The Personalist Project

Man and social institutions

Every sort of moral, every sort of civil, every sort of politic[al] institution, aiding the rational and natural ties that connect the human understanding and affections to the divine, are…necessary, in order to build up that wonderful structure, Man.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the revolution in France

Dr. Josef Seifert (himself an Austrian) once told us this joke:

In the heat of battle, an Austrian and a German are reporting back to their respective generals.

“Sir,” the German says, “The situation is serious, but not hopeless.”

“Sir,” the Austrian says, “The situation is hopeless, but not serious.”

I thought of that at Planned Parenthood the other day, where (being something of a second-rate prayer warrior, just subbing for a friend) I found myself without a single sign to wave or leaflet to hand out. 

Well, no problem: the idea was to be a prayerful presence, not a one-woman demonstration.  But during my weekly Forty Days for Life Hour, I’d been kept supplied, and kept company, by more dedicated, well-organized people than myself:

This time, though, it was just me and Bernie the “Escort,” who had recently been taken to court for assault on a pro-lifer.  Bernie moonlights as an assistant-suicide advocate of some kind, and he makes me a little nervous.

So with some hesitation, I decided to kneel down.  You can pray in your heart, standing up, or sitting on the sidewalk.   So why was I insisting on being ostentatious?

Well, here’s a difference I’ve noticed since the whole religious-freedom debacle began.  I found I wanted to kneel.  Not to show off, because by temperament, I strongly, STRONGLY prefer to be inconspicuous, but because, hey, kneeling is a natural posture for prayer. I’m kneeling to God, not to Bernie or the trees. Who says I have to be embarrassed? 

I thought of a Muslim teenager I’d seen at the library, blithely spreading her prayer mat on the rug because, hey, at the hour of prayer; that’s what you do.

I thought of all the women I see at Panera with their headscarves on.  That’s a religious statement, and if they feel self-conscious about it, it sure doesn’t show. 

I thought, too, of our pastor’s recent homily about how silly it is that we, who have the fullness of truth, act like we’re embarrassed about it.

And I remembered the giant, golden helium-balloon rosary released over Chicago the other day.

I figured it might be good to kneel, if only so people would know what I was doing there.  If a woman was ambivalent, she could ask for help, and if a UPS truck driver or the Happy Pizza guy wasn’t clear on what exactly goes on inside the clinic, it might make him think twice.

So I knelt down in the dirt.  Bernie informed me I’d have to occupy the dirt on the left side of the red line.  I moved over a couple of inches.  It was a beautiful day.  A loud bird started singing in the trees above, and he and Bernie whistled back and forth to each other. 

A tense-looking woman came out of the clinic and advised me pointedly, “Pray for the children who are already born, who don’t have enough to eat.”  “I do,” I said, thinking of my pro-life friends who adopt and foster children, work with Mother Teresa’s nuns in Detroit, volunteer at the free clinic in neighboring Ypsilanti, and recently organized a fundraiser for children in Kenya, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

A man and a boy, maybe ten years old, passed by, hand in hand. 

“Good morning,” I said.

The man glanced down at me for a split second and muttered an answer—I was making him feel embarrassed--- but the boy pulled sharply backwards to stare at me as his father tried to keep him moving.  I heard him asking insistent questions as he was gently dragged away, but I couldn’t hear the answers.

Then the other day I was running into Kroger to pick up some dish detergent (oh, and look, some manager’s-special roasting chicken, and maybe a little superglue, and my kids’ very favorite brand of overpriced strawberry yogurt) when I spied a pleasant-looking, elderly man at the entrance, asking passers-by if they were registered to vote. 

He asked me if I was.

“Oh, yes, definitely,” I answered.

I asked him which organization he was representing.  He said he was just encouraging people to vote.  I asked again.  He said something else evasive.  I asked again, and he murmured, “Well, it’s a Democratic organization, but if we tell people that, we can’t be here,” and then, oddly, reassured me that I could still vote libertarian if I wanted to.

I asked him (politely) if his organization’s name was a secret, and he bent towards me and lowered his voice.  It was “Organize America,” it turned out. 

