Is grief appropriate? Is it healing? Jonathan Delavan shares his emotional epiphany on a sensitive issue.
Women have suffered from misogynist cultures and attitudes for centuries, but have men stopped to grieve over this ugly reality of human history that persists today?
Ubuntu says that we all have a part in creating a society that creates a perpetrator; therefore, I have a part not only in every conflict I may find myself in personally, but in every conflict happening right now in my family, in my community, in my nation, and around the globe. This thought may seem overwhelming. The gift hidden in the challenge of Ubuntu is that we don’t need to walk the corridors of power to build peace. Each of us can create a more peaceful world from wherever in the world we each stand.
– Desmond & Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World
About a month ago, I finished reading through a quite interesting and challenging book titled Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age written by James Carroll. He wrote this book to address the historical and cultural realities surrounding the acknowledged dates the canonical Gospels and Pauline letters were first written; then he argues how those realities are important for us to understand the place Christian scriptures can have within our secularized world. This book has come to gently yet vigorously confront both my understanding of Christianity and my perturbed faith within it.
I bring it up because I find myself ruminating over a particular chapter in Carroll’s book. The chapter is titled “The Women, Too”, and he spends this chapter discussing the likely reasons why Christianity quickly became misogynist despite the subtle evidence for women’s equality as taught by Jesus and Paul. This became one of the most difficult chapters for me to read in Christ Actually because Carroll does not hold back in describing the cruelty women faced during those times.
He notes the near certainty for a teenage girl or woman to be violently and sexually assaulted and especially during a time of war and conflict — as it still remains for too many women around the world today. Then there’s the ancient “cult of hyper-masculinity” that further shamed women in general by considering them and their feminine nature inferior to anything and everything masculine. So as early Christianity transitioned from a fringe group to the established religion of an empire, “Women were thus twinned with ‘the Jews’ as the negative other against which the Church defined itself positively, a bipolarity that built upon the pairing of male potency with female submissiveness.”
But Carroll also made a particular argument about these blatant plights of human history. He notes that “rape — the experience of it, or the imminent fear of it — would have been a fact of life for Jewish women across decades [referring to the Roman-Jewish Wars]. The accompanying tribal disgrace would inevitably have been a defining note of Jewish manhood… Because the dishonoring of the Jewish women grotesquely shamed the Jewish men, all were locked in a prison of silence.”
That concept on deep gender shame in history, culture, and religion deeply struck my heart like a thunderbolt of grief. As I was reading through this chapter, I simply had to stop for a moment in order to process this emotional epiphany within me. When women become victims of violence, rape, and other injustices, we men also feel shamed in their dishonor whether we recognize it or not. But instead of bearing our masculine sense of shame and healing it ourselves, how often do we as men dispel that silent, deep shame on the women around us, heaping upon them even more cruelty and shame over being a woman and a victim. And so the vicious shaming cycle has turned for centuries and continues to turn in our day and age!
As I was connecting these dots in my mind, my very body quivered with emotion as my heart was completely filled with immense grief: Grief for the Jewish women who were caught in the crossfire of the Roman wars; grief for all the women in every war on this earth who have felled victim to rape and slaughter as well as for those who could have easily become victims for simply being on the losing side of conflict; grief for the women today that still live under the truly real possibility of being or having been sexually assaulted or physically abused by someone in their lifetime. In fact, I still feel that grief as I am writing this article!
Why is this still so? Why has this cycle of abuse and shame against girls and women continued for centuries all over the world and into our own “civilized” time and country? Why!? Carroll used the term “prison of silence” to describe the inability or unawareness for people in that ancient time to address shame for what it was back then. Today, we have brave people like Brené Brown who have given us the awareness of shame in ourselves and in our society as well as the language to speak it. And yet, that “prison of silence” still holds sway over so many of us when it comes to shame and its undeniable consequences on real people when it remains silent.
I have come to believe that this silence that men and society, in general, still have about women’s suffering today is quite simply an act of avoidance. We avoid because we don’t want to deal with the ugly reality that women are still suffering from the actions of men and are still being shamed for it. We don’t want to deal with it because that means having to think about it, admitting it is happening even if we are not personally doing it, and — worst of it — feeling its impact on them and us. More and more men are willing to think about it and admit its frequency — which is great — but how many are willing to take the next step and feel its impact, its tragic consequences for women and for themselves? If I had to guess, not many men would be willing to do so (and I’ll admit I used to be one of those men not too long ago!).
Feminists for the past century have been doing their part in speaking out and giving a voice to the pervasive suffering unique to women, but I believe that is not enough to bring about transformative change in our society. Transformative change can happen when we men not only hear with our ears, but with our hearts as well! In other words, we need to be willing to feel the shame and grief that comes up for us men over the physical, sexual, and emotional suffering of women. How can we ever truly listen to the suffering of women if we are never willing to feel through our own pains over hearing their pain? We just end up avoiding it in one way or another as we have been for centuries, all the while blaming and shaming women for their own suffering — just as the Christian Church ended up doing since becoming structured and dogmatic by the fourth century CE.
And, as controversial as this may be for some, I am willing to say the same is true about women being willing to feel through their own pain over hearing the suffering and shame unique to men. Brené shared in her most recent book that “as much as we’d love to blame distant or cruel fathers, bullying buddies, and overbearing coaches for the lion’s share of shame that men feel, women can be the most fearful about letting men off the white horse and the most likely to be critical of their vulnerability [and suffering].” This is an emotional issue for all of us, not just for men towards women.
So, men, have you grieved for women yet?
It doesn’t have to be about grieving for all women in a metaphysical sense; it can simply be grieving for the suffering your wife, mother, sisters, daughters, friends, and/or colleagues have had to endure for living in a world that’s still misogynistic in its modern forms. It often takes “personalizing” this gross suffering through someone you personally know and love in order for this kind of emotional grieving process to kick in — I know that is often the case for me — but if you can do it for just one specific woman in your life, then you will be able to do so for every woman you encounter. Thus, in my opinion, the more men who are willing and able to undergo this difficult emotional process of grieving, the more likely we can have a brighter future for our daughters and sons.
I would like to end this article with a passage from Brené that practically captures what this process can look like in our day-to-day lives as we learn to empathetically relate to one another as men and women.
I often say, “Show me a woman who can hold space for a man in real fear and vulnerability, and I’ll show you a woman who’s learned to embrace her own vulnerability and who doesn’t derive her power or status from that man. Show me a man who can sit with a woman in real fear and vulnerability and just hear her struggle without trying to fix it or give advice, and I’ll show you a man who’s comfortable with his own vulnerability and doesn’t derive his power from being Oz, the all-knowing and all-powerful.”
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