by Samuel Rowen
The issue is how can the “differences” between men and women is to be understood so that the full-orbed dimension of God’s creation in both male and female can be released to the glory of God.
Several years ago a furloughing missionary sat with tears streaming down her face, She did not say a word to the entire group. We had just finished an exercise in group interaction. It was quite obvious that she was in distress. After the meeting she disclosed that the experience had opened some old wounds. She said, "It was just like it was in our field committee meetings. The men are courteous while I am talking, but then they go ahead and do what they intended to do in the first place. I feel like I am listened to, but never heard. It really didn’t make any difference at all what I said. It really didn’t matter whether I was there or not."
The differences between male and female have been described as "the two alien cultures." John Pfeiffer ("Gender and Talking: Girl Talk-Boy Talk, Current, May, 1985) says that today there are about 200 researchers of language and gender, and all but a dozen of them are women. He believes that as more men researchers enter the field the "two alien cultures" will draw closer together.
Two University of California researchers, Candace West and Don Zimmerman, made extensive recordings of male-female conversations among university students. The research is part of a growing body of literature. A 1983 bibliography includes over 800 relevant titles, whereas one published 10 years earlier contained only 150 titles. This boom in research has been stimulated by the women’s movement. It took note of previous statements about women’s talk by earlier investigators. The earlier studies included a number of statements like that of a Danish linguist, Otto Jesperson: "Women much more often than men break off without finishing their sentences, because they start talking without having thought through what they are going to say."
The belittlement of female conversation such as that made by Jesperson does not find support in the recent research findings. West and Zimmerman found that males accounted for some 96 percent of the interruptions in conversations. "In same-sex conversations males also cut off males and females cut off females, but . . . interruptions were equally distributed between the speakers." In another experiment students meeting for the first time were told "to relax and get to know one another." Males again were the main interrupters of the conversation, but in this context it was only 75 percent of the time rather than 96 percent. Men are not only the main interrupters in conversations, but they also choose the topic of the conversation.
Women use many more questions in conversations. There is a great frequency of the question: "D’ya know what?" This is a similar pattern used by children is a style which looks for a go-ahead signal that permits the person to speak up. It requires a verbal or nonverbal response in order to proceed with the conversation. This is the pattern adopted by Dustin Hoffman in the movie "Tootsie." Hoffman moves away from asking many questions when he is playing the part of a man.
Fishman discovered in her research why women need such reassurances. In 76 instances in which attempts were made to start a conversation, men succeeded in 18 out of 19 attempts. "Women tried 47 times, sometimes for as long as five minutes, with dead-end results 30 times…. Each of the men in this experiment professed sympathy for the women’s movement."
Another stereotype of women’s conversational patterns did not hold up in the research. Carole Edelsky, Arizona State University, studied taped conversations of faculty committee meetings. Again there was the male dominance. It was much harder for the females to get the floor for discussion. However, there were informal and laughter-filled times. During these interludes it at first appeared that the females were much more dominant. Actual word counts showed that there was actually equality in the amount of conversational time used by both male and females (thus supporting the observation that a "talkative" woman is one who talks as much as a man).
The research on the differences between men and women is increasing. It is not only in the field of linguistics. The right to speak makes one no more right than the power to speak makes one right. Oppressive patterns, whether intentional or not, are antithetical to God’s creative and redemptive purposes. God created man plural (i.e., male and female he created them). And he called them (Genesis 5:2). God’s creation exhibits both diversity and equality, for both male and female bear God’s image. The problem confronting us in mission is not simply a semantic one, even though words have come to be powerful conveyors of imagery. The issue is how can the "differences" be understood so that the full-orbed dimension of God’s creation in both male and female can be released to the glory of God.
REACHING FOR IMPOSSIBLE GOALS
Most missionaries like to do a good job. The striving for excellence can be a highly productive and satisfying motivation. But when does striving for excellence degenerate into neurotic perfectionism? Henry Ward Beecher wrote, "When a man says that he is perfect already, there is only one of two places for him, and that is Heaven or the lunatic asylum." The problem that many have is not the delusion of being perfect, but the drivenness toward perfection which sets goals which can never be realized.
Asher R. Pacht ("Reflections on Perfection," American Psychologist, April, 1984) says, "To be perfect would require an individual to be an automaton without charm, without character, without vitality, and almost without any redeeming qualities. As W. Somerset Maugham noted: ‘Perfection has one grave defect: it is apt to be dull.’ The human quality in each of us comes from our imperfections, from all of those ‘defects’ that give us our unique personalities and make us real people. Without those ‘defects’ we are cold, sterile, and, indeed unlovable."
Asher recounts an experience in the Southwest where he saw two belts of turquoise and silver hanging beside each other in a store. One was perfect and one was not. The imperfect one cost ten times as much as the perfect one. The reason was that the perfect one was machine crafted and all the stones were alike. The imperfect one was handcrafted by a native American and its imperfections gave it its real beauty true value. Asher says, "In my judgment, both beauty and value come from our imperfections. I don’t believe that striving for perfection represents a good goal but rather reflects an unhealthy motive."
What then is the relation between excellence and perfectionism? Hamachek make a distinction between normal and neurotic perfectionism. Normal perfectionists "are those who derive a very real sense of pleasure the labors of a painstaking effort and who feel free to be less precise as the situation permits. By contrast, neurotic perfectionists never seem good enough, at least in their own eyes…. They are unable to feel satisfaction because in their own eyes they never seem to do things good enough to warrant that feeling."
