Seeds and Signs

“The Wisdom of Tenderness,”   On Being  .

“The Wisdom of Tenderness,” On Being.


Recently, Krista Tippett hosted Catholic philosopher and L’Arche movement founder Jean Vanier on her On Being podcast. L’Arche is a movement of intentional communities that center people with disabilities and, in so doing, forge relationships.  “Bathing, helping people dress, to eat: It’s to communicate to them through the body,” says Vanier. “And then, as the body can become comfortable, then the spirit can rise up. There’s a recognition. There’s a contact. There’s a relationship.” The whole thing, he explains,  is “counter culture.”

Around the same time as I heard Vanier’s ideas, sociologist Allison Pugh began working with our chaplaincy cohort as part of her research into how training happens in caring professions, part of a curriculum that asks: how do we, as a society, scale (or not) our capacity for service and relationship? As we move into an era of work that pushes the limits of automation and artificial intelligence, this question feels urgent, and so I welcomed Allison’s observing presence in our learning group.

All of this got me thinking: I wonder if scale is the only framework we need to solve our deep problems? I agree with the premise that we need more of the good things; a gentler, more caring world sounds beautiful to me. And certainly the problems we face together are large-scale. Yet, some of the what we need will require human-to-human contact (relationship), so they need a human-to-human formula for growth. An economic calculus of efficiency and profitability is inadequate for that.

A scary thing to admit (and I feel strongly we should) is that some of the things we need most simply won’t scale efficiently.

Here’s why: the most beautiful things aren’t things at all, but rather they are movements of the heart…”things” like love, generosity, kindness, freedom, openness, and trust. These “things” don’t scale predictably. They don’t care about the plan, they disobey efficiency, they don’t wear a watch, and they scoff at profitability. In fact, they don’t behave well at all.  It’s annoying to me as a strategist, frankly. But I get it.

If we want to amplify these goods, we need to think differently. We need to defy the logical constraints of scale.

I suggest two alternative frameworks: seeds and signs.

Imagine planting a handful of seeds, knowing fully that they won’t all take root. You lavish those seeds with time and attention, even though it’s impossible to track their progress underground. You are too busy honoring the quality of relationships and inner lives - these seeds’ light and water - to worry about it. Your hope that something beautiful will emerge is more important for this kind of work than metrics and KPIs.

Next, imagine yourself traversing a dark landscape. You know more folks are coming behind you, but you don’t know exactly who or exactly when. You leave signs along the way, to hasten and protect their journey. These are the lampposts, secret codes, tree notches, and trails of crumbs. Our contemporaries may not see them, or they might ridicule them. We may not ever know who or how many people will understand the signs we leave, but we proceed on the hope that some will.

The challenge to those doing the work of seeds and signs is that we have to release expectations around outcome, especially in the short term.

This is particularly true for those of us steeped in a culture of measurable profit: it’s the water we swim in and, frankly, we might drown if we don’t get out. There is no way around the risk that entails, and the feelings of fear it will generate in ourselves and others. I can’t pretend it will be easy.

However, to me, seeds like Vanier’s L’Arche communities are more hopeful to the future I desire than many large-scale endeavors with full funding and max capacity. And I believe the acts of tenderness I have observed and practiced as a chaplain are signs that indicate how the future of medicine can be even truer to the profession’s ideals.

Seeds and signs matter.

They aren’t the whole story, and they don’t mean that we no longer need rational solutions or want to scale them. However, they are nonetheless vital.

If you are working on something that doesn’t scale or replicate, and you know in your heart the world needs it, please keep going. Maybe it will scale later, when the time is right and your seeds have become saplings. Or, perhaps you will live to see the next generation pick up your trail of bread crumbs. Regardless of even those long-term outcomes, consider this: you can rest easy in the knowledge that your goodness simply is.

“It’s so countercultural,” says Vanier, “but that doesn’t matter. What has happened, what I sense for the future of our poor little world, with all its ecological difficulties and financial difficulties, that maybe the big thing that’s going to happen is that little lights of love will spread over the country. Little places where people love each other and welcome the poor and the broken. Where we give to each other their gifts and have these little, little places, and that the world is — we’ll never hit the headlines, but we’ll be creating these little lamps. And if there are sufficient number of little, little lamps in each village or each city and parts of the city, well then the glow will be a little bit greater.”