“I think that the central moral struggle is to really internalize that other people are people in the same way that I am.”
We were sitting in the farmhouse of the religious community that my partner used to be a member of. I was up for a brief visit, and we were, as usual, talking about philosophy and spirituality.
I paused and contemplated his observation. It wasn’t bizarre. In fact, it was a succinct summary of almost everything I’d ever read about the moral life. Vatican documents, C. S. Lewis, even the words of Christ, seemed to suggest that the great project is to love others as you love yourself. It’s almost a cliche. But something about it didn’t sit right.
Finally I said, “I think that for most men, this is true. But that for many women the central struggle is to really internalize that I am a person in the same way that others are.”
The Dislocated Self
I’m going to speak in generalities here. I know that there are women who are deeply selfish and narcissistic. Also, there are men who have tremendous difficulty with loving or valuing themselves (this is especially true of men who are members of “invisible” minorities — that is, gay men, disabled men, abused men, etc. who have been trained since adolescence or even childhood to see themselves as broken or inadequate.)
For women, though, this kind of training is not present only in the lives of a minority. For a variety of reasons, some of them biological, some of them socially constructed, and some of them psychological, women generally start to shift at a fairly young age from thinking of themselves as automatically more important than others to thinking of others as automatically more important than themselves.
I want to dwell, briefly, on some of the possible reasons for this and then move on to discussing what that means in terms of the moral and spiritual life.
1. Testosterone is one hell of a drug. For a long time, the question of whether male hormones cause different behaviour than female hormones has been sorely debated — some feminists are deeply opposed to the idea that there may be a biological basis for behavioural differences between the sexes. However, since the development of artificial hormones there has been a growing body of both anecdotal and clinical evidence to support the idea that giving a person testosterone often causes them to feel more powerful, more confident, more self-assured, more aggressive, and more self-centered. In women, on the other hand, hormones like estrogen and oxytocin seem to play a role in increasing social awareness and natural empathy.
2. Evolutionary difference. Studies have demonstrated that there are measurable differences in empathy and prosocial behavious in males and females — not only among humans, but among a variety of social animals. Basically, females tend to be more naturally empathic, more likely to console or care for others who are hurt, more likely to share, more likely to seek out egalitarian solutions, and less likely to engage in selfish behaviour. The most likely reason for this is is that among social animals, females tend to be responsible for raising young and maintaining the community, while males tend to be more competitive.
3. Early childhood training. It’s probable that observable differences in socialization are related to biological factors. Basically, we see that females behave more empathetically and more altruistically, and then we socially reward this behaviour, thus increasing the natural differences between the sexes. For example, it has been found that adults will treat an infant differently and demonstrate different expectations of the child depending on its perceived gender — if the same infant is dressed in pink, it will be treated differently than if it is dressed in blue even by people who are ideologically committed to treating boys and girls identically.
4. Social pressures. And finally, it is obviously to the benefit of society when people behave in prosocial (as opposed to selfish) ways. Males are more likely to ignore messaging that instructs them to be selfless, to push back against altruistic social norms, or to seek to “game” the system by putting up an appearance of selflessness while in fact pursuing their own advantage. It is, therefore, more efficient to encourage and reward females for altruistic behaviour, and to punish women for selfish behaviours that are routinely tolerated in men. Women are routinely taught that self-interested behaviours are unfeminine, unattractive, bitchy, or otherwise unacceptable.
The Egocentric Fallacy
The actual purpose of the moral life is to guide people towards a healthy, balanced style of living that promotes both individual and collective flourishing. For most males this means putting the ego in its proper place by learning to value other people as equals. For most females, this means putting the ego in its proper place by learning to value the self as equal to others.
The objective moral end is identical for both sexes, but the means of achieving that end are different because the starting conditions are not the same.
Unfortunately, most of our moral and spiritual resources (at least the ones that are written down) are derived from the male experience and take that experience as normal. So if we look at spiritual manuals and at the great spiritual teachers, not just in Christianity but across most literate cultures, we find that the majority are male. When women are allowed to rise to some level of spiritual authority, that authority is granted by men.
This matters because men, like all human beings, suffer from what I’m going to call the egocentric fallacy. That is, we naturally assume that we can more or less map other people’s emotional, intellectual and interior processes onto our own. Men will therefore, by default, assume that women feel, think, and are motivated in much the same way as men with a few minor differences.
It also means that we tend to process writings or teachings as “wise,” “edifying,” “sound,” or “insightful” to the degree that they correspond with and confirm our own experience of the world.
If a man has learned that overcoming his selfish tendencies actually makes him happier, he will naturally assume that writers who recommend unselfish behaviour are spiritually advanced, while those who yammer on about self-care are simply making excuses for their selfish impulses. He assumes this because it is confirmed by his own experience of being naturally drawn to prioritize himself over others.
If a man attends to his self-care needs without a second thought, and attends to others only by a deliberate act of will, there is no space in his experience for the idea that someone might genuinely struggle to look after herself adequately while, at the same time, easily and almost obsessively pouring out her energy and resources on those around her.
