Skyscrapers & Elevators: What Women Have Taught Me About Non-Romantic Tenderness
I would like to warmly share with you one of the most intimate, vulnerable, and tender blog posts I feel compelled to write in a long, long time. I will have failed miserably or fallen far short if this post does not communicate this tender vulnerable time in my life right now.
It feels so vulnerable because I’m in some kind of new openness, new sensitivity, new awareness, new tenderness, new fork-in-the-road in unfamiliar territory. This is attempting to give you some glimpse into what feels like for me is an intimate turning point between my heart and God’s heart.
I am hoping somehow this post communicates this unbelievably most precious, most valuable, most cherished connection I have in this new season with God’s heart. That feels scary.
I am attempting to do something I have done over and over again in my marriage and in my most trusted friendships with women: I hold out my heart. I expose my heart. I consciously turn toward tenderness.
I reveal what is priceless or of great value in my heart in the moment with the utmost hope my wife or those female friends can tenderly recognize the intimate disclosure for what it is and cherish it, prize it, hold it in their “hands” as it were; they would respond with greatest freedom to be moved, touched, or spontaneously respond with appropriate reaction that is needed for in the moment. Depending upon the disclosure, it could be joy, relief, compassion, delight, softness, warmth, gentleness, and so on.
Likewise, for me, priceless, inestimable, precious relational treasures occur when my wife or my female friends share with me when no one else is around, a tender secret, a tender thought, a tender struggle, a tender experience they would not feel at home sharing with a stranger or an acquaintance.
This intimate “turning point” between my heart and God’s heart feels like I have “seen” God’s tenderness, as if for the first time. As soon as I write that, I am immediately frustrated because I am fumbling as I am seeking to convey something that is tender and beyond language, precious to me the moment.
What prompted this turning point was when I heard the news that one of my dearest and closest friends was pregnant with her first child. In the moments, hours, days, and weeks to follow, I found myself praying with a fresh and unbelievably new sense of tenderness for her, for her husband, and for the tiny one within her.
This conscious, fresh, new attentiveness provoked me to discover new language to describe my new "chapter": non-romantic tenderness. It provoked me to reflect with a fresh intensity what my wife, Sheila and other women have taught me about non-romantic tenderness--God's tenderness between men and women at the intersection between friendship and sexuality.
How do I find adequate words to describe how much, in our romantic sharing of our love together, our romantic journey together in the last ten plus years Sheila's deep, bottomless, endless tenderness for the development and flourishing of non-romantic tenderness between me and my female friends? How can I begin to convey that somehow, this intimate turning point between God's heart and my heart, is this "pinch me, is this real" experience that there is no limit to cross-gender friends knowing God's tenderness?
God's Tenderness is the Breakthrough for Non-romantic Tenderness
What makes this season so fresh for me in language is to see that women have taught me God's tenderness as a healthy, vibrant, sacred, life-giving way for knowing and enjoying non-romantic tenderness. It's God's tenderness.
Claiming God's tenderness as the fountain for all non-romantic tenderness is a formidable challenge for all the stereotypes, prejudices, biases, and preconceived ideas we all share about "tenderness." Tenderness can immediately convey weakness; for some it can mean exposure to emotional risk or vulnerability that's akin to only risks taken in a dating relationship or romantic relationship.
For some, God's tenderness is a synonym for God's mercy or compassion. It's another synonym for gentleness. Tenderness can mean unrivaled softness or gentleness. I can't tell you the number of times I have felt Sheila's uncommon gentleness over a cross-gender friend or over something to do with non-romantic tenderness. Then, I also have known female friends to be fully present with me in the moment as to show me moments of gentleness that were so precious to me.
But there have been women--mentors, theologians, authors, therapists, friends and my wife--who have helped me to see a fuller vision of God's tenderness as the fullness of God's relational love. It describes the limitless depth and strength of God's heart for shalom, justice, gentleness, and shared intimate beauty. What does it feel like to know a shared tenderness that is not exploited? Not manipulated? Not coerced?
It conveys a surge or an intuition toward trust in a spontaneous moment that is free from anxiety. If two people have a working trust in a moment in their relationship, describes therapist Brian Thorne, then a number of things that can happen. A whole range of unexplored possibilities. "Tenderness becomes a possibility," he writes, "at the moment when two human persons meet and are able to give way to the liberating urge of trust."
