hard and soft

This morning I told my children about the government’s instructions concerning school locker and bathrooms. My junior high daughter said, “That’s dumb.” I agreed, but wondered how to begin to explain why to a culture that is quickly losing the categories of male and female.

Here is my initial attempt.

Life requires opposites to get a long: up and down, in and out, championships and Cleveland.

One of those necessary opposites is hard and soft. Hard gives discipline and structure, while soft provides freedom and creativity. We need both, and in the right places. The hard shell on a piece of chocolate protects the soft cream inside. Reverse this, and you’d have a gooey mess.

Hard by itself stifles individuality. It imposes stiff rules and demands everyone get in line. The harshness of hardness explains why few people are clamoring to get into North Korea.

But soft by itself is equally unforgiving. Our softer side needs the sturdiness of a daily schedule to unleash our creativity. The best writers, preachers, and late night comedians know that hard deadlines give them a place to dig in and give their inspired best.

Our modern world privileged hard over soft. We searched for objective laws to optimize our lives. We built food pyramids, exercise regimens, and gleaming office towers filled with soulless cubicles that organized our efficient, sterile existence. We made money but forgot how to live.

Our postmodern world now privileges soft over hard. We have turned from the objectivity of the real world to the subjectivity of individual whim. We reject rigid categories imposed from the outside so we can pursue whatever we feel on the inside (think of your favorite Disney movie). All previous generations assumed marriage, sex, and gender were baked into nature. Your body determined your gender and whom you were able to marry and make babies with. Not anymore. Now each of us is free to express whatever we feel, and these feelings cannot be wrong because we feel them.

Whether or not they are wrong, they definitely won’t work. We cannot survive in a world of pure feeling any more than we could survive in a world of utter softness. We need hard objects to stand on and push off from. Without a sturdy chair, we could not sit. Without a solid keyboard, we could not type. Without a hard crust, the earth would swallow us whole.

The same is true of society. Without fixed, hard truths, such as male and female, there is no coherent way to express your sexuality. Yes, you are now free to be 51 genders (and counting!). But free to do what? With what? And how? Sex acts require the objective facts of male and female or they are no longer sexual acts. Even two men or two women must approximate the male-female binary when they make the attempt.

A free and fruitful life requires both hard and soft. Hardness alone is an outside move against freedom, while softness alone enslaves from within. The latter is worse because we’re doing it to ourselves. The harshest form of slavery does not come from without. It’s always an inside job.

Photo by LongitudeLatitude. Via Flickr. Used by permission.

5 Comments

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  1. The foundation of human nature is what seems to have been lost in the discussion regarding gender and sexual issues. However, it wasn’t lost on the Apostle Paul (see Romans 1-2). What is particularly sad is that the film clip was an interview of students at Seattle University, a Jesuit institution where students “are encouraged to grow personally and spiritually, testing their values, developing a sense of responsibility for themselves and their community, and learning about making ethical choices in their lives” (from Seattle U.’s website). Such inquiries once had a solid epistemological foundation, but it no longer has such currency, even at a Catholic institution like Seattle U.

  2. I find it funny that we live in a world that has diversity has one of its highest virtues, but at the same time tries to wipe away all distinctions as irrelevant.

  3. I miss being in the classroom with you to hear your thoughts about topics such as this. Thanks for your clarity, concern, and charity.

  4. Your latest blog was very astute. In art, hard and soft edges are very important to a success of a painting. Too many soft edges can create a mushy work without focus or focal point. Too many hard edges can create a stiff work without any rhythm or flow or emotion. The two types of edges need to be handled in a planned yet poetic balance. The combination of edges are not handled in equal amounts. Depending on the point, purpose, meaning of the painting there may be a predominance of either soft or hard edges. A good life is like a well crafted painting.

    Really liked the following statement. Think I’ll pin it to my studio wall as a reminder.
    “The harshest form of slavery does not come from without. It’s always an inside job.”

  5. Very well stated, Mike. I like the hard/soft metaphor.

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