Wednesday, November 23, 2011

It's Different For Girls

My "annual" summer service leading came last August. I hadn't posted my sermon then, as it's been a while since I've even looked at this blog. I figured that now was a good time to reread it and post it. So here it is, virtually unchanged from when I gave it.
Reading: A synopsis of Norton Juster's "The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics"
A straight line falls in love with a dot. The dot, finding the line to be stiff, dull, and conventional, turns its affections toward a wild and unkempt squiggle. The line, unable to fall out of love and willing to do whatever it takes to win the dot's affection, manages to bend itself, giving rise first to angular and then elegant shapes. The dot takes a second look at the line, and notices the subtlety and complexity that was missing before. It looks at the squiggle and what once seemed like freedom and joy becomes nothing more than chaos. In the end it decides to accompany the line and they dance off together.
2011 Summer Reflection: “It’s Different For Girls”
What the hell is wrong with you tonight?
I can't seem to say or do the right thing
Wanted to be sure you're feeling right
Wanted to be sure we want the same thing
She said, I can't believe it
You can't possibly mean it
Don't we all want the same thing?
Well who said anything about love?
Don’t you know that it’s different for girls?

In this popular 1979 song by Joe Jackson, the singer starts by suggesting that the male protagonist wants sex and woman want love. Of course, by the end of the song, the singer reveals that it’s just the opposite. And in fact, the “it’s different for girls” line is meant as irony. The fact is that boys and girls do NOT differ in their desires or their dreams or the worlds that they inhabit. Perhaps there are differences in communication styles, but that’s really not such a big deal, right?.

Or so I would have told you last year. Now, having spent the summer watching my daughter prepare to leave us for college next fall, and having been through this process once with our son, I’m not so sure that’s true. Although our son’s journey into young adulthood has been comparably rewarding and frustrating, his path -- at it’s core -- is quite recognizable to me. I remember the journey to college, the changing of friendships, the gaining and losing of relationships, and the quiet confidence that I acquired as gained life experience. I see my son’s joys and struggles, and I remember the similar joys and struggles from when I was his age. If I use the example of the dot and the line from today’s reading, I can say that my son and I are both lines, trying our darnest to figure out how to make the necessary bends in our appearances to appear to be more complex and artistic than who we are.

But the world of our daughter just seems so foreign. After all, here’s a young woman on the verge of adulthood, and I see her talents and her gifts that she has and I’m just jealous. She navigates a complex social world that makes little sense to me, and yet I see so much that we have in common. There’s no talent that I have that she does not have, and yet she brings to the table all sorts of abilities that I always dreamed of having as a teenager. She shows confidence, awareness, sensitivity and social skills that seem far, far beyond anything I could have hoped for when I was her age. While I watched my son struggle within the social jungle of high school, Simone seemed to float through with relative ease. She has the complete package.

Not so fast.

Our wayside pulpit has (or until recently, “had”) a quote by Miles Davis: “If you understood everything that I said, you’d be me.” And I think of this often as, over the course of the summer, I’ve heard things coming out of her mouth that just make no sense to me at all. Whereas I used to see a self-confident dynamo, I suddenly see an incredibly insecure persona emerge. Whereas I used to see someone who consumed knowledge and desired new exploratory experiences, I suddenly see someone more interested in reading Seventeen or Cosmopolitan and buying stuff at the mall. And I can’t help but want to say “you’re wasting your talents -- get with the program!”.

And then there are the struggles, for which the answers just seem so obvious. It’s as if, in the past few months my daughter has regressed into a state where conversations center around the same things over and over: food, clothing, appearance, or the questions like “will I make friends at college”, that just seem ridiculous. And any support that I offer feels irrelevant or unhelpful, so I walk away from any father-daughter interactions feeling like we have little to say to one another.

Mary Alice reminds me often that I do have a profound influence on how my daughter sees herself and on how small actions on my part can make her feel judged or devalued. Certainly the literature supports her on this, but as a father, I feel that I can only observe from a distance, a distance which seems to grow by the month. As we move closer to the separation of college, I feel a separation within our relationship that feels far more permanent than anything I’ve felt with my son.

I’ve talked with other fathers of teenage daughters about this, and they’ve noted the same thing. Young men are are -- for us, anyway -- easy to understand. Uncomplicated. As boys transition into adulthood, the subtleties and conflicts of that parent-child relationship seem to diminish, and our role as “fatherly purveyors of occasional wisdom” seems to grow. We mind our own business, they mind theirs, and over time, we share words and experiences as begin to admire one-another’s acquired wisdom.

But it’s different for girls. I’ve learned a great deal about parenthood and about maleness as I watched my son mature. Now that knowledge seem utterly useless and valueless in interactions with my daughter. Even though we have much in common -- intellectually, physically, spiritually -- we just don’t connect. And the ironic joke is that I’ve always felt I had more in common with my daughter than with my son. I still do. Whereas my son seems to ask for my help and seems interested in my opinions and knowledge, I am limited in what I can give him, as his experiences already mirror my own in so many ways. But whereas I can offer much knowledge and wisdom that’s relevant to my daughter’s life, such advice seems unhelpful and unwelcome.

And yet... there are moments where I “get it right”. A couple of years ago, Milo and Simone pooled their resources together and for Christmas, they made a substantial contribution to the Elias Fund, an organization that’s dedicated to fund community development and education in Zimbabwe. Early this summer, when they were both here, I wanted to give them a small something that would remind them of their connection with one another, and I gave them small brass bracelets with the Zimbabwean phrase “I am strong if you are strong”. I didn’t make much presentation of this, other than to say that this was to remind them of their familial and humanitarian bond with each other as they were about to embark on separate journeys. Milo’s reaction was much like mine would have been. Appreciative of the gesture and understanding of the meaning, but -- at it’s core, a minor item to be put in a drawer, which might be viewed and remembered sometime over his life. Simone took it differently. She wore the bracelet the next day, and over much of the summer, and looked up the meaning and history of the phrase, and when asked about it by friends, talked about it in a way that both demonstrated understanding of the connective nature of the gift and of the words themselves. She got it. She got the message of interdependence in a way that I did not, and I was lucky enough to see it this summer.

It’s different for girls. Moments of intimacy and connection happen more frequently, and with less preparation and understanding. That Zimbabwean phrase, (like the South African term “Ubuntu” of which I am so fond), emphasizes the need for togetherness and collective action, much like our own principle that talks about the “interdependent web of all existence”. And while I always understood the relationship between parents and children centers around a “movement towards independence”, my relationship with my daughter continues to teach me about a “movement towards unity”.

We’re all in this together. Even as we drift apart. Go now in peace.