Masculinity & Femininity: The Enchantment of Complementarity

Masculinity & Femininity: The Enchantment of Complementarity [1]
(Position Papers, Dublin, no. 470. June-July 2013, pp. 22-27)
A disenchanted world
What are we to make of the world we live in? A world dominated by science, overawed by technology - and disenchanted with humanity. We have no wonder left for our own life, no sense that the big mysteries around us are those which touch us in the depths of our most personal existence: love, friendship, sexuality, marriage, family life, freedom, commitment...
One of the main things gone is romance. We live in a cynical world, bereft of ideals, where good and noble dreams are only for kids, and no longer even for them. It is indeed a disenchanted world.
Nowhere is that vaporization of romance and ideals more evident than in the predominant modern relation between the sexes - which has been reduced to one of utilitarianism. Allow for the generalization, and allow me to put it bluntly: men want to use women for their lust; and women want to use men for their vanity.
Adam's first appreciation of Eve
That is our world. But it does not have to be so, and we are faced with the daunting but marvelous challenge of changing it. We need to restore the sense of wonder to the world. For there was, and there always should be, enchantment in creation.
The Bible tells us that God himself was pleased with what he had created. He saw it all as good, very good (Gen 1:31). For God, it is a very good world. For man, the summit of his creation, God wished it to be an enchanted world, a world where everything, as a partial image or reflection of the Creator, could point to the hidden, ultimate and infinite wonder of God's existence and life.
It was Adam's experience when he first saw Eve. He was thrilled! She was an enchantment for him; something that seemed to come from another world, or to promise another world. And similarly when Eve saw Adam. In that mutual attraction of theirs, the physical differences were seen, undisturbedly, as a sign of a richer human reality; indeed as imaging an infinitely higher reality.
How would things have been if there had been no Fall? Don't take this as theological speculation, but as idle imagination... A world where women, all women, would have been an inspiration and a lesson in humanity for all men; and vice-versa. And then, in some natural way, one would pair off with another, without anyone being left out and without jealousies. Matches made in Paradise? Well, perhaps it would have been so. But it is not so now! Nevertheless something could emerge from that idle thought which, in our present state, might help us strive for the ideals in sexuality that seem all but lost today.
A meeting of souls
Male and female God made them; and the closer they are in complementarity and mutual understanding and appreciation, the more they humanize humanity. Certainly this closeness is very uniquely present in marriage. But even there it is only secondarily expressed in physical coupling. It is in the meeting of souls more than of bodies, in the harmonizing of a masculine and a feminine way of being, that the spouses reach out toward a perfection much higher than anything either could achieve on his or her own.
And if we turn from marriage to the broad level of society itself, authentic human progress and growth are inseparable from the achievement of a true sexual identity - deeply imbued with an admiring appreciation of how masculinity and femininity complement each other.
There is - or was - truth in the old saying that 'woman promises to man what only God can give'; also when the promise is expressed the other way round. Today it is not clear what the sexes promise to each other, and less still what they mean to each other. Romantic enchantment, so it seems, is almost gone; as is the sense of something of magic in sexuality which needs to be protected. Something of good magic that, if not safeguarded, can turn into something of dark magic. We have to restore the good magic, the ideal of a noble love, the awareness too of the threat of the dark side, and the resolve to restore and protect the goodness of the enchantment.
It is not an easy task, because we seem to have a whole disenchanted world against us. But human nature (yes, of course I believe in human nature!) is with us; otherwise we have nothing in common, nothing to do with each other. Despite the current brainlessness of holding that there is no such thing as human nature, no thinking person can escape the deep-rooted conviction that some things are natural and others unnatural. That is why the vast majority of men and women still keep some ideal of finding a complement in the other sex.
It is natural that just as women are not attracted by feminized men, men are not attracted by masculinized women, especially when they have developed the worst of masculine defects - hard-headed calculation, cold-blooded aggressiveness, pitiless self-assertion. The radicals vocally deny that this happens or matters; and commonsense only nervously asserts it. It is time for commonsense to become more firmly vocal.
The complementarity of wife-husband
The concept of complementarity has given way to an individualistic and dialectical idea of the relation between men and women. War between the sexes? It makes no sense!... Only a few who have been overwhelmed by frustration and self-pity propose and want it.
"Let us make love - not war!"... Indeed!: not the false, chaotic and self-destructive love of the 1960s, but love that is genuine because it is full of respect for the other, in preparation for marriage and in marriage itself.
With only the slightest exaggeration, if any, one can say that for feminists, for radical feminists, marriage has been the root of all evil. In their view, marriage, as traditionally understood, has simply presupposed and perpetuated women's dependence on men. Equality is in...; dependence is out! - a philosophy that affects everything, beginning with the education of children. Since, in the radical view, the dependence tradition is buttressed by women having been educated differently than men, then let us reform our whole concept of education. Thus, the solution is to educate girls the same as boys; and of course boys the same as girls.
