09 December 2009

Si Questo Un'Uomo...If This Is A Man, I Understand

A comic--I forget which one--said that he made people laugh to make himself laugh, and that both he and they needed it because he and they were on the verge of tears. Or something like that.

An experience I had today illustrates what he meant. A student--probably about forty or so years old--asked to see me after class.

I didn't see her last week. That was certainly out of character for her. I wasn't going to ask her whereabouts during the past week; I was happy that she'd come to class. She submitted her paper and started our conversation with a rather sad joke. (Is that an oxymoron?) "My husband thinks he's Tiger Woods," she said, with a forced, desperate smile.

A few people have made jokes about him, but not so many as when other male celebrities got caught with their pants down, if you will. People seemed more shocked to learn of his extramarital affair than they were to learn about the sexual misbehavior of other famous male athletes. (I can't recall hearing of a female athlete in a sex scandal!) I think that people felt a loss of innocence--if not for themselves, then for their children, to whom they held up Tiger as a role model)--over learning that he allegedly had multiple affairs.

Even with those feelings of disappointment, some people still made jokes, or snide comments, about him. You can do that when someone you don't know personally gets into that sort of trouble. It allows some people to feel superior, at least for a moment, to someone who has the sort of life they envy because they don't understand it.

On the other hand, my student seemed to be feeling no envy at all for Tiger Woods, his wife, his mistress(es) or anyone else. She was in too much pain for that. All she wanted was to turn back the calendar a few weeks. It's what I like to call "the wish for September 10th."

She found out her husband has been having multiple affairs for some time now. She learned of this after losing her job. So she got two things that are on everyone's holiday wish list, right?

Somehow, I think that it's not learning about her husband's dalliances that hurt her most. Rather, it was the realization of what she did and sacrificed for him. She came to this country and worked so that she could sponsor him to come here. Then she bore his kids, continued to work and, after coming home from work, cooked, cleaned, helped her kids with homework and other things that needed doing, went to meetings with her kids' teachers and such. She also told me that even though her husband has a good job, she pays the rent on their place. And she's expected to use the remains of her check to provide the kids with whatever they need.

The thing that upset me the most was learning how members of her family were holding his affair against her. She must have done something to displease him, or simply to lose his interest, they tell her. She wasn't paying enough attention to him, they say.

She has her own take on the situation: "People change when they come to this country. My friends warned me about that." Plus, "he's a man."

Yes, he is a man. I have never met him, but I know exactly what she means and am in complete agreement with her. And I can also empathise with her in her rage and hurt, as someone who has been cheated on.

However, I cannot hate the man, and not only because I don't know him. At one time, I would have hated him, for essentially the same reasons I could hate almost any man. First, and most important, they were what I was forced to be: male and masculine. And they were, in some way or another, complicit in enforcing that code by which I was compelled to live. Needless to say, having been molested as a child--by men--had something to do with my hatred as well.

Another reason why I could hate just about any man was that it was a way of borrowing other people's--specifically, women's--anger. That, of course, gave rationale and fuel to the anger I already carried. The only means by which I knew how to live was by that rage I felt simply for having to be in this world. And, somehow, I felt that feeding off women's anger was a way of channeling their energy through me. I imagined that in some way it brought me closer to other women.

Now, of course, that seems patently absurd, at least to me. Even more important for me, though, has been realizing that I can empathise with the man, too. While I do not condone their cheating or other sexual misconduct, I can understand why men like her husband do those things, and why they still believe they love their wives and girlfriends even while they're in the process of betraying them.

Later in the day, I told another professor about my conversation with that student, and how I felt. "Well, that's exactly the reason why that student came to you,' " the prof said. "She wasn't looking for a man-basher. She just wants what she had, or thought she had."

Of course, I can't give my student what she had before. But, at least--according to that other prof, anyway--I gave her my understanding of her, and her situation. Maybe she understands her husband a little better, too.

The odd thing is that I wasn't trying to accomplish anything in particular. She needed to talk to someone; I was there and I understand both sides and can empathise with her.

During any sort of transition or other change, things happen that you weren't expecting; you change in ways you never could have imagined. I hope my student understands this, too.