I know this is an impossible task–a ridiculously impossible task–even to attempt to wade into this topic, but I have my toe in the water. And, as E. E. Cummings so famously said, in his poem that begins “may my heart always be open”: “may my mind stroll about hungry / and fearless and thirsty and supple / and even if it’s sunday may I be wrong.”
May today be a day of reflection for me, then, and for at least some of those who read this post.
Out with it then. I can’t stand the Mars and Venus notion, and I think way too many people accept it way too easily. I think we should fight it, and think about it. And start conversations about it. And when we go to sleep at night, write down a few thoughts and memories and concerns about it. And when we wake up in the morning, read over what we wrote the night before and add a few more, and, in this way, quietly, in our way, keep our pathway to reflection open. The Art of Reflection. Reminds me of Erich Fromm’s little book about another art, and the discipline, concentration and patience any art requires. Would that we could all be artists–of some kind.
My focus today may seem strange. Maybe you can bear with me. I hope so.
When I think of the so-called battle between the sexes, I think of conditioning. I think of how we were all probably conditioned to assume that as women we are “supposed to be this way,” or that we ARE this way, and that, as men, we are supposed to be THAT way, or ARE that way. It is a rare person, I think, who says to him- or herself: “Hey! Wait a minute!”
Maybe those who do stop to think about it all have some powerful experience in their lives that had such urgency about it , such pain, such anxiety, associated with it, that they HAD to think about it–because it seemed as if their lives, or at least their soul’s survival, depended on using the mind they had to try their best to understand themselves and their situation.
For me, the situation was something that happened when I was only about two and a half.
Probably people don’t remember being that young–unless something traumatic happened at that time. That, as you will see, was the case for me. I realized, then, at such a young age, that there was no one on my side–except me. I could not have explained it to anyone. I did not know it in words. I knew it somewhere inside me that was deeper than words, and more pervasive. I knew it with my entire being. I am certain that anyone who came through a painful time in early childhood–or even later– is likely to remember it in this holistic kind of way, and I am sure, also, that they attach great importance to it, and that it was, for them, the beginning of a consciousness that shaped their selves and their lives.
Two and a half is not very old. When I see photographs of myself, or of other children that age, boys or girls, I tell myself, “That’s the age I was. Wow!” No matter how many times I have come to this realization, it is always startling. My heart goes out to myself, that little person I was. It goes out to anyone small who had to “grow up fast.”
On the surface, it doesn’t sound like much, I guess. I had a large round purplish birthmark on the inside of my left elbow that consisted of a ganglion of extremely painful raw nerve-endings. I felt like sobbing every time my clothing touched it, anytime something rubbed against it.
My father used to tell me “Come here.” I knew what that meant. It meant that he wanted to pinch my birthmark. I did NOT understand at that age that he didn’t own me, and that I could choose not to obey. He was a violent man, even then, and I assumed I had to obey him. My mother ignored these moments, and never once came to my defense. When he pinched the birthmark, it hurt terribly. I did not cry, or shout. I simply said, with tears welling up in my eyes, “Don’t do that, Daddy. It hurts.” And he said, every time, “Nonsense. I’m only tweaking it.”
By the time I was three, the birthmark was gone. I remember very well how it went away. My mother and father and I walked down a long corridor in a strangely quiet building with a lot of rooms on both sides. I walked in the middle. They took me into one of the rooms, and said “Stay here,” and both of them turned and went out, and shut the door, and walked away. I was terrified. I thought they had decided that they didn’t want me anymore, and had taken me back to where they had gotten me.
A lady came, dressed in white clothing, and told me to lie down on the hard bed there. I did that. Then she pulled something black and rubbery down from a metal place above me, and tried to cover my face with it. I thought she was trying to kill me by taking my breathing away, and so I fought the black rubbery thing with all my two-and-a-half-year-old strength, and shouted, “No, no, no!” The lady pushed it harder and harder over my face. Tears ran down my face, and I fought until I lost consciousness.
No one, male or female, relative or stranger, showed any sign whatsoever that they understood how a two-and-a-half-year-old felt. No one talked gently to me. No one explained anything to me. No one put an arm around my shoulder. No one spoke the way a kind and loving person of either sex would speak.
I am single, and have no children, but if that were my child, I would have intervened the first time the child’s father pinched the birthmark–for that matter, the first time the father hit the child for any reason. I would have said “There will be no hitting in this house, and there will be no pinching of birthmarks. Period.” If either of these behaviors continued, I would have taken the child and left–for good. I would have held the child tenderly, and explained to her that her father did not know how to love children. I would have told her that if he ever hit her again, or hurt her in any way, she should tell me right away. Then I would have had a talk with the child’s father, and then a talk with the minister of my church, if I had one, and then with the doctor, about how to deal with the birthmark.
When it came time to go to the hospital, I would have put my arm around the child, and I would have touched the birthmark gently, and would have said I knew how much it always hurt, and how careful she always had to be not to scratch or bump it, and I would have explained that I had found a doctor who knew how to take the birthmark away. I would at least have explained what the hospital would look like, and why it was so clean and so quiet, or, better yet, have done a practice trip down the same hallway, and introduced her to the nurses. In any case, I would have said that I would try to stay in the room with her, but if they did not let me, I would be right outside the door the whole time. I would have told her about the anesthetic, and about how it was there to help her relax, and I would have done a practice “play doctor” version of that process at home, and maybe asked her to be the nurse and let me be the patient. In other words, I would have walked her, mentally, through the whole procedure, and would have done everything I could to help her feel safe and loved.