I remarked that I could never vote for Obama because he was so pro-abortion, and he reassured me that people can disagree.  I said, yes, but as a woman, I wanted to make sure people knew how many of us are against abortion and how it leads to all kinds of exploitation of women.  He began to look uncomfortable and said he understood that people from different faith traditions had different views.

I said it wasn’t a matter of faith, but of science: we’re talking about killing a human baby, the same species as its mother.  I asked him if he disagreed with the science.

He said he just didn’t think it was right for the government to tell a woman what to do with her own body.

At that point my big, strapping (and doubtless hungry) nineteen-year-old son (pictured below, center, with a couple of little brothers)

walked up, wondering what was taking me so long.  Pointing to him, my Exhibit A, I said we weren’t talking about a woman’s body.  My son wasn't ever part of my body.  My body didn’t have two hearts, four arms and four legs for nine months and then revert to normal. 

I have these conversations more and more these days.  This is not a defense of being pompous or pushy.  It’s more like an invitation to take a second look at being visibly religious, at kneeling before God or standing up for His law in public.  I love the balloon-rosary idea, because it reminds me: We can have fun with this.  We’re not here to hide.

Now, what was that about the Austrian and the German? 

Well, they’re both right. Yes, the battle between good and evil is dead serious.  It’s not a joke.  But God is on our side, so it’s not hopeless.

And yet, it is pretty hopeless, humanly speaking--but it doesn’t have to make us unremittingly serious: it doesn’t have to rob us of our peace, or our sense of humor.  We don’t have to live in fear.  We could use more golden helium balloons, and more self-confidence about taking our message to the clinics, the local supermarket, or the skies above the city.

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Without naively or arrogantly pretending to hold all the answers to the riddles of existence, philosophy can—by deepening and clarifying our understanding of reality (and partly by leading us beyond itself)—teach us how to live in better solidarity with ourselves, with others, with the whole created order, and with God.

- from the "About" page of this website.

It helps, sometimes, when trying to untangle knotty questions of what solidarity and personalism-in-action might look like, to have some real-life examples of a person-centered approach. Accordingly, I was thrilled to come across this amazing account of a Twitter conversation between a young black woman and the anonymous young man who began by trolling her with racist taunts on Martin Luther King Jr day, two years ago.

The conversation at first appears to be going nowhere. The young man, under the pseudonym “Dildo Baggins” directs racial epithets and slurs at the young woman, Ms. Oluo, and she answers him with quotes on non-violence from Martin Luther King Jr. He mocks Dr. King. She answers with more quotes. She behaves with dignity, but so far the conversation isn’t really a conversation at all.

This all changes when Ms. Oluo shifts to using her own words to address “Baggins” personally. “I wish you peace and love and freedom from the hate that hurts your heart,” she writes. Instantly, the dynamic changes, as “Baggins” drops his epithets to ask who she is quoting. 

“That’s me,” Ms. Oluo tells him, “sending peace and love to you.”

From there, real conversation begins.

Eventually, through the conversation, it comes out that “Baggins” is a young teenage boy, recently bereaved of his mother. He started this Twitter account, he explains, to “let out all my weird horrible feelings.” Ms. Oluo suggests journaling and assures him, “It’s just like tweeting—I promise!” 


By the end of the conversation, “Baggins” has apologized for his earlier words, and Ms. Oluo has invited him to get in touch if he ever needs to talk.

Two things struck me about this conversation. The first thing is that this exchange is made possible by Ms. Oluo’s obvious self-possession. As a professor I am fond of quoting frequently said, “in order to give oneself, one must first possess oneself.” This is the first part of personalism-in-action, knowing ourselves as unique persons of irreducible worth whose true value is not threatened by the estimation of others. Secure in self-knowledge, Ms. Oluo is able to respond to the language of hatred with the language of love. 


This paves the way for the second part of this conversation that drew my attention—the transformative power of personalism in practice. “Baggins” begins by treating Ms. Oluo as a non-person—a joke and a means for venting his darker feelings. He treats her like a target, and she treats him like a person.

