Walking home from work a few days ago I turned a sharp corner around a building and nearly bumped into a young woman coming the other way. We were the only two people on the street and her reaction, though not one I would describe as fear, certainly had something of the “unknown-man-in-my-personal-space” type wariness to it. I stepped aside, issued the standard Canadian “sorry!”, and moved on. As I continued on my way I started thinking about gender and how I, as a man of my age and physical stature, would never have the kind of response to this incident that I just witnessed in the young woman. So I tried to put myself in her shoes and imagine sharing personal space with someone who is unknown to me, is physically more powerful and who belongs to a group that has a much higher rate of criminal offence than does my own. Yes, I would be wary too.
Yesterday, a rainy day useful for reading, I had a brief introduction to Valerie Saiving, a theologian writing in the 1960’s. She believed that men and women experience “sin” differently, based on our traditional gender roles. To paraphrase, men experience sin primarily in terms of over-reach: when we allow the Self to find expression in power, abuse, prestige and pride. This is the view of sin so familiar to us in the mostly male-authored Bible. Women on the other hand experience sin “as triviality, distractibility, and diffuseness; lack of an organizing centre or focus; dependence on others for one’s self-definition; tolerance at the expense of standards of excellence…in short, underdevelopment or negation of the Self.” *
I can’t really go along with an unbending application of these types of strict gender differences. However, I find this a unique insight into how we miss the mark of living to the full potential of God’s intentions for us (i.e. sin). Many of us reach too far, turning every opportunity toward serving our own twisted interests or desires. Others of us have developed habits of settling for less than our potential allows, never giving full expression to our uniqueness. The encounter I had with the young woman a few days earlier, lasting only two seconds, held the potential for both possibilities: if I was the sort of person given to intimidating or dominating her, I could have. She on the other hand, if she were the type of person who is “dependent on others for (her) self-definition”, could easily have let herself be taken for less of a person than who she is.
In raising our four daughters my partner and I have always tried hard to model equality in our roles. Yes, papa changes diapers, cleans, cooks, and cries too. Mama’s education and career are just as important as his; and mama can fix her own bike if it’s broken down – she’s no dummy. Our desire was to raise confident adult women who are not cowed into roles which others determine or ascribe for them.
Each of us should live to the fullness of our God-given interests and potential, and be satisfied with it.
*Valerie Saiving, as quoted by Diana Butler Bass, “Christianity After Religion”.