love. fear. sex. ( + the power of radical listening)
To speak of wilderness is to speak of
wholeness. Human beings came out of that
— Gary Snyder
Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’
doesn’t make sense any more.
Not long ago somebody left chocolate bars outside my front door.
“Somebody left chocolate bars outside your front door,” said the manny. “Do you know anything about this?”
He showed me a red drawstring pouch. It held a Crunchie, a Maltesers, and four or five Flakes.
I said, “Those are my exact specific favorites.”
I grew up in Canada, where you can get them at any convenience store. In the US, you have to make a little more effort. I drive out of my way to a gas station in Beverly Hills for its rows on rows of imported candy, where I will buy my fix and leave without remembering to actually put gas in the car.
(When I do remember to put gas in the car, I then have to remember to take my Starbucks or my wallet off the roof of the car, which is where I tend to put things while I’m fueling up, before driving away.)
No one in my house seemed to know about the bars or how they got there. Everybody agreed it was a sweet, thoughtful gesture, and then reminded each other to lock all doors and windows in case I had a stalker.
It was, I thought, like finding a note in a bottle washed up on my front gate. Someone was communicating with me in a way both personal (they knew my tastes, either because they knew me or I’d mentioned it somewhere online) and impersonal, their identity reduced to an abstraction. As a woman living in Los Angeles in the year 2014, I had to crack an uneasy joke about stalkers ( — although I didn’t, because other people did it for me — ) but it’s just as likely to be some sweet soul who wanted to reach out without risking rejection.
We are both – if in different ways — wary of exposure, scared of being hurt.
And this, I can’t help thinking, illustrates an essential truth about men and women:
We are afraid of each other.
When I was investigating the pick-up artist scene for an article that never got written, someone explained to me that the percentage of men who approach women is actually tiny. He gave me a number. I can’t remember what it was, but I know my jaw dropped.
“It doesn’t feel that way to me,” I said.
“You are a woman,” he said.
“I know this,” I said.
“What I mean is, you would have a different perspective. You probably get hit on all the time –”
“All the time,” I said airily.
I was lying through my teeth, but whatever.
” –so you think all guys hit on women. And the guys who hit on you are the cocky narcissistic assholes, so you think we’re all like that.”
“I don’t,” I said.
I know I’m not the most approachable person in the world. By the time I was into my twenties I had my quote-unquote “bitch shield” firmly in place. I wasn’t out at a club or a bar to get hit on; I was there to spend time with friends, to dance, and to wear a cute outfit.
If men are wary of approaching women, then women are just as wary of being approached. You never know what you’re going to get.
Margaret Atwood is quoted as saying, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
(Jessica Valenti went Atwood one better, adding, “Women aren’t just afraid that they’ll be hurt; they’re afraid they’ll be hurt and they’ll be blamed for it.”)
I am by no means implying that the above equation is fair or equal in its implications; gender violence is composed mostly of men killing women, as sadly evidenced in places like the Congo. But my friend was pointing out that in some ancient part of their brains men do associate going up to a woman with possible pain or death.
“That fear served an evolutionary purpose,” he said. “If you see a strange woman, you don’t know what tribe she’s from, it could be an enemy tribe. She could have a boyfriend or husband or male relative who might take offense and club you to death.”
(Clearly there was something to be said for staying in, and marrying the girl in the cave next door.)
So we constantly hang back from each other, like at a junior high dance where the boys line one wall and the girls the other, or dinner parties where the men congregate in one room and the women peel off to another.
We put distance between each other. We justify it by saying that men and women are from different planets, speak different languages.
The walls go up.
I’ve heard it said that any action traces back to fear or love. When we eye each other from our respective corners and hang back against the ropes, we’re not doing it out of love.
A couples therapist once asked my then-boyfriend and I what we would do if we wanted to get back at each other.
“Flirt with other men,” I said, “in front of him.”
“Shut down,” he said, “and withdraw. Be there, but not there.”
When we love each other, we know how to hurt each other.
