Friday, December 18, 2009

On Chivalry, Egalitarianism, and Restraint

I like to think I've mostly recovered from my feminist days.  But every now and again, I'm proven wrong.

By the time I hit high school, I'd already gotten over the self-esteem crisis that besets (nearly) everyone in adolescence.  I was fully aware that I'm a fantastic, beautiful person (who, admittedly, makes mistakes), and that I can make great contributions to whatever social situation I'm a part of.  Two primary goals of mine were to make people feel loved and to keep them from feeling awkward.  Consequently, I developed habits of complimenting people, telling them I love them, and hugging them; I also took it upon myself to rescue conversations from the dreaded "awkward silence".  I prided myself on being someone whose presence markedly changed social situations for the better (or so I always presumed), someone who could be relied upon to be a major player no matter what we were saying or doing.

Enter college.  I had already begun to learn the value of comfortable silence with good friends, and discovering the treasures of silent prayer only increased my interior life and consequent comfortability with silence.  I slowly but surely realized that I had set up for myself unrealistic expectations, and let go of my felt responsibility to fill pauses in conversations.  I discovered that it's okay to sometimes hold back from saying what's on your mind, and that it's possible (and permissible) for me to be fully present to a conversation without saying much.  Even so, I remained a major player in most conversations, especially among good friends.

These musings are not new.  What is new is the revelation of the way this has affected my outlook on chivalry.

I was brought up to think that one favor deserves another.  When I sleep over someone's house (say, while traveling), I bring a gift for the family to thank them for their hospitality.  If you invite me over for dinner, I'll show up bearing wine or dessert.  For the guy friend who pays for my food while we're out, I'll occasionally cook or bake.  I know these things are not necessary, but they seem appropriately gracious, and are always appreciated.

Well, I was at a special dinner with classmates last week, and our host (not a classmate) was a charming older gentleman who took a kind interest in me, the only woman in the group (at the time).  He held the shoulders of my coat while I took it off, and accorded to me the honored seat immediately to his left at the table.  During the meal, however, I did not converse with him much - sometimes because I was talking to the people to my left, sometimes because he was talking to the person to his right, sometimes simply because I didn't know what to say to him to spark a conversation.  And yet, at the meal's end, he took my coat and held it for me to put on, thanked me for my company, and bid me good night (along with everyone else).

I was bowled over.  I felt as though I'd failed in some responsibility (for surely the privilege of sitting at the host's side should be repaid with charmed attention and delightful conversation as well as feminine beauty), and yet he treated me no differently.  Certainly he was pleased that I'd enjoyed myself (for his job as host was to empower everyone to have a grand time), and thought nothing less of me for not engaging him conversationally, but I still felt remiss and entirely unworthy of the honor he'd bestowed upon me by being such a gentleman.

And herein lies the culprit: egalitarianism!  Michael reminded me last weekend that true chivalry would be cheapened were there strings attached: that a man who opens a door or holds a chair (or a coat) for me does so simply to honor me as a woman, and would be horrified to learn that I felt obliged to return the favor somehow, even if in a different and complementary fashion.

I've already had to break myself of the habit of immediately returning compliments, and have found that all compliments are now more meaningful.  Perhaps by humbling myself to accept chivalry in return for naught but my presence - even if that presence is not patently charming or hilarious - perhaps thereby I will more deeply interiorize chivalry, and consequently grow to better understand my role as a woman in this intricate dance we call life.

Still, maybe it is time to brush off those good conversationalist skills. They really are handy.


  1. I would take this a step further and apply it to the overarching concept of gratuity...and the ability to accept another's magnanimous, unconditional gift. It's something that really struck me after witnessing how much generosity our friends and family poured out on us for our wedding.

    Yes, it applies as well to the chivalry/egalitarianism debate, but I do think ultimately it's much bigger than gender roles; after all, women can give from themselves just as deeply and freely as men...just perhaps in different ways.

  2. I think it's cool that my thoughts actually caused you to change the title.

    Liz is 100% correct. In accepting another's gift, you are bestowing upon that person all he/she ever wanted in the first place.

    Consider how lowly and useless men feel when we reject their chivalry in favor of being egalitarian and fair. I have no doubt you remember when I unknowingly walked in front of one of our gentlemanly friends and opened the door, walked through it, and then continued to hold it until I passed it along to him. In that moment, you very specifically issued me a humility challenge, so I could accept a gift, as a woman, that I never would return.

    Women not only can give of themselves as freely as men do, but often do and then more so. Consider, dear, when you baked for the seminarians and how you did not for a moment expect them to treat you to dinner in gratitude. You did that to honor them as men and as friends, and would be horrified if you learned that they felt need to repay you.

    In the context of vocation, imagine if our mothers only gave of themselves to us in expectation of a return on their investment. While I certainly feel responsibility to care for mine in part because of all she did, that is a duty felt primarily by my position as child rather than as a response to her gift to me.

    Love requires both magnanimity and gracious acceptance. Chivalry requires the same.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...