I'm catching up on other people's blogs, returning e-mails, and trying to stay awake. My head is still stuffed from the cold,and my ears are still blocked from the plane. Other than that, things are going swimmingly.
At Feministe, we've got "Equal Opportunity Crappy Dating Advice". Jill alerts us to one particular offering for men that's making its way around the internet. It lists ten mistakes men are said to make that blow their chances with women, and offers advice for "getting" "really attractive" women. The ten mistakes range from the sensible to the absurd, and the advice commentary that accompanies each mistake is quite entertaining. Some 60 comments debate the whole thing, and it's worth a read.
Reading through the list, it struck me that no one has ever come up with a "dating tips for pro-feminist men." I toyed with the idea for a moment, but then rejected it. After all, all such "tip lists" which offer ten or twenty suggestions for "scoring" with the opposite sex, or "picking up", or even "meeting" partners have one fundamental problem. By their very nature, they turn sex/dating/romance into a project. They posit a problem and offer a solution.
But I've come to believe we make a terrible mistake when we see dating and sexuality as problems to be solved. The dating advice that Jill quotes at Feministe -- and most other such advice I've seen elsewhere -- is based on the assumption that women are a challenge to be mastered, rather than human beings to be engaged. There's the suggestion that when it comes to love and sex, there are a finite set of absolute truths out there about men and women that a few lucky folks have understood and of which the rest of us are ignorant. But if we pay close attention (and pay money) to these "masters", they'll teach us their techniques and we can begin to practice them with greater success and confidence.
Yes, I do get asked for dating advice. (Few folks ask me -- yet -- for marriage advice.) I work with lots and lots of young people, and my life experience and field of interest suggests to them that I might be a good person to ask. Younger boys often ask for specific tips: "How can I tell a girl that I like her?" "How do I know if she's into me, or if she just likes me as a friend?" "How do I know when it's okay to kiss her?" There are lots of stock answers having to do with summoning up courage and the like, but I don't dispense little bon mots of wisdom. I'm not sure I'm qualified, first of all, but more importantly, I think there are more important questions to ask.
Here's a question I've often challenged my youth group kids with -- but it works for older folks too: "Why should someone go out with me? What do I bring to the table?" When I first ask the kids to ask themselves that in youth group a few years ago, I got standard answers like the following:
"I don't know." "Because I'm pretty?" (complete with question mark) "Because I'm nice." "Because once you get to know me, I'm really loving." "Because I'm tall." "Because I listen to tight music." "I don't know." "Who would want to go out with me anyway?" "Because of my boobs." "I don't know. Because I can make people laugh." "I don't know." "I don't know."
My experience with older folks is that they aren't much better than 15 year-olds at answering that question! So many people are terribly focused on meeting new people, or finding a new relationship, or just "hooking up" with someone new -- but they are reluctant to ask themselves the most basic question: "Why should someone be with me?" And if they do answer the question, they may answer it with the same "I don't knows", or a list of trivial assets, or cutting self-deprecation. But I'm convinced that a key to healthy, loving relationships (both sexual and non-sexual) is focusing honestly, without deception or bravado of self-loathing, on what it is that we genuinely have to offer. The list has to go beyond body parts and bank accounts and sexual skills.
Most of the lists I see are essentially techniques for more effectively cultivating a mask, a false image, an "idealized other." Once we've "hooked" the other person, we then start to drop the mask in the hope that they'll be sufficiently comfortable with us that they won't run away when we show them all of our filth. But obviously, that's both a dishonest and ultimately ineffective way of resolving the problem of human loneliness. Even in adolescence, the focus has to be on helping folks to become worthy of being dated, worthy of being slept with, worthy of being married! Though it's trite to say so, you're not going to be effective at getting other folks to like you -- and stay around -- if you aren't clear on why it is that they should do so.
When I was first dating the woman who is now my wife, someone very close to us asked me this question: "Why should she be with you?" Of course, I made the usual silly remarks -- I'm entertaining, I'm not unattractive, I have a state teachers pension -- but then I did get serious. And I thought and thought and I said something like this:
"At my core I'm fundamentally committed to transforming myself, transforming my partner, and transforming the world. Because I see a good relationship as one where each person is simultaneously potter and clay -- we are molding each other as we ourselves are molded, sometimes pushing and pulling and kneading, sometimes caressing, always being pushed and pulled and kneaded and caressed. Because in the end, I will never excuse anything I do by throwing up my hands and saying 'That's just the way I am, accept me, dammit!' And I will never let my partner get away with that either."
That was my answer, and of course other people will have different ones. But what I needed to do was see why it was that I was worthy of being truly loved by a woman as amazing as my wife. If I thought that I had tricked her into loving me, or if I thought that she just had poor taste, I would be unable to appreciate her. In order to love someone fully in relationship, you have to do more than thank your lucky stars that despite your faults they love you back! I think it's essential that, without immodesty or excess pride, you honestly see yourself as being worthy of being loved and become committed to working every day to make yourself still worthier.
I'm by no means a perfect husband. But I often ask myself a question these days when I'm contemplating an action or making a choice: "Is what I'm about to do consistent with the man who is worthy of being loved so much?" That is not the same as making my wife an internalized audience! I'm not turning her into a parental super-ego! Rather, it's about recognizing that I have an obligation to myself to continue to see myself as worth a magnificent, exciting relationship -- and the choices I make as to what I do and don't do help shape that self-perception.
Heavens, I've wandered off topic! Maybe ten hours sleep total the last three nights and way too much cold medicine has made me loopy. But if you're still reading, I hope my basic point is clear. If we want connection, if we want relationship, if we want eros at its magnificent best, we can't disguise ourselves to capture it! We may not merit Christ's agape love, but we will always attract the very level of people whom we believe we truly deserve. My old friend Jack always said it like this, and it still stands as the best dating advice I know:
"If you want something you haven't got, you're going to have to become someone you haven't been. And in order to become someone you have never been, you're going to have to do things you've never done."
Every day, I push myself to do things I've never done before, in the hopes of becoming someone I haven't been yet, in the assurance that if I do so, I will continue to merit the love of a woman whom I know is pushing herself as hard as I am, with that same mix of faith and joy and relentless perseverance.