The thing about arguing with someone, anyone, is that it doesn’t work. It locks people more firmly into their pre-existing positions.
If you want to shift someone’s point of view, if you want to change their behavior, you have to reach them emotionally as well as intellectually.
For all those years when we would stereotype men as logical (and thus, the implication went, objective and correct) and women as emotional (and thus, the implication went, unreasonable, hysterical and possibly crazy), it turns out that emotion and logic are not opposites. They work hand-in-hand.
It gives different options a different emotional weight. It enables you to recognize what is important and what is less so. When information is delivered with an emotional charge, pleasant or negative, we encode it more vividly in our brains.
It’s why storytelling is so powerful, or why TED coaches advise you to have one holy-smokes moment in your talk to make it memorable (such as when Bill Gates released mosquitos into the crowd during his presentation on malaria).
To reach people emotionally, you first have to connect to them and step inside their worldview.
That usually involves making yourself vulnerable in some way.
Body language gives a physical demonstration of this. When someone stands with his or her arms folded, and gaze and body angled away from you, that generally means they are closed up and defensive. If you mimic their body posture, that indicates the same thing about you. Intimate conversation is unlikely.
But if, as you talk, you slowly and gently start opening up your body language – let your arms fall away, turn towards the person, make appropriate eye contact – chances are the other person will fall into your rhythm of movement and start unfolding as well. I don’t mean just literally: the way we stand and move has a direct influence on how we feel, and what we do and say.
(Try this exercise to see what I’m talking about. Carry on a conversation while standing with your arms folded tightly across your chest. Then have a second conversation on the same topic, holding your arms out to your sides with your palms turned upward. See if you feel and speak any differently, if the nature of your conversation changes.)
When you reveal yourself and tell your truth, you give the other person permission to tell theirs. Open up (appropriately), and the other person often follows.
But somebody has to go first.
As a culture, we have a strange relationship with vulnerability. We associate it with softness, weakness, victimhood, the feminine. We might admire the ability to go there in certain creatives – actors, musicians, filmmakers – but we shy away from risking it ourselves.
Famed psychologist and author Carol Gilligan has built a career on exploring the relationships between gender, authenticity, and voice.
Her work posits that boys disconnect from their true voice around the age of five, when they absorb the cues of the culture to suppress their empathy and vulnerability. But if vulnerability is the channel through which we connect to others, boys also suppress their capacity for intimacy and deep relationship.
Girls disconnect from their inner authority when they’re a little older – around age 12 – and learn to place a greater premium on maintaining harmony than speaking their opinions and feelings. They learn to unknow the things they know that might disrupt relationships, give offense, or cut against the messages of the larger culture.
So if women supposedly have easier access to their emotions and permission from the culture to express them (or at least more of them), they will still resist naked authenticity out of concern for the damage it might do to others.
There is also the desire to be a ‘strong’ woman: our definition of strength is steeped in traditional notions of the masculine.
A ‘strong’ woman is a warrior woman, a badass, who doesn’t show the softer emotions and doesn’t fall in love (witness the online outcry of certain fans when warrior Brienne on the show GAME OF THRONES started making soft eyes at Jaime). In this light, a ‘strong’ woman is a woman who imitates male behavior, no matter how isolating and emotionally damaged that standard might be.
Why not revise the culture’s definition of ‘strength’ so that it celebrates the power of relationship and interconnectedness? This isn’t a trivial matter: research shows that the quality of your inner circle has a direct impact on the quality of your happiness and your health. Men not only have a shorter expected lifespan than women, they are more likely to kill themselves. It might be interesting to think about why.
If we can’t or won’t speak in our authentic voices, if we disconnect from our inner authority, if we refuse to ask for what we need (or if we don’t know what we need), how can men and women reach across the gender divide that separates us and recognize each other for who we are? Maybe we shouldn’t cluck our tongues over the high divorce rate; maybe we should be awed and amazed that men and women stay together for any length of time at all.
