Three keys to that ‘other world’ we know is possible: empathy, sane rationality, and compassion. Empathy is our biological capacity that enables us to get another in their reality. That other includes everyone and everything, human and non-human. Empathy gives rationality the gut-level information it needs to make sane decisions, to keep it from running amok. It makes compassion—the deep caring for someone or something you have gotten—possible.
Jeannie Zandi , in a rather remarkable story about her struggle with her “internal oppression as a woman,” relates the transformative power of this trinity in gender dynamics.
Here are some substantial excerpts:
In the middle of a moody-man relationship, I realized that rather than focus on him or how I
needed to change him or myself, I needed to deepen the inner work I was doing. I started
focusing on the internalized oppression I carried as a woman. I was part of and eventually led groups of women who were working intensively on reclaiming what it means to be whole: shedding limitations of who I thought I could be, how I could express myself in the world, how I could deepen the intimacy in friendships with women, and dissolve where my well-being felt to be a function of a man ’s moods. While this opened up new horizons, flexibility and expressiveness for me on my own and in relationship, it also seemed that my reaching for and expressing this wholeness through new activities, open conversations or explorations only served to increase the surliness in my relationship. What was a girl to do?
In the midst of this confusion I began to connect with men involved in the men’s movement. This enabled me to start understanding the other side of the story, the side I couldn ’t experience and my boyfriend wasn’t talking about. I learned — through reading, talking with and counseling men, and listening in at men’s conferences — about the mistreatment of men. I met and became close to a man who was very active in the men ’s movement and discovered that my “moody men” were simply men who were hurting! What a revelation: to see that the men I had been with weren ’t deliberately depriving me of relationship, acting irritated when they could choose to be kind, and that I wasn ’t an insufficient woman incapable of reaching them. They simply carried hurts and confusions that expressed themselves in these ways that looked oppressive from within my woman lens.
I absorbed as much as I could learn about the challenges of men, while simultaneously seeing how what the men were carrying dovetailed with my own internalized oppression as a woman. I realized I was trained to think they were supposed to save me and make my life blissful, or else I should conclude that either I wasn ’t enough or they weren’t. I realized I was trained to look to them for security, safety, love and connection. Meanwhile, they were trained to hide any signs of insecurity or fear and somehow produce this security and safety and bliss for me. If they didn ’t, they should conclude that either they weren’t enough or I wasn’t. And I was supposed to squeeze enough love, connection and safety from these same guys who had been urged to divorce themselves from their sensitive, feeling natures and were often hurt for showing and acting on love and connection as boys.
I learned that what a man experiences as a struggle — what he carries as a difficulty that is a result of the regular mistreatment boys and men receive, a difficulty that he can ’t talk about — I would often see as simply more evidence of, at best, the incomprehensibility of men and, at worst, the man ’s “badness.” What’s wrong with my guy that he can’t be thoughtful and tender and communicative and fun loving, and make our lives blissful?
Formerly I had believed that he could help it if he cared, that he could be nice and kind and warm and emotionally sharing if he cared. I assumed that it was his male privilege that kept him from it: he could, but he won ’t because he doesn’t have to. I didn’t realize just how monumental a step it is for some men to admit they aren’t on top of something, ask for and accept help, or explore feelings long locked away in the context of relationship.
Eventually a men’s-movement man and I became partners, and we worked and worked and
worked together on our internalized mistreatment, listening to each other, healing, moving
through all kinds of hurtful experiences. I now saw surliness or shortness as a sign of my friend hurting, and I learned to make space for that hurt to be expressed. He yelled and screamed and cried about painful experiences as a boy and his frustration at being seen as a bad man by women while I listened. I cried and raged at feeling powerless or insufficient as a woman and celebrated my wonderful self while he listened.
The more we made room inside of our reactivity for each other by moving through our pain, the farther the reaches of freedom of expression we would enjoy together. We would give each other “sessions” at the drop of a hat whenever something emotional had grabbed one of us. We talked and talked about how women and men are set up to hurt each other by
misunderstanding each other ’s attempts to reach for each other, and about our dovetailed
conditioning and how it worked. We presented what we discovered to others through writing, speaking and leading groups. The growth I experienced in this relationship, the shifting of paradigms, the understanding of the male experience and the understanding of my own conditioning were deep, impactful and life changing. Suddenly my relationships with my brothers, my father, my male friends and any man with whom I came in contact transformed. I began to perceive an angry man as a hurting man instead of an asshole to be frightened of or condemning toward. I began to see men as my brothers rather than as adversaries or my oppressors.
The process has been incredibly rich, and I am grateful for it. It was valuable to see and
understand the differences before I organically moved to “gender doesn’t matter” — it
did matter and informed my ability to treat the men I loved with compassion and to understand the places I formerly could not. I can now feel the places where I am free and not being dragged around as I once was; I no longer feel as if I am a function of what a man is like in my presence or how he perceives or acts toward me. Within the paradigm of “one of us is bad here” that often is operating when difficulty arises in relationship, no matter how passionately we reach for each other or try to point to our pain, we alienate and further mistreat each other in our simultaneous attempts to get free of it. However, when we begin to see that all beings are exactly as they should be in any given moment, with an integrity all their own, then any behavior can be understood if one cares to delve into the experience of another with an open mind and a loving heart.
When I see a man with understanding, I no longer can see him as an intentionally mean person who wants to hurt or withhold. When he sees me with understanding, he no longer sees me as a voracious need-monster to whom he can never be enough. When we sweep out the chambers of our hearts by meeting the demons within us, we make room for the pain of others and compassion flows easily. Reactivity lessens, love flows and we see each other as the well-intended, sweet humans that we all are, doing the best we can.
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