It does not take a genius to think of thoughtful and caring ways to speak with and be with children. It only takes tenderness, and imagination, and a little empathy–and maybe a little remembering of how it felt to be the tiny child we ourselves used to be.
Tenderness and kindness and empathy and “soft” qualities like them, are not reserved for women. Men are just as capable of them as women are.
Of course I know that there are millions of women who lack those qualities, and of course I know that there are reasons for that–sometimes very complicated and even terrifying reasons, reasons maybe no one can yet explain. And the same is true for millions of men. But this does not mean that men are born without the capacity to be tender and that women are born with it. It is not that simple.
I have asked myself many times, all through my life, “Why, in a so-called educated and sophisticated nation like ours, where virtually every child spends at least twelve years in school, usually a public school, are boys and girls and mothers and fathers so rarely taught to understand their own feelings, and the feelings of others?” Why is child-raising left almost totally to chance? For that matter, why do we assume that when couples marry they know what love is and how it works and doesn’t work? Why do so many people still assume that love is something we “fall into” and “fall out of”?
I think it is a truly unwise, insensitive, unaware, unthoughtful, adolescent, and unloving society that does not address these issues.
And, so, I have also asked myself WHY it has not addressed them, and why it is not addressing them now.
It seems to me that many of us, perhaps all of us, have unthinkingly contributed to the conditioning that each generation of children undergoes.
I understand that it is difficult to see how we are shaping children. This is partly why I have voluntarily put myself in positions all my life to exert some kind of counter-influence on children. I remember, for example, when my father taught me and my sister to swim. I was about five, and my sister was about three and a half. He brusquely took each of us, me first, out over our heads in the waters of Puget Sound, held us flat on the surface of the water, and shouted at us “Kick! Paddle! Kick! Paddle! I will not let go! Do as I tell you!” And then he let go, and, of course, we sank, and swallowed more than our share of salt water. Over and over we did that. I later volunteered to teach swimming all summer for the YMCA, and asked specifically for children who were afraid of the water, so I know that there are wonderful, delightful alternatives to my father’s approach, and even at the age of five, I was able to imagine better alternatives. I put my arm around my sister’s shoulder, once we were back on shore. “Don’t worry,” I said. “We will learn swimming in school. We will never have to learn from him again.”
I think conditioning and re-conditioning can work like this–one situation at a time, but so much of it is going on at once; it makes this one-thing-at-a-time approach difficult.
I think, though, that, at the beginning, we do, almost, have to make a list of attitudes and assumptions and behaviors virtually all of us have been taught: Girls are supposed to be tender; boys are supposed to be tough. Girls can cry; boys are sissies if they cry. Girls are supposed to be pretty, beautiful, sexy, forever focused on their hair, make-up, clothing; boys are supposed to be cute, handsome, strong, good providers, able to do heavy lifting. Parents can hit children, but children are not supposed to hit each other. Parents and other adults can interrupt any conversation they please, but children cannot. Children , and even teenagers, are not to question their elders. Boys can play war games. Violence on television is exciting drama and helps prepare children for adult realities. Our religion is the truth, and other religions are misguided or even evil. Atheists and agnostics have something wrong with them. Sports figures are heroes. Teachers lecture because they are the ones who know things. Students are to sit passively and listen day after day and year after year, because teachers know things and children don’t, and because listening passively like that is a sign of respect. All elders should be respected. Students with high grades are smarter than students without them. People with talent in the arts are born with it. If you don’t demonstrate talent at an early age, it means you don’t have talent. And on and on. Such lists could go on forever.
Why in the world do we perpetuate these things? Maybe it’s partly just because it takes thought to reflect on them, and way too many of us do not reflect. We conform without reflecting. Sometimes I think reflection alone could change the world, but I don’t think our society encourages reflection.
Just imagine a whole nation of elementary school children reflecting on these things, and openly discussing them in their school classrooms, sharing whatever views they happen to have, and then maybe having assemblies about them, and writing articles in adult newspapers about them, and talking on television about them. In my view, school would suddenly become very interesting to all those bored and passive students who would so much rather be texting their friends on their cell phones than listening to lectures and memorizing for tests
And then, well, imagine changing the No Child Left Behind Law so that all teachers everywhere would be required to teach all children everywhere to question blind obedience to authority, and question conditioning, and spend class time designing ways to deal with the issues they considered most worth thinking about and learning about. And imagine parents asking, “So what did you learn in school today?” And imagine their kids telling them! What lively dinner-table conversation THAT would make!
And then imagine those same people growing up and offering to run for a seat in Congress, and imagine the House and the Senate full of people who think for themselves about real issues, and who are determined to make the country and the world better, make a humane and decent and non-violent place for the next generation of kids, and not a world where every country trains the younger generation to be out there killing and maiming people who don’t happen to think the way they do.
Well, maybe we could start with a National Day of Reflection–one day a year when every department in the government and every business and every school listens to what colleagues have reflected on most during the year, and then votes to address some of those concerns before the next National Day of Reflection. And suppose these concerns were discussed on the evening news, and in the periodicals available in the chain grocery stores. And suppose awards were given out–such as the Reflection of the Year Award.
I do believe that consciousness always comes at a cost. Maybe sharing what we understand about that cost can help encourage others to do the same, and maybe that would help us lead more examined lives than we do. I would like to think so.