Dying to be Good
One of the more tragic consequences of the male tendency to assume that women face identical (or near identical) spiritual and moral struggles is the idolization of the self-destructive woman.
Nor are Therese and Catherine the only popular female saints who have neglected their own, legitimate needs to the point of death. Kateri Tekakwitha’s final illness was almost certainly exacerbated, if not caused, by excessive mortifications of the flesh (a habit which, in fairness, her spiritual directors attempted to curb without success.) Elizabeth of Hungary is celebrated for enduring the harsh and abusive treatment of her spiritual director, even though his dictates included forcing her to abandon her own children in the pursuit of the ascetic ideals that ultimately killed her.
The most common feminist explanation for the veneration of self-destructive women is that it is a variety of misogynistic sadism — the same motive that makes violent pornography so popular. I suspect that’s not entirely false, but that in most cases men who admire these women do so for a much more innocent reason: the women seem to have achieved something that the man cannot even imagine himself achieving. They have excelled in an areas where he perceives himself as weak.
The problem is, most men don’t seem to understand that self-abnegation, self-sacrifice and self-immolation in women are not accomplishments. When a woman starves herself to death, it’s not because she was on a really bad-ass fast that went a little too far. It’s because she feels powerless, worthless and inadequate and starving herself is a way of enacting those feelings.
When a woman talks about how worthless she is, she’s not striking a pose of performative humility. Her “worthlessness” is not a theoretical construct accomplished by comparing herself to the infinite grandeur of God. She actually, deeply feels on a daily basis that her existence is not justified, that she is an unbearable burden to others, and that the world would be better off if she were dead.
Women, most women, hate themselves. Routinely. Sometimes constantly. We feel that we are selfish if we take up space, that we are lazy if we have ordinary human needs, that we guilty for other people’s sufferings even when we’ve done nothing to cause them, that we are never good enough, pretty enough, selfless enough, or generous enough.
Religious women, especially, suffer from the feeling that we should always be doing more for others. Not because we are behaving selfishly and our consciences are justly convicted. But because we think we are without value except as a vehicle for supplying other people’s needs.
We cannot do as Christ commands, loving others as ourselves, not because we fail to love others but because we do not love ourselves.
The Virtue Trap
The difficulty that women have, particularly in traditional religious circles, is that we are consistently praised for self-destructive behaviours and are often even told that we are not following Christ unless we literally destroy ourselves — or allow others (almost always men) to harm and degrade us.
This leads to a curve that a lot of middle aged women are painfully familiar with. First, we start to pour ourselves out with greater and greater gusto because it earns us the praise and adulation of other traditional Catholics. At some point, our instincts kick in and start to warn us that we are going to burn out. But we have been routinely and repeatedly “warned” against trusting such instincts: to do so is lazy, lukewarm, selfish and cowardly. So we shut our instincts down.
And then, the self-destructive cycle begins in earnest. We melt down. Just briefly, but we feel terrible about it. We take the meltdown as a sign that we are not trying hard enough, not loving deeply enough, not silencing our selfishness sufficiently. We don’t recognize the meltdown as the first symptom of burn-out. We see it as a personal, moral failing — because that’s what we’ve been trained to think.
More meltdowns follow. We put more effort in. Again, and again and again we try to shut down and destroy our own instincts for self-preservation. We are like an alcoholic who treats the guilt caused by his drinking by drinking more. Only our addiction is perfectionism, and our notion of perfection is total self-effacement.
Finally, usually after years and years of doing terrible damage to ourselves, we burn out. In some cases this means death. If that happens, the men who admire women’s self-destruction will call you a saint. But most women don’t literally die, at least not in this day and age. Most of us are pulled back from the brink of our attempts to burn ourselves up as a pleasing form of human sacrifice. In a distressing number of cases, this involves hospitalization and the kind of modern medicine that might well have saved Catherine and Therese.
Finally, it becomes impossible to keep doing this to yourself. You literally, physically cannot. You experience a kind of terrifying exhaustion that you’d never even imagined, that you wouldn’t have thought possible. And you collapse. Emotionally, spiritually, physically.
And that’s when your instincts finally start to reassert themselves. That’s when you realize that your death is not beautiful and glorious and Christ-like. That it’s a kind of demented suicide-by-virtue and that at the heart of it is the diabolical belief that your life has no value, that God does not actually want you to live, does not see you as a human person of infinite worth and dignity.
And this God, the one who hated you, who wanted you to die, who took pleasure in watching your torture and subvert yourself for so many years. This God, can you believe in Him anymore? Trust Him anymore?
How could you.
This, my friends, is where the loss of faith comes in. And this is why this kind of spirituality is so destructive to women, why it drives us from the Church. This is what must be confronted, challenged, healed. Not just in the institutional Church but in the heart of every woman who thinks that being a good woman means hating yourself to death.
But how can it be avoided? And once it has happened, how can it be healed?
(To be continued.)
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