“Certainly the same benefits are not received by each from the other, nor should they be sought.”
“One must, too, acquire some experience of the other person and become familiar with him, and that is very hard.”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
All joking aside, relating to the people we are closest to in life is often the hardest part of life. At the center of the difficulty is the challenge really to understand one another.
And there is special difficulty in coming to know each other when there are differences of nature and experience between us—as there always will be between any man and woman.
Maybe I’m slow, but it has taken me years to begin to see this. The fact is that we usually come to understand others through a comparison to our own experience and inner life. A sensitive, perceptive person is good at ‘putting himself in the other’s shoes’ and seeing things through the other’s eyes. We do this first of all by making a point of thinking, “surely this is what the other is going through right now,” using our own experience as the angle for interpretation.
But then we sometimes we run into a wall. “What on earth is she thinking right now?” “How can this be happening?” The implicit premise, even if we don’t realize it, is this: “I cannot see any reasonable account for what she is thinking.” And of course, this judgment is based on our own experience.
Aristotle brought this to light for me. I found it interesting that he keeps insisting on how long it takes really to get to know someone, and this especially when there are basic differences between the people—as is always the case between men and women.
It may sound silly, but my life changed materially when I finally began to realize—“John, there is much here that you have not yet understood.” I had been assuming I knew more than I did, which can be death-dealing to relationships. In any case, it can lead to the profound suffering of a division of minds, and of hearts, and sometimes, to a seemingly unbearable isolation.
How many times have I thought: what’s wrong with her? when in reality there was no question of right or wrong, but just of misunderstanding. Or, sometimes the better question actually was: what’s wrong with me?
The ‘solution’ to this issue is of course not easy, but when it comes to men and women, especially in the marital context, I think we can say this. The natural differences between men and women are profound. And there is a very good reason for them.
There is always a reason for what is of nature. It is always a gift. It is ours to discover.
Yes, there is more at play in our problems and disagreements than simply this natural difference. We surely each have problems and issues all our own, which can be uncovered, and addressed, or just lived-with.
But we also need to know our natural difference, and the difference it makes. This is a key aspect of relating to one another as the unique persons we are.
We might not get much help today in thinking about this. Yet we surely can become more aware of our natural difference, and we can live in confidence that is a profound gift, to each and every one of us.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher. The Nicomachean Ethics is his major ethical work.