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Love Wins*

My 90-year-old neighbor Gerry died last month. We’ve lived next door to him and his family for more than thirty years. At the church service, two of Gerry’s children shared stories of their dad, the common thread being how Gerry didn’t suffer fools. In their eulogies, they’d described him as a demanding dad, expecting his children, and the students he taught as a dental school professor, to strive for perfection in everything they did. This didn’t surprise me. Gerry was a man whose lush lawn could’ve doubled as a country club putting green. He diligently swept his long driveway clean daily, leaving neither twig nor leaf in sight. Gerry was a man who took a brisk walk around our neighborhood every morning starting at 5:30am, no matter what the weather. With his morning exercise complete, he’d drive himself into work, a practice he followed into his 80s. So his sons’ descriptions of him as a disciplined, focused and somewhat stern dad didn’t surprise me.

And yet, both of his sons also talked about how, in his later years and especially after his grandchildren came along, Gerry became a different man. “He softened,” was how one of them put it as he wiped away tears. The rigid father who’d raised him became less demanding and more demonstrably loving and gentle as he grew older.

That word—“softened”—resonated with me as I sat there on the hard church pew. I don’t think anyone would use the word “soft” to describe me. I grew up with a father who, like Gerry, offered his own unyielding example and stern words: “There’s a right way to do something, and there’s a wrong way. Do it right—the first time.” And I followed suit, often seeing the world through my father’s unequivocal lens of right and wrong. As a result, I grew up often judging others who I believed to be wrong, whether it be their politics (Democrats right, Republicans wrong), their career choices or even the clothing they wore. I called myself open-minded, but looking back, I’d honestly have to say my mind was open as long as what leaked out of it was shared by others.

Sitting there in a Catholic Church I’d long ago left behind because I’d judged it to be wrong on so many issues (male-only priests, the hoarding of obscene wealth, the subjugation of nuns, and of course, its long refusal to acknowledge years of terrible abuse as committed by its priests), I vowed to “soften” myself. To work harder at acceptance, at being open and less judgmental of those who don’t share my views.

My resolve lasted exactly eleven minutes. It ended when the priest announced that for communion, “nonbelievers” could either stay put in their pews, or they could approach the altar with their right hands folded over their hearts, signifying a desire to receive a blessing rather than the body of Christ. I was livid. I could actually feel my heart racing as I imagined myself joining the other heathens slinking up to the altar, holding my hand over my heart as if I were about to recite the national anthem, head bowed, hoping to be blessed rather than joining in an action that I naively thought was meant to bring people together rather than to highlight our differences. After all, didn’t Jesus teach togetherness, community and love, even and especially of those considered “others?”

Irate, I leaned over to my husband, angrily whispering into his ear: “I’m going rogue.” As I said them, I could almost taste the harsh words rushing from my mouth. “I’m taking communion. Just let them try to stop me!” Then I sat back, a smug smile on my face as I waited my turn to thwart the rules of this paternalistic and prejudiced place.

And that’s when I heard it, a whisper in my ear: “Soften.”

I immediately felt the anger draining from my body, replaced by a feeling of shame. Seriously Jill? Eleven minutes and a priest announcing a conservative and archaic rule were all it took to rob you of your resolve to turn over a new leaf, to drop the armor that you’ve worn for most of your life?

Yep. Because while you can teach an old dog new tricks, sometimes it takes a while to learn the lessons.

I settled back into the pew. As I watched the communion line file past, I found it difficult to differentiate between the true believers and the heathens, even given the priest’s instructions. And the self-righteous scorn I might have felt for those about to receive the body of Christ was replaced by a deep peace and new knowing. “Soft” is not a synonym for “weak,” although too often, we’re conditioned to believe otherwise. I can soften without accepting that with which I disagree. Acceptance doesn’t have to mean giving in and giving up. And while there are plenty of things that, in my view, require, or even demand, a vocal and vociferous response (racism and sexism–in fact, most “isms”–come to mind), sometimes withholding judgement while holding my tongue, along with my opinions, is exactly the right move.

As my friend and WI State Representative Robyn Vining* has taught me via her campaign slogan, “love wins.” And Rep. Vining has proven it both times she ran for the WI State Assembly, the first time against significant odds.

Will I ever be described as “soft?” Probably not. But I’ll keep working at it. Because life, too often, is hard enough.


  1. Loved this reflection . (And I’ve gone rogue at many funerals.)

    • I can’t imagine you going rogue at a funeral, but I’d love to hear those stories sometime! Appreciate your kudos.

  2. So sorry for the loss of you neighbor Jill.

  3. Beautiful story Jill. I admire your awareness and honesty. Well done—you, and the story.

    • I really appreciate your kind words Kathleen.

  4. Thank you, Jill. Beautiful. Some words I needed today.❤️

    • You’re welcome Petey. Glad I could help. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Like I’m told they say in pilot’s school, taking off is voluntary; landing is compulsory. Looks like you landed softly, Jill. Great writing~


    • Thanks Christy. I hope I’m getting better at avoiding crash landings. Trying, anyway!

  6. “Soften” is a good word, it inspires a positive response from us: to take the edge off, to let things mellow out, to relax. While I would like to think that aging requires/allows us to soften a bit, I’m not sure that’s how I feel. At our age, we’ve seen more, been thru more, had to accept more. Hopefully because of this we have learned how to pick our battles, how not throw good energy after bad and have decided which issues and the people behind them just need to get kicked to the curb- better selection of what now lands on our “table”. Perhaps I’d like to feel more “wisened”, for the simple matter that as I age there are my certain core beliefs that have most certainly NOT softened. While I get the eulogy of a man who FINALLY started understanding his and others’ humanity after the arrival of grandchildren, I saw this in my dad and brothers, I think my thoughts in my 60’s have just been more finely honed. The fact that we’re not on our soapbox 24/7 now has a lot more to do with clarity, empathy for others’ struggles and being just plain tired! The battlegrounds for which I am but a mere footsoldier for rage on: stop all cruelty to animals; look at the Big Picture re: our environment; don’t let egomaniacal scoundrels lead our nation and I too have turned my back on the hypocritical peidphile club religion in which I was raised. You my Warrior friend, may not exactly “soften” as much as decide what to throw your precious energy at, expand your empathy perhaps- (we all should), throw your endless humor at the unbelievable things we now go thru, but mellow out about politics, what environment we are leaving behind for your grandkids and letting the greediest pols out there take what they want? I don’t think so, not on OUR watch. Let THEM soften and join the calmness of being on the Good Guy Team. We’ve always got room for more!

    • Nailed it, as usual, my wisened and wonderful friend! Especially regarding energy, and the ongoing lack thereof as we age. Deciding how to spend it takes on heightened meaning when you have much less of it. As an all-or-nothing person, I’m still working out how to dole it out in appropriately measured amounts. Love you.

  7. I loved the “soften” aspect. It’s especially relevant with the Catholic church. Many times I’ve come to the same place where I’m about to abandon it, but I feel like if my voice isn’t heard – especially on LGBTQ issues and women ordination – that nothing can change. I’m working on an effort now to do that, and being able to at least listen to voices I don’t agree with – to soften up a bit – is the best way to develop solutions.

    • Agreed, Barb. I hung in there as long as I felt I could, which for me means as long as I felt like my voice could be heard. I really admire and appreciation your perseverance! Thanks for sharing.

  8. As I was reading this, I could so picture you in my head and was chuckling. You write with a great voice and it is clearly you. What a gift and thanks for sharing it.

    • My voice is pretty loud! Seriously, I appreciate your kind words Karen.

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