We are now in the midst of the Ten Days of Repentance, that started with Rosh HaShanah (Head of the Year) and ends with Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). It’s a time for introspection, for evaluating one’s actions over the past year and committing to improvement should God bless us with more time.
I always find it disconcerting to discover that the character flaws that I examined last year—and the year before that and the year before that—are often the same ones I revisit this year. Occasionally one gets to pat oneself on the back for having made some change but, being human, there is always more to do.
I don’t know if this is my own personal failing or if other people grapple with this as well, but I sometimes find myself aiming for humble soul-searching at the same time as a script plays in my mind along the lines of, “Well, o.k., so I showed a lack of (fill in the blank) when I did (fill in the blank), but compared to (fill in the blank) I don’t think I’m doing that badly.” After all, in a world filled with some really bad people, I consider myself one of the good guys. In a world filled with lots of complacent people, at least I can say that I try.
Of course, that logic is terrible. God isn’t comparing me to anyone other than me. I don’t get demerits for not being on the level of some of the great women alive today but I also don’t get any points for not making the list of today’s top-ten evil women. I’m not being compared to those who lived long ago or who are yet to be born. God alone knows my potential and how much more I could be than I am.
Still, the natural urge to compare ourselves to others that can serve as a spur to excellence when channeled correctly, easily turns into a game of one-upmanship. Too often, our means of valuing ourselves seems to require devaluing others.
I thought of this when I read a piece praising actress Alyson Hannigan’s response to a question from her eight-year-old daughter.
“I recently got asked a dreaded question by my oldest daughter,” Hannigan said. “She asked me if girls can do the same things that boys can do. Your heart just sinks when your daughter asks you something like that. For that one, I think I had a good answer. I told her that girls can do everything boys can do, and more because we can also give birth!”
The actress was interviewed at a charity event donating her time and name to a good cause. I’m sure she’s a lovely woman doing her best to raise her daughters and keep her marriage strong in a difficult environment. I have no intention of directing any personal criticism her way in what I’m about to write. But, since she’s in the public eye (she has a main role on a popular TV show as well as having appeared in a number of movies) her words got attention. I think her response typifies the problem I’m suggesting. The articles I read spoke of her words as empowering and awesome. I disagree.
If I was caught off guard, as parents often are, the first answer that might have popped into my head could have been along the same line but with a twist. For an eight-year-old, I might have said, “Boys and girls can do most of the same things. God made our bodies different so that when they grow up girls can be Mommies and boys can be Daddies. Together, they can have babies and build a wonderful family.”
The best approach might be to answer a question with a question. “That’s an interesting question. What made you think of it?” Knowing what prompted the question lets a parent direct the answer more specifically. No matter where my answer led, my focus would be that any child should be the best that he or she can be and that it is possible to be interested and excel in many areas even if an individual wants to pursue something different from most of his or her friends.
But putting boys down in order to “empower” girls is no better than putting girls down in order to “empower” boys. If the response to historical bias (which is more complex than female-empowerment experts would have us believe) is to simply to encourage a previously downtrodden group to delight in reverse prejudice, we’re not doing anything of which we should be proud. Our daughters, like me at this precious time of year, can aim for reaching for wonderful heights without needing to find people who land beneath them.