What has been a "breakthrough" for me over and over again, are the women who have modeled to me surprising, unexpected, unanticipated, spontaneous, off-the-cuff, as well as planned turns toward God's heart for non-romantic tenderness in cross-gender friendships. In an anxious, toxic world such embodied tenderness stands out as something only God could enjoy and inspire.
In a world where cross-gender friends are always expendable, replaceable, disposable, nonessential, unnecessary in comparison to romantic chemistry and love, there are women who have modeled to me God's unrivaled non-romantic tenderness in terms of relational love over and over gain.
It is a social norm for women and men to not choose deepening tender trust between cross-gender friends. It is a social norm for individuals to have boundaries as barriers between friends.
My wife and other particular women in my journey (single and married) have modeled to me this liberating trust that does not compete with romantic love or romantic partners.
The Elevator Image for Non-Romantic Tenderness
The elevator in a tall skyscraper is by no means a perfect image and subject to many criticisms. I'm not claiming it as a perfect metaphor. But, the fascinating thing is that I have had some anxious-free, tender conversations with my wife and other women in the last month or so about tall skyscrapers, elevators, and non-romantic tenderness. Again, liberating tender trust with an upward movement toward unexplored heights of God's tenderness for cross-gender friends.
What these particular women have taught me is that God's tenderness begets tender trust, which begets tender trust, which begets tender trust--the higher and higher you choose to ride the elevator.
It is a glass elevator. It is located in the skyscraper in such a way as to have views outside the building. The higher up one goes, the more breathtaking, scenic, panoramic views.
In this elevator, both individuals have mutually shared power to press buttons for exploring the heights of God's unlimited and open-ended non-romantic tenderness. One friend can press a button to move up to the next floor. The other may choose a button to stop moving upward. Anytime a friend may choose a button to stay on the floor where they are. They may choose to stay at that floor for the rest of their friendship.
What is essential in this image of elevator for cross-gender friends is that for both the male friend and the female friend, in each choice for pressing a button, there is a healthy radical choice of self-care, of self-love. Any mutual movement "up" to the next floor is recognized as a form of self-care for both. Any decision to press the button to stay on this floor represents the freedom of a friend to stay on this floor out of self-care and mutual respect. Both of the friends may choose a button that is a healthy decision for them to go back to the first floor and opt out of the elevator ride (cross-gender friendship) entirely. Each floor even the ground floor has some experience or knowledge of God's tenderness.
The image is not completely perfect for exploring God's heart for non-romantic tenderness, but in some powerful ways, it is fitting. Many individuals have authentic anxieties about exploring the "heights" of God's tender love in cross-gender friendships.
In this analogy, each floor going upward, each floor opens both spouses and cross-gender friends to enjoying and knowing God's boundless delight in and freedom for non-romantic tenderness in cross-gender friendship. One of the things I like about this analogy is that I've experienced particular women (Sheila's one of them) with whom I trusted to push the button to go to higher and higher in God's exquisite and infinite tenderness.
Velocity, movement, pace, etc. are all a part of moving upward. I've known and felt some women skip a few floors. Instead of taking us up to the next floor, they sweetly and tenderly chose to bypass several floors to unexplored heights of tender trust in cross-gender friendship. Again, each button to go up or down represents the greatest and highest level of self-care. The beautiful risk to go up higher reflects self-care and tender love for their friend.
Friends, how does one describe the powerful mutual cherishing that happens in deep, day-to-day intimate care between cross-gender friends? How does one describe the authenticity when both friends assume the highest good in the other's friend's care and hunger to know and to be known? Day by day? Week by week? How can one describe God's tenderness where cross-gender friends intentionally choose to know one another and be known by one another in tender love over the long haul?
For me, what is particularly striking about the glass elevator image is that women with full agency and awareness can "see" all the formidable challenges of moving from one floor to the next and yet they choose to go higher because in their self-care, God's tenderness has given them a green light to move higher. I've known women to choose the beautiful risk to go higher. There are "floors" to know a risk of tender trust means you don't know the outcome, you are not trying to control the outcome but you want mutual tenderness to take you there.