Fondazione Zoé

We cannot live by toughness. That is to say, we cannot live without tenderness.


prof. Carmelo Vigna

A few years ago, it seemed that the celebration of toughness had ended. The type of person who makes their way, at whatever cost, seemed to be of the 80s almost an effect of the times of change of 68. Following the fall of Marxism and the end of the Cold War, the 90s appeared to be marked, after the first enthusiasm for the newfound peace between East and West, by this hard task, and with the features of depression, for the Western countries to respond to new instances of globalisation of well-being. These came not only from the South of the world this time, but also from the East. This besieged west seemed lost, but still willing… No more Cold War (tough opposition) but the need to give aid (friendly cooperation and therefore a certain tenderness in politics).

The last few years have unfortunately seen a return to toughness, not only on the part of the American Administration, but also some of its zealous imitators in Europe and the rest of the world. The fateful day of September 11th has officially entered into collective memory and has been claimed as a new point of reference. Our hearts have been hardened beyond measure. Anything is permitted as long as it annihilates the enemy. Therefore, speaking on tenderness, in these times, seems very difficult and out of fashion, almost a battle. When faced with the global threat of terrorism, so say the many, it is better to fight with force. This iron fist is used not only against terrorists, but also migrants, who have nothing to do with terrorism. And so, we can see that toughness is rooted in our everyday relationships. Our hearts have hardened. We can see it just by looking at the games played by certain political parties, who have made a habit of using toughness without rules, or thinking about what has happened in France.
We cannot live by toughness. That is to say, we cannot live without tenderness. Of course, tenderness automatically evokes relationships of closeness, or intimacy. But it should not be reduced to just this, otherwise it would lose a large part of its meaning. Tenderness is a gesture which certainly stems from intimacy, and above all else from intimacy in a family, but it precludes all human relationships, because we join together in one way or another with friendship. First, let us linger on the immediate meanings.

In common parlance, tenderness is often linked with the feminine. On the contrary, toughness pertains, in the collective imagination, to the masculine. They are, you will agree, stereotypes, but not without some roots in daily experience. And these roots must be taken into account. We are quick, what’s more, to refer tenderness and toughness to women’s and men’s bodies respectively. But this sign can only serve as a point of departure, since the body is not only flesh, but also symbolic, because it is inhabited by the soul which informs it. Thus, if we wish to grasp the rich message of what the body contains, we must go beyond the body. In the case of tenderness, even though it comes, in its first form, in the tenderness of our skin.

Tender is said, in general, of that which does not resist to the pressure of touch. It can be compressed. But precisely because it is compressed, it remains in tension (‘tenere’ (to hold) and ‘tendere’ (to hold/tighten/extend) have very close meanings in Italian). Instead, tough is said of that which resists. But, figuratively, tender and tough is said of a behaviour, a memory, a argument. Why is this so? The fact is that not resisting to touch – tenderness – is a way in which one thing is retract and another comes forward. This game, content or cruel in bodies and particularly the flesh, symbolises the way of relationships which is not only sensitive: the way of giving and receiving, or coming forward and welcoming on the part of two human beings. We can see that the two movements, that of withdrawing to receive someone is – in its absolute simplicity – a gesture of tenderness. And it is a gesture which is fundamental in all our lives. We can say that this is also part of human existence. And it is, in the order of being, the first to come forward. Indeed, a human being’s life always begins by receiving: receiving everything, starting with life itself. Receiving a world of bonds and affection, the entire universe and as small as they are. They receive, but remain in tension. Don’t we consider children  and our relationship with them as the most complete incarnation of tenderness? And aren’t children the most adaptable users of  experience?

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