The Personalist Project

Battle for the person

... the battle which each person—and particularly each Christian—fights for humanity and human values is the noblest of battles.  It is a frontline battle, and final victory is worth the risk of some losses.

Karol Wojtyla, The Way to Christ

"People commit sexual assault because they feel entitled to other people’s bodies and disregard other people’s right to consent."

This resource link from the University of Michigan repeats the above statement multiple times in their answers to sexual assault misconceptions. They could say it a hundred more times and it wouldn't be too many.

People commit sexual assault because they feel entitled to other people’s bodies and disregard other people’s right to consent.

Not because women dress seductively or men can't control themselves or out of sexual frustration or in response to loose sexual mores or because of the influence of alcohol or sexualized imagery or whatever else.

People commit sexual assault because they feel entitled to other people’s bodies and disregard other people’s right to consent.

Sexual assault comes from the attitude that other people's bodies are objects for use. It comes from treating people as passive objects, not acting subjects.

People commit sexual assault because they feel entitled to other people’s bodies and disregard other people’s right to consent.

Why do people commit sexual assault?

Why do we at the Personalist Project believe so fervently that our world needs an every-day personalism, needs examples and guides for an accessible, applied Christian personalism?

We so quickly fall into the error of treating our bodies as distinct from our selves, as vehicles for pleasure or use. From there, it's a short step to treating other people's bodies as incidental vehicles for pleasure or use, as with the young man who argued quite seriously to me a while ago that pornography use isn't objectification because it is about fantasy, not about the person who allowed their body to be photographed or filmed to create the fantasy--as though the body can be separated from the person and used without harm to the "real" person.

When we objectify the body, we objectify the person.

When we claim that desire or intoxication or sexual imagery or immodest dress or flirtatious behaviour or hormones are "causes" of sexual assault, we objectify assailants just as they objectify victims. Our bodies are us, and we act through and with our bodies as subjects, and our actions reflect us and form us.

When an assailant chooses to take what was not offered to him, his actions are his, body and soul together. He is not an object passively acted on by outside factors. He is an acting self. 

Why do people commit sexual assault? 

Because they believe other people's bodies are objects for use. Because they do not recognise or do not care about the subjectivity and autonomous self-hood of other people. 

Or, in other words: 

People commit sexual assault because they feel entitled to other people’s bodies and disregard other people’s right to consent.

To quote from the late Terry Pratchett, from his novel Carpe Jugulum:

“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is. 

“It’s a lot more complicated than that . . .” 

“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.” 

“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes . . .” 

“But they starts with thinking about people as things...” 

We all, at one point or another, find ourselves tempted to objectify other people--for entertainment, for pleasure, as a target for our frustrations, as a scapegoat, as a caretaker, as a project. We impose our will on others--for their own good, because we know better, to make our lives easier, to attain an ulterior end, to fix a problem or to build ourselves up. 

We seek positions of power, authority, or influence, and vulnerable people, so that we can get the things we want or have an advantage against a world that feels unfeeling and scary. 

We feel entitled, and we disregard others' agency. 

Why do people commit sexual assault? 

It "starts with thinking about people as things." 

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I promise, I won't go on any more about my new workout routine. (If you'd like to hear me do that, you can always read all about it here.) But one day, when I'd been at it a few weeks, I tried to express to my husband why it's been so life-changing for me--specifically, the coach's insistence that I write down every morsel I eat. 

"He gave you a conscience," my husband guessed.

"No, that's not it at all!" I replied. "He gave me hope."

And it occurred to me: that's not just something newly minted health nuts need. It's what we all need.

The thing was, I already had a conscience. I knew perfectly well how I was supposed to regard my beloved hot pretzels and onion rings. Like any sentient American, I've been bombarded with information about such evils all my life. I was adept at feeling a powerful sense of guilt whenever I chose the french fries over the salad. It interfered with the pleasure of those french fries, but it seldom prevented me from choosing them.

What I lacked was not knowledge of the properties of french fries, but hope. I felt trapped in the cycle of feeling bad about eating the things I was going to keep on eating. The older I got, the more convinced I grew that life from here on out would be a long slide into deeper self-contempt and an ever-increasing inability to manage the simplest physical activities. 

But this week I played hopscotch with my younger kids and embarked on a nice mother-son bike-and-scooter ride. What I'd needed was not just information. What made the difference was the guidance of somebody knowledgeable, the companionship of fellow sufferers, and the momentum created by success.

