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Gentle Teaching

By Jessica O'Connor


     As I began preparing for this sermon I decided to go for a run to organize my thoughts. It was quite ironic that just as I started out on the road, attaching my headphones, hitting shuffle, the first song that came on was “Where is the Love” by The Black Eyed Peas. Now this song not only has a great and energetic beat but seemed to be great way to start our exploration of gentleness. The Blacked Eyed Peas sing: “What ever happened to humanity, what ever happened to equality, instead of spreading love we’re spreading animosity. Lack of understanding, leading us away from unity.” And they continue with “gotta keep my faith alive, ‘till love is found.”

     I started to ponder the origins of my own experience with love and gentleness which brings me back to my childhood. I grew up in a small town about an hour from here. My mother stayed home with my two sisters and I, while my Dad worked hard at various jobs. We dutifully went to school, Church, and participated in community activities. My father’s father was a minister at a Congregationalist Church in Palmer Massachusetts and my sisters and I were taught the values and morals that come along with a Christian upbringing. As we grew and experienced different aspects of life my parents focused on teaching us and modeling how to be compassionate and caring human beings. I remember the endless trips to the library to check out books that often concluded with “and the morale of this story is…”

Compassionate Professions

     Of course my parents wanted us to do well in school and study hard however the parts that I internalized most were the emphasis on things such as “The Golden Rule”, building relationships, and how to care for others. It’s no wonder that my sisters and I chose professions that focus on people, Brenda is a Montessori Teacher, Elise will be graduating with her nursing degree this spring, and I chose human services working with people with developmental disabilities.  

     The official behavioral concept of Gentle Teaching came into practice during the 1980’s when people with disabilities were being released from state institutions and brought to live within the community. For many years people were forced into compliance, treated as if they were not a whole person, or even human. “Caregivers” as they were called held the power and used tight control and force as a means to modify behavior.

     Luckily; and not just for people with disabilities, the world has changed a lot in the past 30 years. There has been a shift from the concrete one sided sense of power and control to a more open, individualized and curious mindset. These sentiments can be found throughout the 7 Principles of Unitarian Universalism. Specifically within principle #1 to promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Principle #6 the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all, and lastly principle # 7: respect for the interdependent web of all existence we are a part.”

A Story for us All

     I’m going to share with you an urban legend that exemplifies the necessity for change and inward reflection.

     In the darkest part of the night, a ship’s captain cautiously piloted his warship through the fog-shrouded waters. With straining eyes he scanned the hazy darkness, searching for dangers lurking just out of sight.

Then his worst fears were realized when he saw a bright light straight ahead. It appeared to be a vessel on a collision course with his ship. To avert disaster he quickly radioed the oncoming vessel.

     “This is Captain Jeremiah Smith,” his voice crackled over the radio. “Please alter your course 10 degrees south! Over.”

     To the captain’s amazement the foggy image did not move. Instead, he heard back on the radio “Captain Smith. This is Private Thomas Johnson, please alter your course 10 degrees north! Over.”

     Appalled at the audacity of the message, the captain shouted back over the radio “Private Johnson, this is Captain Smith, and I order you to immediately alter your course 10 degrees south! Over.”

     A second time the oncoming light did not budge. “With all due respect Captain Smith,” came the privates voice again, “I order you to alter your course immediately 10 degrees north! Over.”

     Angered and frustrated that this impudent sailor would endanger the lives of his men and crew, the captain growled back over the radio, “Private Johnson, I can have you court-marshalled for this! For the last time, I command you on the authority of the United States government to alter your course 10 degrees to the south! I am a battleship!”

     The private’s final transmission was chilling: “Captain Smith, sir, once again with all due respect, I command you to alter your course 10 degrees to the North! I am a lighthouse!”

A Culture of Gentleness

     As humans we often can become stuck with relinquishing control and allowing change to begin with us, not the other person (or lighthouse). According to human rights advocate and father of Gentle Teaching, John McGee explains that “a culture of gentleness is meant to be reflective, thoughtful, and driven by values of non-violence and justice…teaching others how unconditional love triumphs over violence in all its forms.”

     It’s about intentionally stepping back, taking a look at ourselves and how what we do and say effects those around us. Four pillars that are imperative to a culture of gentleness are: teaching people we interact with:

     To feel Safe- this is done by repeated acts of unconditional acceptance.

     To feel Love- nourishing self-esteem abundantly and unconditionally.

     To feel Loving- teaching the expression of love- a handshake, hug, a kind word, a warm embrace

     To feel Engaged- teaching it is good to be together, to do things for others, and be a part of something

     We look at these four pillars as the building blocks to a welcoming society. We are the ones who need to transform ourselves from within so that we might more lovingly serve others.

     We can intentionally practice this through four parts of our being: (things that all we already have)

      Our presence- to convey a message of peace, protection, and care

     Our hands- to convey a message of being safe and loved

     Our words- to convey a message of encouraging and nurturing

     And Our Eyes - to warm another person’s heart with tenderness and love

     If we can start the day, or the week with the intention to teach feelings of companionship, love to self, love to others, and engagement within our world community- than I believe we will walk a little lighter, grow within our community, build meaningful relationships, and show others how we all deeply are valued and necessary to this thing we call life.  

     In the simple words of my father “good things happen to good people.” And I’ll add to that by saying there is good in us all. 


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