Soft… Enough

by Karen Van Fossan

When the going gets tough, I call my mother. My life’s challenges fall on either side of a delicate balance:

A) Something I don’t have to bother Mom about right now.

B) Something I do.

My mom has had the same work number since I was eight years old, so there’s something extra comfort­ing about dialing that combination and getting her voice – in real time or recorded. The substance has changed significantly since I was in 4th grade, or maybe not:

1) Life has never been worse.

2) Life has never been better.

3) The world is full of injustice.

4) Any mixture of the above.

During the one-week special ses­sion of the North Dakota legislature, I called my mother twice.

The first was to surround myself in unconditional love, to give myself a shield, I guess.

The second, a few days later, was to insist that I had reached #1. (See above.)

I’m used to criticism, or at least I ought to be. I’ve joked with activist friends that I wish I’d started count­ing, twenty-odd years ago, the number of hostile flip-offs I’ve received. But I have no notch-in-the-belt account­ing, no facetious system of making the things that feel wrong feel right.

A dear friend recently told me how soft my presentation is, how delicate I can seem, sensitive to life’s harshness. I smiled a (probably) delicate smile, say­ing that I think of myself as “tough.” I meant it as a defense, as if my softness might somehow signal weakness.

Looking back, I realize I wasn’t wholly honest: I see myself as a soft person who somehow does tough things, someone who borrows tough­ness from a tough situation.

Like the time I ended up saving my mother’s life. Or whatever that was.

But that was not the stuff I took to my mother’s heart – and telephone – during the special legislative session.

The trouble began on Facebook, where so much trouble begins. The conversation with a virtual stranger went something like this:

FACEBOOK FRIEND: I’m sorry for what’s going on, and I applaud your effort. But all the protesting will not stop this. Big Oil pockets are too deep! Again, I’m sorry that this is going on, but unless you have more money than Big Oil, you will never stop it or even slow it down. Take your energy on to helping something that you have more than a .000001% chance of even mak­ing a difference in! Like stopping child abuse!

KAREN: Unfortunately, pollution is another form of child abuse.

[Three people “like” – or agree with – my comment.]

FACEBOOK FRIEND: Not even close! A child being raped is not some­thing you compare to anything else in the world. You should be ashamed of yourself! You owe an apology to all the abused children in the world! How can you sleep at night thinking that way! Pure disgust!!!

KAREN: _____, I work with sur­vivors of child abuse. That is my field of work. I completely agree that there is nothing more horrifying than child abuse in all of its cruel forms. What I am saying is that we have talked with people in oil country whose children are suffering, sometimes with debili­tating illnesses. When I work to end environmental pollution, I have chil­dren in my mind – and heart.

FACEBOOK FRIEND: That’s good, but you – more than most – should never have made such a state­ment! Sorry for being so harsh, but…!

Interestingly enough, his was the criticism that pushed me to call my mother.

During the session, I was accused, directly or by implication, of A) lying, B) digging for gold, C) being stupid, and D) selling fear.

But he was the one who accused me of not being soft enough. If there’s one thing I have counted on, it’s car­ing at least as much as the situation requires.

After chewing on this for days, I’ve realized how deeply I value softness, even my own. I see my way of being with new eyes – how grounded I need to be in my own sensitivity, how cen­tral I feel it to be to any meaningful action. It’s not that I borrow tough­ness; my softness supports me to get tough. Softness is the center of any living creature: our organs, our heart, our guts. This softness, this sensitiv­ity, can be our source of strength.

And sometimes, softness is the thing we need the most – Like the times when I dial those numbers and say, “Hi, Mom.”


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