A world of atomized individuals
'Self, first!' is the prevalent slogan of our contemporary world. Self-first becomes self-seeking, self-seeking becomes self-shrinking. That is the prospect ahead: a world of tiny atomized individuals; each one, to use the image of C.S. Lewis, becoming a little ball of selfishness, tightly-wrapped in total isolation where self-love has in the end - paradoxically but logically - turned to self-hatred.
This is widespread and is becoming deep-rooted. Yet it is due to an elementary anthropological and psychological error which is to see dependence as a unilateral defect, instead of a reciprocal need.
All of us, men and women, are dependent beings. We are not self-sufficient. We need others. We complement each other. Marriage, the home, home-building, the family, are the normal context in which our basic human dependence is satisfied and the challenge of inter-dependence is met.
However, as between men and women, especially in marriage, dependence has to be seen not so much as a need to take from the other, but as a readiness to give and receive. The need is not for men to have their sensuality aroused and satisfied, or for women to find their vanity gratified. Both need to give and receive. But woman has - or used to have - a special privilege and advantage: a prior need and disposition to give: to give sympathy, understanding, a touch of care, the sense that her caring matters in making the world a better place, in building up a better humanity. If she is unable to give that, she will never be fulfilled, receiving what she also needs.
And men need women, perhaps today as never before. But they need women who stir respect, and thus inspire men to control their masculine defects: their lust, their rough ways, their tendency to brute force; and so seek to be worthy of the ideal woman that one day, they hope, will cross their path...
Care and protection
Women need protection - though they are often reluctant to admit it. Men need care - though they often suffer from the same reluctance. Comparison - or complementarity - between men and women...? Both! Any elaboration on this is going to meet fire, probably from all sides. Let me get into the fire for a moment and suggest that man is stronger physically, and his love is expressed (and perhaps his ego satisfied) in support and protection. Woman has a bigger heart (if she doesn't let it contract around herself) and can care more. I allow that the comparison is not easy to make. I hold that the complementarity is easy to see.
There lies the complementarity of marriage. Of a true marriage. The key to that lies in self-giving, and in other-acceptance: in mutual giving of self, defects and all, and in mutual acceptance of the other, defects and all. The more masculine a man is, the more the woman will find her complement in marriage. The more feminine the wife is, the more the husband will find his complement. Their love, if it is true, will be enriched by the struggle to appreciate, and equally to accept, the virtues and weaknesses of masculinity, and the weaknesses and virtues of femininity. And each should be inspired - by conjugal love - to develop his or her own virtues, and to combat his or her own defects. That is what the challenge of love and marriage is about. Not being made happy by the other; wanting to make the other happy. When the reference point is not "me", but "her" or "him", then marriage is truly a complementary affair and not just a tenuous meeting of two more or less think-alike "egos".
Salvation will only come from those who put giving first, giving to what is worthwhile. I think that woman is more capable of that than man. The trouble today is that woman is being conditioned so as not to want to give. I don't say that man is readier to do so. Nevertheless, it is more important, for both man and woman, that woman be a better giver – and feel herself happier in giving ('It is happier to give than to receive", Acts 20:35). It may seem lop-sided to her, but that's the way it should be.
So, marriage is a matter of love-inspired give-and-take. But if husband or wife starts thinking, Am I getting as much as I give?, then they are letting calculation rather than love inspire them. And along that lane they will almost always end up feeling cheated and defeated.
The complementarity of mother-father
The greatest danger to marriage, we have noted, is when it is regarded as the calculated and well-planned meeting of two selfishnesses, each seeking not first the happiness of the other, but rather his or her own happiness through the other.
Now, let us take things a bit further. The greatest complementarity between man and woman is not so much that of husband and wife as that of father and mother; of parents. There is where they really complement each other. Their physical union is truly conjugal and in it they are truly made 'one flesh' when they see themselves together as the joint source of a new life, the child born of their love and union. Thus their love is uniquely expressed and projected toward the future so as to be incarnated and perpetuated in their children. To be co-creators with God: this is where their complementarity, in giving life to others, becomes a crown and glory to themselves.
Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI addressed special messages to artists, seeing in their artistic work, in their creative quest to express beauty, a means by which the modern world can reacquire the transcendent dimension it has lost.
But - what is beautiful? Isn't it a matter of taste? Perhaps; and yet parents, parents who have not lost wonder at their co-creative power, have no doubt whatever that their child - each child born to them - is the most beautiful child in the world. Others may smile; God applauds.
'Three to get married' – that used to be the approach of so many. Me, him or her: and God... And, if God wished (it was natural for the spouses so to wish), the three would expand into four or six or eight. Always depending on God and the spouses' trust in Him. Trust in God, trust that led the spouses to make God their main family planner, the most natural Family Planner: that is what held the spouses together. Now there is less trust, less basis for staying together, less maturity, less generosity, and less fulfillment.
We've gone the wrong way. We need to take a new road; or rather to take the old road of always, one filled with a sense of the enchantment of creation and of co-creation, with a sense of mission and adventure, of joys and sacrifices, and of hope; the hope of building the future which opens up upon God's eternity.
[1] An address given to the Family Institute of Washington, D.C., March 2, 2013.