Knowledge alone didn't cut it. That doesn't mean, of course, that the truth doesn't matter. I didn't want to forget about the facts about french fries, or find someone to lie to me and say that science had discovered they were good for you. I didn't want to hear that I was fine the way I was (being desperate enough to work out at 5:30 in the morning, I wouldn't have swallowed it anyway). I didn't want the false comfort of imagining that those who said potstickers would make me fat were being mean or unfair. 

Excessive objectivism is not excessive concern for the truth. There could be no such thing. It's concern for the facts--the objective state of affairs regarding, for instance, the number of carbs in a potsticker--without taking into account the personal subject.

In another context, Katie talks about: 

an insight from Newman and Wojtlya both—[...] Newman wrote of the "infinite abyss of existence" that is each individual soul, and about the mysterious subjectivity of "the illative sense"—the faculty by which we judge for ourselves what to do, what to believe, etc. Wojtyla constantly stressed personal responsibility. "You must decide." He too lived and wrote from a deep awareness of the inscrutability of God's dealings with another person, and the "impassibility" of the frontier between my will and another's.

Each of us has an "interior terrain", a zone of personal responsibility—an area "handed over to us" by God, where we're in charge.

This is significant because once you realize it, you realize your own responsibility to arise out of passivity--that your freedom isn't given to you just so that you can passively be conformed to the truth. But it's also significant for our dealings with other people, other selves. 

I'd had information about carbs, calories, and exercise available to me for decades. You can announce such information to people, expecting them to assimilate it the way a computer assimilates a downloaded image, making it part of a document's content. Or you can be even more disrespectful of their subjectivity by attacking them with this information, by ridiculing or being condescending. Or you can expect people to change their lives, or their bad habits, by assimilating information without a community, without a sense of responsibility, without encouragement and hope, without accountability and personal attention.

But that wouldn't be concern for truth. That would be excessive objectivism.


Image credit: Pixnio

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On Facebook today, I ran across a clipping of an article by John Rosemond, entitled, "Your kids should not be the most important in the family." You can read the article itself online here, if you like. I actually first skimmed over the clipping post yesterday, when some friends praised it. It bothered me, but I wasn't able to put my finger on why until I gave it a more in-depth look today.

In the column, Rosemond says he asked a married couple with three pre-teen children to answer the question, "Who are the most important people in your family?" He then spends the remainder of the column explaining why their answer--"our kids"--is the wrong one, with a hefty dose of nostalgia and "kids these days" grousing thrown in the mix. 

I went on to point out that many—if not most—of the problems they're having with their kids—typical stuff, these days—are the result of treating their children as if they, their marriage, and their family exist because of the kids when it is, in fact, the other way around. Their kids exist because of them and their marriage and thrive because the parents have created a stable family.

Furthermore, without them, their kids wouldn't eat well, have the nice clothing they wear, live in the nice home in which they live, enjoy the great vacations they enjoy and so on. Instead of lives that are relatively carefree (despite the drama to the contrary that they occasionally manufacture), their children would be living lives full of worry and want.

In one respect, this doesn't seem very different from the very popular oxygen mask analogy. The emergency instructions on airplanes always remind you to put your own oxygen mask on before turning to help others get theirs on. If your airplane is having difficulties and is losing cabin pressure, you can only help other people if you, yourself, are not in danger of passing out.

In a family, it's important that parents make sure our own immediate needs are met so that we can meet our children's needs without becoming incapacitated. Because children look to their parents for food, shelter, and security rather than the other way around, everyone's well-being is dependent on the well-being of the responsible adults in the family. 

The oxygen mask approaches the question of priorities from a pragmatic perspective. Caring for a caregiver's needs is a necessary pre-requisite before the caregiver can meet someone else's needs. It doesn't ask or attempt to answer Rosemond's question about who is "more important" because "importance" in the sense of pride of place, gravity, influence, significance is irrelevant to question of how to best meet the needs of the most people.

And that, I think, is why Rosemond's column irked me right from the beginning. There's a problem with the question itself.

To ask which family member is more important is arguably obscene. What if Rosemond asked, "which of your children is the most important?" Wouldn't we balk at the very question? Wouldn't we be troubled at being told that oldest children are the most important because they came first and have more to contribute, or that babies should be "second-class citizens" compared to older children or teenagers because of their greater state of dependence? 

