Fascinating Womanhood: sympathetic understanding


This chapter could quite easily be subtitled “all of your needs are completely unimportant and everything is always your fault.” Actually, that’s probably a good subtitle for the entire book, but it comes screaming out of this chapter in particular. However, surprisingly, Helen did give some advice that I found myself agreeing with, so I’m going to start with that.

Under a section titled “How to Give True Sympathy,” she tells women to “suffer with him,” to “build him up,” and not to “minimize his problems.” Which, honestly, seems pretty close to what I envision what sympathy looks like. When I’m experiencing something hard, something painful, the first thing I need from my husband– anyone I’m close to, really– is not an attempt to make it all go away. I want a hug, I want someone to simply understand that this, whatever it is, is hard. There have also been moments when Handsome has simply done or said something to help lift my confidence, and that’s given me all the strength I need to face whatever it is. And, lastly, I personally hate it when I’m sharing a problem and the only reaction is that “it’s not a big deal” or “starving children in Africa have it worse.” I get what Helen is saying when she says that “minimizing” only makes him feel “ashamed” and “discouraged.” I wish she’d stop gendering everything, though– honestly, women also feel ashamed and discouraged when someone minimizes our problems. That’s just . . . human.

She also shares a story about a rich man she knew named Leslie who wanted to make his new wife happy by showering her with stuff. When he lost everything, he was terrified of how she would react, believing that she would be devastated and unhappy. When, lo and behold, she adores the cottage in the country they move into with strawberries in the back yard, he’s astonished and falls in love with her even more.

Which, “rolling with the punches” seems like a pretty positive attribute. I’ve always admired resilience in people, and I liked that the woman in this story (who doesn’t get a name, by the way, even though the husband, Leslie, does) was able to adapt. She didn’t need the luxuries they’d had when they got married in order to be happy, and I admire that. Human nature doesn’t always react that way, unfortunately. Just this past weekend, Handsome and I were talking about where we’d like to live eventually. Handsome made the light-hearted suggestion that we buy a five-acre lot and then live in a tent, which I scoffed at. (Something about, “you try to make me live in a tent, I’m moving back home with my parents. A single-wide, sure. A trailer, absolutely. I’ll live in a shack, if necessary, as long as it has a stove and a bed. But not, voluntarily, a tent. If we have the money to buy a five-acre lot, we’re buying a house.”)

What was annoying about this story was that Leslie automatically assumed that his wife was so deficient in character that she wouldn’t be able to handle being an average middle-class wife– an attitude Helen emphasizes in order to make the ending more surprising.

Anyway, that’s it for “Things Helen said that Samantha can Agree With.”

Moving on to “Things Helen said that make Samantha Throw the Book through a Window.”

The first part of the chapter she dedicates to laying out a general idea for what “sympathetic understanding” looks like:

She measures her own inconvenience against what may have been required of him and counts her problems as insignificant . . . When he comes home each day, he is always greeted with a warm smile, and never problems . . .

She tries to understand that although [these problems] seem important to her, they may seem insignificant to him . . .

She, of course . . . needs this. But he has a need which supersedes hers . . . she forgoes her own in preference to his greater need.

I tried counting how many times she uses the word “insignificant,” but gave up. It got too depressing. One thing that made a certain sort of sense: not instantly throwing a bunch of stuff in his face the instant he comes home. I try not to do this with Handsome, giving him a bit to unwind and switch out of his “working” state of mind. But, sometimes, I really need him to help me with something right away, and he’s understanding of that. I try not to do it often, but we’re both flexible. This is what bothers me about how Helen put it, though. It’s “always a smile” and “never problems.” There’s no opportunity for either the husband or the wife to be flexible. There’s no give-and-take. There’s no sometimes or usually. There’s no exceptions.

I actually spent most of Sunday thinking about this “no exception” approach to life, and it’s one of the things I find deeply disturbing about the way I hear Christians– especially spiritual leaders– talk about things. Making the exception, using the caveat, incorporating qualifiers– it’s not the easiest way to present information, but it is necessary. Absolutizing pieces of advice– presenting them as if the advice must be followed, always, or failure is inevitable (and always your fault), is unhealthy and damaging. Because there are always exceptions, and you cannot operate as if they do not exist. I’ve seen it all my life– in fundamentalist churches and out of them– and it usually means that we end up erasing whole groups of people. We simply ignore that people who are not white, middle-class, safe, and physically or mentally healthy exist. They disappear.

Helen literally makes women disappear in her book– Leslie’s wife never even gets her own name. And I’ve seen that happen in our churches– I’ve even felt it happen to me. I’m Mrs. FieldI’m his wife. I’m linked to him, and treated as part of his unit. We’re not a completely new unit now that I’m here, I’m simply an addition, a tacked-on person, to the man they previously knew. Most of the people at church don’t treat me like this, just to be crystal clear– but it does happen. And I know it happens to other women in other churches, too. And it’s not just a church thing, either. Our entire culture has a system that eradicates the personhood and agency of married women.

Women, according to many Christian leaders, don’t get to have actual problems. We don’t have needs. We don’t have the right to ask for help. We’re the helpers. We’re created for the basic and all-consuming purpose of helping men— they are not here to help us, and we’re certainly not here to help each other. Our needs, our wants, our desires, our dreams– none of it matters. It’s all insignificant. It’s all superseded by his needs, wants, desires, dreams. We’re supposed to forgo our needs in order to meet his– always.

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