Once upon a time, about 40 years ago, I was teaching a seminar in London. You have to bear in mind that this was 40 years ago and some things were very different then — not enough different yet, but we're still working on that.
I don't remember the particular topic that weekend, but my classes always were set up to be about a subject-as-applied-to-whatever-people-needed at the moment. Lots of experiential stuff. Inner journeys to apply the lesson in one's own life. Discussions about how each of us could integrate the exercises and insights into our personal lives. Including me.
The group was small (about ten people, which was my upper limit) and evenly divided between men and women. This was unusual in those days. More often healing, psychic, spiritual groups were mostly women, sometimes with a "token man" and sometimes with none. I'd noticed, and it had occasionally been mentioned to me, that my classes tended to have more men in them than most did, and I thought about that from time to time — but not enough. I often do better at answering other people's questions than my own, possibly because I take them more seriously.
After this particular class, I was having a cup of tea with the person who ran the center and a friend of hers, both of whom had been in the group. Out of the blue (as far as I was concerned), one of them said with a grin, "We were talking earlier and we've both noticed that you treat men differently than you treat women."
"Yes, and we don't know what it is that you're doing. We know it's different, but we can't figure out how or why."
Bless them for asking! If students ask, a teacher has to try to give an honest and accurate answer. I frowned at my cup of tea for a while, thinking.
"You know — it's much harder for them to get here than it is for women, they have much more cultural conditioning to not do things like this than women do. These classes are about what we think and what we feel and how that affects the way we behave. In our society, men are much more free to do whatever they want, but they are very much expected to conform in their thinking to the prevailing materialistic-pseudo scientific model. So coming to a class like this that challenges that whole cultural pressure is very difficult for them. It's almost like saying they are not really men — and that's a huge step because another part of this is that men are expected to constantly prove they are men by not doing anything tender or gentle or spiritual or magic. So getting here is hard, being here is hard, sharing here is extremely hard for them. It takes a lot of bravery just to walk in the door."
We all frowned at our cups of tea for a bit before I went on.
"On the other hand, women are expected to conform to certain very tight standards in our behavior but (and this is part of it I really don't like) no one cares what we think. We're "only women" and it doesn't matter what we think as long as we behave as expected. We can come here and natter on all we want, and it just doesn't matter — though in truth it matters very much. So it's easy for us to get here. Our challenges come later on and then only when our behavior begins to change, if it does. But getting here and participating in the safe space of the group is not that much of a challenge."
I remember there were crunchy ginger biscuits (cookies) with the tea. I dipped mine in the tea, let it get soggy, and ate the bendy, wet part. I looked up and they were both trying to pretend that they were not taken aback by my lack of "manners". I grinned.
"I'm a free person and I like ginger biscuits soaked in creamy tea. I can have them that way if I want. It harms no one, and really it's no one's business but mine."
They frowned at their tea while they thought. One of them picked up a biscuit, held it in her tea to about a quick count of three (not long enough by my standards) and ate the wet part thoughtfully, tasting it slowly.
"It is better."
The other one tried it and made a face. "No, it isn't."
"Wait!" I said. "It isn't better and it isn't worse — what is it really?"
They couldn't answer — this was a hard thing to think about.
"Look. I like my ginger biscuits soft and milky. She likes her ginger biscuits soft and milky. You like your ginger biscuits crisp and gingery. It isn't about better or worse, it isn't about right or wrong. What is it about?"
They chorused, "It's about what we prefer for ourselves."
We sat and munched ginger biscuits to our individual tastes for a bit. Then the hostess made another pot of tea and put a plate of macaroons on the table. Lovely macaroons, soft on the inside, crunchy outside! Perfect for me just as they were. They both watched surrepetitiously to see what I'd do with the macaroons. I ate them with enjoyment. I certainly didn't dip these macaroons. They may have been disappointed.
"So... macaroons are not good for dipping in tea?"
"For me, these macaroons are perfect as they are — crunchy on the outside, tender and sweet in the middle. I'm told that both dragons and knights in armor are like that, but the dragons may have too much sulphur. But, if these macaroon were over-cooked and crunchy all the way through, I'd prefer to dip them in milk."
This was too confusing for them. So I went back to the first question. "About the men — they generally come into the class more skittish than women are. So, I challenge them less. I let them describe what they want to describe and don't push them farther. We women are tougher than that so usually (but not always because this isn't true for every woman) I challenge us more to look at our feelings and attitudes deeply, to consider change more profoundly. This serves three purposes: first, to allow the men to ease into it gradually, and second, to allow them to watch each other and realize that admitting to having feelings does not turn them into women. They also get a chance to learn what women have been talking about all these years. It takes time. I may push one or two of them a bit more tomorrow — or maybe not. It depends. And I'll go right on pushing you — the women in this class are a strong bunch. Of course, it may take you longer to dip your biscuits in your tea if you want to, but eventually you may get there as well."
So. What this is about is that men and women are different. Part of it is anatomy and hormones, but a lot of it is cultural conditioning. We could bear that in mind when we see or get caught in gender bias and gender conflict. We could try to treat each other kindly and allow for the differences, even while we are seeking change into equality — we're looking for huge changes quickly. I agree that these changes are long overdue.
We could be supportive about helping men to develop their feelings so they don't feel that we are trying to turn them into women and start resisting. We could at the same time, promote the understanding that being a woman is not a bad or an inferior thing to be. We might learn to understand that both men and women deserve fairness and equality. We could even allow them time to change and find new ways of being — if they want to do that. Such new ways could be without the old artificial restrictions. Some people are already doing these things.
On the other hand, some, both men and women, are resisting like mad things — because they are frightened of losing who they are and becoming something they don't understand.
So, really, it's all about patience with ourselves and with each other. And about learning that it isn't about right and wrong, good and bad. No saying "men are" and no saying "women are". None of that! It's just about discovering who each one of us really is, what we individually, personally need (without stereotyping), and learning to be happy being ourselves, and to MIND OUR OWN BUSINESS and to let others mind their own.
All of this applies to more than just gender. It also works for race, for religion, for politics (which seems to have become more like a religion) and even for body shape and diet. We've been awfully tribal — perhaps we could discover what it means to all be human — nothing more and nothing less.
Above all else, we need to be kind, both to ourselves and to others — to all others.
But meanwhile at least you'd get to eat your biscuits (or cookies) however you like them best.
Copyright © 2016 by Jessica Macbeth. All rights reserved.