Somewhere along the line, certain parts of the culture picked up this idea (and some of them actively promoted it) that feminists hate men.
This is about as accurate – and as fair – as saying that all men are rapists.
Feminism would probably advance much more rapidly if feminists did hate men, but the women’s movement stops and starts, advances and retreats (we refer to the first wave, second wave, third wave). We gain, and then give up some of those gains. A lot of this can be attributed to the regular, inevitable bouts of cultural backlash.
But heterosexual feminists are also, so to speak, sleeping with the enemy. We fall in love with them on a regular basis. We desire them, we create families with them, we go on adventures with them, we can’t imagine a world without them. It’s difficult to be in opposition with the same people we go home to (or long for) at night.
But here’s the thing. The enemy of feminism isn’t men. It’s patriarchy, and patriarchy is not men. It is a system, and women can support the system of patriarchy just as men can support the fight for gender equality.
When patriarchy declares that the masculine is superior to the feminine, it implies that the masculine should rule over the feminine, which means that the masculine needs to define itself against the feminine. This expresses itself in a contempt for the feminine. It’s fine for Brangelina’s daughter to show up as a tomboy, but show a photograph of a mother painting her son’s toenails and all hell breaks loose.
The masculine ‘elevates’ the feminine.
The feminine contaminates the masculine.
And when communication is more about pleasing those in power — or maintaining positions of power — then the game of flirtation and attraction becomes more than a game. It becomes our model for how to relate.
We lose track of our shared humanity and objectify each other: women become sex objects, men become walking wallets. Many men don’t seek the respect of women but use women as a way to gain the respect of other men: woman as prize, woman as status symbol. Many women will play into this system to try and get what they need – security, safety, attention, belonging, love, identity – because they can (or think they can), or don’t know that they have any other choice. (After all, it feels so good to be chosen.)
But if women truly equated wealth and power with male desirability, Donald Trump would be a sexual icon.
He is not.
(Trust me on this.)
When communication breaks down, when we no longer see the heart that beats inside the body of the Other, male-female relations become a game of sexual and/or emotional conquest. Win or lose, the shrapnel wounds us all.
If we could really listen to each other.
Put aside our egos and defense mechanisms and just listen to each other.
When I watch a phenomenon like #YesAllWomen unfold in real time, I don’t hear women accusing or blaming men.
I hear this:
Listen to us. Just, please, listen to us. See it from our perspective. Pay attention to what we really mean and who we really are.
This is a culture, after all, where Freud’s famous question — what do women want? — has echoed down through the generations. But instead of theorizing about what women want, or telling women what they want, maybe a person should simply ask them.
It is time to practice the art of radical listening.
To listen so hard and so well to each other that we coax out authentic voices buried deep in the cultural sediment. If there’s one thing we have in common, it is the hurt, fear and loneliness that is the pricetag of being human. If we could acknowledge the heart in the Other, and the places where that heart has broken, maybe then we’d have a chance at a dialogue that would open into something more than another heated debate, more vitriolic comments.
I love men.
I love women.
I celebrate the ways we are different (but equal), I rejoice in the ways we are the same. I don’t think either gender should rule over the other, not because it seems inherently unfair (although it is). When we tag either gender as ‘lesser’ we close ourselves off to an alternative perspective that could round out our sense of the world, and of ourselves.
Diversity is necessary for creativity. The human species cannot afford to refuse fresh creative insights pointing the way to new solutions.
It’s not about wanting men to act “like women” or turning women into imitation men. It’s not about wanting the genders to be the same (as if the only thing that keeps us from being clones of each other is that single X or Y chromosome).
It’s about our right, as human beings, to explore and express the full range of who we are. It’s about our right to strive towards wholeness; to allow the soul what it needs to heal itself, as individuals and society as a whole. It’s about our right to speak and be heard, to connect, to see ourselves in each other and each other in ourselves.
To know who we are.
To remember who we are.
To love and be loved.
Because that seems like something worth fighting for.