Perfectionism does not include the healthy pursuit of excellence who take genuine pleasure in striving to meet high standards. Perfectionism relates to those "whose standards are high beyond reach or reason, people who strain compulsively and unremittingly toward impossible goals and who measure their own worth entirely in terms of productivity and accomplishment. For these the drive to excel can only be self-defeating."
In the last 15 years, I have related to over 3,000 furloughing missionaries and missionary candidates. A sufficient number have come with what Pacht has described as neurotic perfectionistic tendencies. It is not difficult to spot them. They develop a "no win" scenario for their lives. The goals they have set are so unrealistic that they have set themselves up for failure.
The agony of overseas experiences is bad enough, but unless the pattern is broken they will continue to develop "no win" scenarios. They look at life in black-white dichotomies-either a thing is done perfectly or they are a failure.
Pacht identifies another telltale sign. He says, "Many of the people whom I have seen have the idea that somehow, if only they were perfect their parents would love them. Many people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s are still trying to achieve the kind of perfection that will be rewarded with parental love."
The past director of Missionary Internship, Fred Renich, used to be fond of saying that with God it is safe to fail. That saying is a little frightening when taken without any qualification. However, the element of truth in the saying is that this side of the resurrection, we face life realistically when we confess we live in a fallen world. Anything that humans do is capable of improvement. The ultimate improvement awaits the consummation of all things at the Lord’s return.
Parents need to be particularly sensitive to this. We all want our children to do well. However, children who always have to perform to the expectations of others become less sure of themselves. MKs are particularly prone to this kind of pressure. Many MKs have expressed how much they disliked deputation because they always had to perform to the expectations of their parents and of the members of the churches they were visiting.
Being introduced from the platform as a family is difficult for some children. Many are trying to be normal and even a simple introduction with the request to stand makes them abnormal. Normal families are not asked to stand in the presence of the entire church-only "exceptional" families. It is not the norm.
Rethinking the ways which missionaries are expected to do deputation may save their children from some of these problems.
ON BEING ALONE
In a survey in 1972 involving a cross-section of the American population, Robert Weiss, a University of Massachusetts sociologist, estimates that between 50 and 60 million Americans feel extremely lonely at some time during any given month. Jeff Meer ("Loneliness," Psychology Today, July, 1985) says the causes of loneliness are varied, but the feelings are the same. It has not been an easy task to get a handle on this problem. The research on loneliness has been hampered by the subjective nature and by its varied manifestations.
Jeffrey Young, a psychologist at Columbia University, describes three kinds of loneliness: transient, situational and chronic. "Transient loneliness lasts between a few minutes and a few hours . . . and because symptoms are not severe, not much attention has been devoted to it. Situational loneliness results from an important event-a divorce, a death in the family or a geographic move. The effects can be both physical and mental-headaches, sleep problems, anxiety, depression-and can last up to a year." Chronic loneliness is when an individual feels "lonely for more than two years at a time when no traumatic event has taken place. …"
The distinction between situational and chronic loneliness is at times difficult to determine. However, James Lynch says, "the vicious cycle of loneliness is often characterized by high blood pressure and heart disease." It would appear that the solution is to develop more social contacts. However, blood pressure actually increases during conversations. Lonely people are caught between two undesirable options. "They can avoid conversations and suffer silently with hypertension, or they can seek out conversations to avoid isolation but which raise blood pressure."
There has been no study to determine how many missionaries experience loneliness. There are, however, sufficient anecdotes to suggest that there are enough incidents to give serious attention to ways of alleviating the problem. It is possible for a person experiencing deep loneliness to continue to perform work tasks at a satisfactory level. However, the sadness which results from loneliness can greatly shorten a missionary’s career. Also, the sense of inadequacy in building intimate relationships with others works against the very essence of the missionary task. We also have the general Christian responsibility to "bear one another’s burdens."
Weiss, the father of loneliness research, says that "we count on our families whenever the chips are down, no matter what the problem. We look to parents and teachers for guidance and trustworthy advice, and we look primarily to friends to share common interests and recreation." During these times of stress most missionaries are separated from the support of family. This need, if not met, can contribute to the failure of some to return to the field.
The roots of loneliness often begin as early as childhood and adolescence. Nicholas Zill reports that nine percent of children report on being lonely "a lot." There are two behavioral patterns which, parents can identify. "Aggressive, domineering kids are likely to be rejected by peers…. these children are likely to be lonely…. Other research indicates that shy, introverted children may be at risk, too."
There is also an unusually high level of loneliness in children of divorced parents. The younger the children, the more likely they are to experience loneliness. Small children cannot understand divorce, but feel responsible to try to bring the parents together. In death, though not understood by small children, there appears not to be the same effect. Children can at least understand that death is forever, but divorce presents the possibility of reconciliation. The highest rate of loneliness is reported between the ages of 18 and 25.
It has been popularly believed that loneliness and singleness are to be associated. This is not the case. Present research is also finding that women, as generally believed, are not much more likely to be lonely. Women are generally better at communicating on a one-to-one basis. Men, by contrast, are socialized not to admit to such feelings. "Workaholism" is the means that many are increasingly using to combat loneliness.
All instances of loneliness are not problematic. Such times can be opportunities for strengthening the inner resources of an individual. Loneliness, like pain, is useful in that it signals that something needs to be adjusted.
What can mission agencies do about this problem when they encounter it in missionaries? Loneliness as a criteria for evaluating potential missionaries can be of the screening process. If it is severe and potentially problematic, then the kinds of pre-field preparation can be more appropriately prescribed. A person does not have to be a social butterfly to be an effective missionary. However, feeling lonely is partly a matter of expectations about how many social contacts a person thinks is normal.
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