February 2, 2016

Compassion has No Gender.


Dear Gentlemen,

I’ve wanted to write you for some time. I wanted to apologize for the lies that you’ve been told.

We’ve both believed stories about what it means to be a man—how you aren’t capable of openness and honesty, empathy or tenderness. Real men are supposed to be forceful and decisive, watch action films instead of doing dishes, and endure the cult of masculinity in silence.

You and I have suffered deeply because of these stories. We’ve wounded each other with the lies we’ve been told. Men evolved to become hunters and warriors, they said, that’s why men are so strong and quick thinking under stress.

Women aren’t meant for such things—they are meant to be mothers and to raise children within a complex social network. That’s why women developed such wonderful communication skills, and are so nurturing and empathetic. Men just aren’t designed to be in touch with their emotions like women.

Despite all this, I have always been ashamed of my sensitivity. As a woman, I grew up believing that I should be empathetic but not too emotional. Only selfish women allowed themselves to be governed by their passion and desires. Women are supposed to be humble and self-sacrificing. We aren’t meant to put our careers first, or have time for ourselves. Women might become CEOs or run their own businesses but they should never cry at the office. Tears are a form of weakness. Strong men and women don’t cry, become overwhelmed by anger or express fear.

I used to believe that it was easier to be man than it was to be a woman. But that’s another lie. Life might be easier if you assume that all men thrive within the narrow confines of a dominant heterosexual masculinity. But few men fit within this tidy little box. How long should you continue to suffer—how long should all men suffer—under someone else’s conception of what it means to be a man?

We need more conversations about gender. We need to recognize its permeable nature, how easy it is to move in and out between conceptions of masculine and feminine. You and I have suffered because of misguided notions about what to expect from a man. I have mistaken your gentleness for weakness. I have mistaken your silence for an unwillingness to listen. Witnessing your courage in the face of so much suffering, however, has taught me that there are no absolutes. You have shown me that compassion has no gender.

It took me a long time to learn that true strength reveals itself through vulnerability, a willingness to sit in silence and inhabit the dark recesses of our hearts and minds. Women have long known the power of vulnerability, just as we’ve known the hard lessons taught to us by suffering.

What do we talk about when we talk about vulnerability? We talk about openness to experience, about exposing ourselves to the naked truth of existence. We talk about what it means to be afraid, and how it feels to be honest with one another. When we talk about vulnerability, we talk about what it means to be a woman, and we talk about what it means to be a man.

And yet, I resented you for not being what I assumed men should be. Real men should be strong but not too nurturing, fierce in the face of adversity but not too fierce. Real men accept the burdens of family life and financial responsibility without complaint or calls for assistance. Don’t ask me why, that’s just what men are supposed to do.

Throughout my life, I have questioned society’s expectations about what it means to be a woman. I have challenged assumptions about my place at the office, my intelligence and physical appearance. But it never occurred to me to challenge my own assumptions about what it means to be a man. I am still a work in progress and will continue to make mistakes. But I support you in whatever you choose, whether that means wearing a dress instead of a suit, cooking dinner instead of playing baseball or practicing yoga. I have come to understand that masculinity exists in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Let me be clear that I make this apology on behalf of myself. Not everyone needs to ask you for forgiveness. Some people already knew the plain and obvious truth that men and women aren’t so different. We all yearn to be loved, respected, and cared for. Yes, each of us is different in small and significant ways. But there is far more that unites us than divides us. To rigidly adhere to our conceptions of gender deprives us all of our humanity. We deny the richness of human experience if we abide by these rules of what a man should do, or how a woman should behave. Our goal is to be fully human, and to never accept less than who we are.

Help me remember the multiple worlds that reside within us, the unique gifts and talents hidden beneath bundles of nerve endings and body parts. You and I have suffered because we failed to notice the boundary of gender that existed in our minds. Let’s work together, you and I, to help our sons and daughters avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. So that when they arrive at this place for the first time, they will look at vulnerability with gentleness and compassion, and know it for what it is.




Author: Marisse Roco

Editor: Travis May

Image: Flickr/Hernan Pinera

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Marisse Roco