waiting.
The thing is, in many ways, it is easier to be hard. It is easier to see things in black and white, to look for absolutes, and to live in an either/or world. It is challenging and confusing living in the softer world, where few things are fixed and certain and there are infinite shades of gray, along with reds and oranges and purples and pinks. It can be terrifying to live with an overflowing heart without a hard protective shell.
And, in many ways, it is hard work to stay soft. Idealist thoughts of perfection must fly out the window, along with regrets and should-have-been’s. The soft focus is more permeable, letting in the bad with the good and heightening emotional sensitivities. It can be clumsy and awkward walking on shaky soft ground. There are missteps, stumbles, and falls. There are wrong turns and false starts.
Fortunately, with this softer way, the falls are cushioned and it is easier to get back up, to turn around, to try again.
So I’m using a softer focus these days, resolving to keep a softer focus despite any personal or societal pressures to be harder, sharper, tougher.
There is no doubt that I am softer now – softer, in fact, than I ever thought I could be.
And, you know what?
I think that I just might be stronger than ever because of it.
This post originally appeared on the author’s website.