Rosemond's error is compounded in his analogies. He says, 

The most important person in an army is the general. The most important person in a corporation is the CEO. The most important person in a classroom is the teacher. And the most important people in a family are the parents.

Rosemond wants us to believe that a parent "important" in the same way a general or CEO is "important." But the only way in which all of these people are "important" is in the sense of having a great deal of responsibility. The General is important because his or her decisions have great consequences for other people's  lives; the CEO is important because his or her decisions can impact many people's livelihoods. But are they important in the sense of their lives, decisions, or needs having more significance than the life, decisions, or needs of soldiers or shelf-stockers?

Are they--and should they be--"important" in the way Rosemond says that we treat children as "most important"?

Rosemond's complaint appears to be that children who are "most important" will feel entitled to put their own accomplishments and ambitions above the needs or good of the family and, ultimately, of their community or country. 

But if this is what it means, to Rosemond, for a person to be "most important," then he errs greatly in asserting that generals, CEOs, teachers, and--most of all--parents are and should be "more important" by virtue of their roles and responsibility. When a general, CEO, teacher, or parent puts their own accomplishments and ambitions above the needs and good of the people they each serve, it's not merely "entitlement"--it is corruption.  

The person who is "important" in the sense of their decisions having wide-ranging consequences must not be "most important" when it comes to the content of those decisions. Selfishness in a child is a flaw. Selfishness in an authority figure is an injustice.

Teach your children to serve. Teach them to value family and community. Teach them to think of others and not merely themselves. Teach them the importance of compromise and balance in life with others. Teach them to accept and understand responsibility to themselves and to others.

But please don't teach them that marriage and parenthood is a competition for a limited pool of "importance." 

"Importance" just isn't all that important where there is love.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28)

Image credits: Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Mrs. Edwin Stephenson family portrait by Snyder, Frank R. Flickr: Miami U. Libraries - Digital Collections [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Vacation Family picture via MaxPixel [CC0]. 


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Few things are more disconcerting than finding that your support group for people caring for Alzheimers sufferers is heavily pro-euthanasia. I'm staying in this (online) group, for various reasons (even though my mother is now in a faraway nursing home and I'm only her caregiver in the most remote kind of sense). It's full of useful information and opportunities to speak an encouraging word to people who have nowhere else to turn, but a friend and I are also hoping to start a new group for pro-life caregivers. 

Still, it made me wonder: How could this be? What hope is there if the very people who are supposed to be caring for the vulnerable to the bitter end are falling for "death with dignity" propaganda? And I've come to think it's less surprising, and perhaps less ominous, than it seems at first. Let me explain.

For one thing, very few of them seem focused on euthanasia for their own loved ones--it's themselves they're thinking of. They're determined not to put anybody else, especially their own children, through the long-drawn-out nightmare many of them are enduring. They have, besides, a thousand-percent more lucid idea than most of us about just what-all caring for someone with dementia at the end of life entails, and they're not susceptible to sentimentalism. Well-meaning platitudes from the lips of people who have no bitter experience themselves carry no weight for them.

Besides, this online support group, like most, represents simply a cross-section of the population--guided largely by pop culture, pop psychology, and pop spirituality. (As I've written here, there are more grains of truth in such sources than I used to realize, but there's plenty of banality and incoherence, too!) There are certainly more prayer requests than you'd usually run into in a random cross-section, but that may stem more from desperation than from traditional morality.

You might expect an outsized proportion of compassionate altruists--after all, those who are avoiding caring for the infirm, as well as those who don't even have such a thing on their radar, have self-selected out. On the other hand, no matter how compassionate somebody is, if there's a void, or a caricature, where their moral formation ought to be, that compassion is more likely to express itself in euthanasia advocacy than in the spontaneous embrace of a life-affirming ethic.

The members of this group are mostly devoting 24 hours a day to their relatives, through a haze of anxiety and sleep deprivation, with no hope of a cure, an improvement, or an hour's break. When they confront the specter of euthanasia, they're doing so with the tools they have on hand--the assumptions they've taken in by osmosis for four or five or six decades, which are generally:

  • Self-sufficiency and control = dignity
  • Suffering is the worst evil and cannot coexist with dignity.
  • It's bad taste to talk about killing instead of "death with dignity," "aid in dying," or "assisted suicide."
  • Where euthanasia is illegal, it shouldn't be attempted. If you want to move to where it's legal, though, or if you long for it to become legal, that's fine.
  • Insisting on extraordinary means to prolong the dying process and actively "putting the patient out of her misery" are one and the same. People who object to these are either overly religious or understandably but misguidedly unwilling to "let go," to the detriment of the sufferer.
  • There's such a thing as "legal safeguards" and "stringent regulations," which will prevent a slippery slope.