She treats him as a person, and it recalls him to his own personhood, and moves him to see her as a person too.

I’m not going to tell you that you should engage trolls on the internet with the hope of invoking this kind of breakthrough self-revelation. I won’t tell you that personalism requires you to open yourself to communion with people who have sought to hurt you. Our universal call is to recognize the value of each and every human being, to act in a moral manner, to seek justice and mercy. But we will have different personal moral callings within that universal call, and not everybody is called to engage with hatefulness as has Ms. Oluo or the remarkable Daryl Davis.  

The universal call is to treat others as persons, as subjects with their own worth, regardless of how they treat us. It is a beautiful thought that this may in turn awake some to the truth and the value of their own subjectivity and, through that, of the subjectivity and value of other persons.

To borrow the words of Dr. King, by putting personalism into practice, we may "carve a tunnel of hope through a dark mountain of disappointment."

 

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"Torres residence, what now?"

That's how I was tempted to answer my phone--for years on end!--when all my kids were little, and life was just one incomprehensible crisis after another.
Here I was, trying to follow all the rules, and the universe refused to cooperate. What was I doing wrong? 

Maybe that's what the Magi and the Holy Family felt like sometimes. (Yes, this post has been sitting in my Drafts folder for longer than I'd like to admit, and it's now out of sync with the season. Let's just congratulate me for getting back on track at all and consider it very, very early for 2018, shall we?)

At the Mass for the Feast of the Epiphany the other day, the choir started off with an intricately discordant piece--very beautiful, if you listened carefully, but disquieting, even so. It seemed a strange choice for such a joyful feast. But then I thought about it a little more.

The nativity scene in our church is a beauty, but it makes clear how un-luxurious the Baby's surroundings are, too. The King of the Universe naps in a feeding trough. Joseph must feel like such a failure as a provider! The Magi finally get there, but they have to go home by another route. Maybe they're frustrated that with all their purported wisdom they hadn't realized what a dangerous thing they'd done in alerting Herod to the Baby's whereabouts. And then the flight to Egypt, of all places--the very land the Chosen People had to flee when the Old Testament Herod, the Pharaoh who knew not Joseph, was killing all those other little Jewish boys way back when.

And then when Jesus was (almost) a teenager (an episode that makes many mothers secretly feel a little less inadequate), his parents lose track of him in Jerusalem and head off without him. With everything that was riding on their childrearing, you'd think God could have prevented that. 

Maybe it's an American thing. When things are going smoothly, we imagine we're on the right track. When they get muddled, we wonder where we went wrong. And when we do indisputably fail at something--like finding a decent cradle for the Son of God, or keeping track of Him during a family road trip--we tend to assume that there must be some mistake, and that the Almighty picked the wrong person to put His trust in. 

We underestimate His tolerance for chaos, you could say. We doubt His ability to orchestrate the discord and produce a beautiful, haunting melody.

I'm not saying all chaos is desirable. Sometimes it's more like a toddler banging on the piano than the artistry of some subtle musician. But sometimes the melody is there; it's just that we don't have ears to hear it. 

Photo credit: Healthnewsline

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I had a playlist going in the background this morning, and a song by one of my favorite groups came on. The song has a catchy beat, a fantastic hook, and a…well, a very human theme. 

“I wanna be 
consequence free
I wanna be
where nothing needs to matter…”

It’s easy enough to see the appeal of this plea. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to do the things that feel good in the short-term, but maybe not so much in the long term?  To be able to eat whatever you like and not gain weight or get heartburn. To be able to stay up late without being tired. To be able to drink without risk of a hangover. 

By William Hogarth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

And there are entire markets and products and social changes based on this wish. Consequences are the enemy, and stimulants, hangover remedies, weight loss pills and “diet” junk foods, contraceptives, abortion…these things are all promises that we can avoid consequences, that we can break the chain between cause and effect, separate the pleasurable present from the burdensome result. 

“I could really use 
to lose my Catholic conscience
'cause I’m getting sick
of feeling guilty all the time.
I won’t abuse it
Yeah, I’ve got the best intentions
for a little bit of anarchy, 
but not the hurting kind…”

In this world, conscience is the enemy, the nagging busybody that won’t let us just enjoy ourselves but insists that there are always consequences—even when we stick to “not the hurting kind” of anarchy. Ultimately, all the promises are hollow. The morning comes with the dreaded hangover, the successful diet requires self-denial and exercise, the casual lover breaks your heart, and the unwanted child haunts your dreams and changes you whether you wanted the change or not. The singer admits,

“I’d like to leave it all behind
but you know it’s not that easy…”

I’ve listened to this song dozens of times, but this time, the chorus struck me in a different way than usual. It’s easy to see why the “consequence-free” life the singer dreams of isn’t actually “that easy.” A bit of observation of the world around us shows that every attempt to escape the consequences of our choices only creates new effects, new consequences, and new dilemmas. 

But if it was possible to escape consequences, would that be good for us? Would that really make for happiness? 

“I want to be 
consequence free.
I want to be 
where nothing needs to matter.”

And there’s the word that caught me. Consequences are what make our choices matter. They give our lives substance, weight. A consequence free life could be pleasurable, but it couldn’t be meaningful. 

Emmeline Pankhurst arrested. Photo in public domain.

Personalists can spend a fair bit of time talking about volition or will, about free action. This isn’t because we think that only conscious action makes for a person—we are persons when we are infants, when we are sleeping, when we are comatose. There’s more to personhood than decision-making. Yet…when we act from the core of ourselves, moving ourselves towards a freely chosen end, we show ourselves clearly as subjects, as selves. There’s a weight and a meaning in the movement that opens us to choose, not only our next step, but the direction in which it moves us and the choices and consequences we might face beyond. 

It might be human to wish to be consequence free. But perhaps it is better for our humanity that this is one wish that won’t ever be granted.

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If you were God, and you wanted to rescue the human race from sin and death, how would you go about it?

If you saw murder and lies and blame-mongering springing up and snowballing from the very beginnings of history, would you bide your time for thousands of years, gradually revealing yourself and your teachings, and then arrange an incarnation? When the time finally came, would you start out as a two-celled organism and spend nine more long months quietly bonding with your Mama, while things on the outside got worse and worse?

Would you bother being born into a particular culture, speaking a certain language with a certain accent?

Once you'd finally gotten started, would you devote thirty years to inconspicuous manual labor, never letting on who you were, content to be known as "the carpenter's son"? Would you choose an era when most people were illiterate--no printing press, no telephone, no satellite communications, no Twitter? Would you plan the Sermon on the Mount without publicizing it as a Facebook Event first? Would you neglect to even write a single book?

And would you then befriend twelve unpromising-looking guys and begin making your way--on foot!--around a tiny sliver of land, only to walk open-eyed into mortal danger and cut it all short three years later? Would you coordinate your plan with the free will of every well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning klutz you met along the way?

How inefficient can you get?

Take it all in all, God clearly doesn't look on these things the way we do. What, then, was the tradeoff? For the sake of what, exactly, did He reject a more professional approach to advertising the salvation product and maximizing His market share by expert branding and promotion?

It comes down--surprise, surprise!--to His insistence on treating persons like persons. His name shall be called Emmanuel, it says: God with us. He became a human person, He didn't disguise Himself as one. He was conceived, if not in the usual way, in a way that set Him on a trajectory to live a life like ours from the very beginning, so that we would truly have "something in common." He depended on His mother's body and his foster-father's good will for nine months and beyond, developing His personality (if that makes theological sense) in the midst of everyday life with His people. He fostered real friendships with his disciples, too: even though He had a particular mission for them, He didn't think of them as employees in His marketing department.

And think of this: if He hadn't taken so long, billions fewer of us would have had the chance to come into existence. He could, as He said, have raised up children of Abraham or anyone else out of the stones, but instead allowed us to grow into an enormous family over the course of millennia.

Not the way it would have occurred to us to arrange things.

Then again, it's a good thing it wasn't up to us.

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