A good number of members do have some sort of faith: some instinct which tells them that since "the Lord giveth," it's up to Him to arrange about the "taketh away" part also. Usually, this is expressed apologetically, as in, "I understand how you feel; I know it seems awful and irrational, but because of my faith I just believe we should leave it up to God." This kind of thing reinforces prejudice.

I once knew a lady, an RN, who pretty much accepted all the usual assumptions. She wasn't Catholic at the time, but at my mother's urging she read the relevant Church teaching and was impressed by the compassion and the nuanced distinctions between actively killing, refusing to prolong the dying process, and allowing a fitting level of pain control even if it shortened life as a side effect. Not surprisingly, she also changed her mind about abortion. She'd been pro-choice because of the suffering she'd witnessed as a visiting nurse, but she had the integrity to change her mind when ultrasound technology made the truth undeniable.

That was my Nana, about whom more here and here. I'm not saying she's typical: she certainly wasn't. Nor am I denying that we're proceeding down the slippery slope at breakneck speed. If you have a loved one in any kind of institution, or under the protection of even the most well-meaning caregiver, please be vigilant! But as we contend against the evil of killing the helpless, we need to "translate" our arguments into a language that can be heard by the ones we're talking to. And we need to fight for the dignity of the patient without leaping to conclusions about the motivations of the ones who swallow the poisonous propaganda.


Photos are from my personal collection. The first two show Thelma Oguss (Nana), my maternal grandmother, working as a visiting nurse in Brooklyn, NY. The third shows her with my grandfather and my firstborn daughter. Nana died of Alzheimer's on All Saints Day in 2008.

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Twenty-six people died, in their church, in a mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, this past Sunday.

I’m not sure I have anything adequate to say in response to that. I’m not sure if any number of words can capture the horror, sorrow, frustration, confusion, fear, loss, and helplessness of a nation responding once again to the evil of the mass killing of innocents at the hands of a single man.

But when a great deal of blood is spilled, it seems an equal amount of ink inevitably follows, much of it combative or ideological, some of it constructive, and some meant--however unsuccessfully--to be comforting or inspiring.

Yesterday Simcha Fisher dedicated some time to dissecting a Federalist article that I think was probably intended to be inspiring, but wound up being…something else, instead. I’m not going to discuss the Federalist article at any length here (it was entitled, “When the Saints of First Baptist Church Were Murdered, God Was Answering Their Prayers”), but I was interested in the discussion it spawned.

Simcha Fisher writes:

 When horrible things happen, there is always a contingent of Christians — sometimes even of Catholics — who insist we must breathe shallowly, stretch our eyes open very wide, stare fixedly into the shiny distance, and declare all things good-fine-happy-triumphant-wonderful-terrific and joy-joy-joy-now-now-now. There is always a contingent who will say these things even to the faces of people who have just suffered immense, incomprehensible grief.

I've heard from more than one grieving person that "God has a purpose" and "at least he's with God now" are both way up there in the ranks of "worst thing to say to a grieving person." So why do we keep saying them?

There is an entire nation grieving those who were killed in Sutherland Springs on Sunday, but most of us are grieving in a somewhat remote way. We grieve that human lives were lost, and in such a senseless manner, but our public grief is nothing compared to the personal grief of those who knew and loved the victims.

Those of us whose grief is general, at a remove from the people who died, may find it comforting to find ways to make sense of tragedy, make it less threatening to our faith and our sense of safety by removing the mystery from it—whether that means clinging to simplistic diagnoses and cures for the social ills that contribute to these tragedies, or by manufacturing silver linings—spiritual or otherwise—so that we can put a credit on the balance sheets of the Universe to offset the losses we’ve witnessed.

We hide from tragedy behind pat formulas and karmic calculus, but the bereaved need something different from us.

Simcha points out that Christ, whose will IS the Father’s will, didn’t find relief from the real weight of sin, grief, and suffering in his knowledge of the good that could be brought out of it.   

Christ wept when Lazarus died. Christ begged for his suffering to pass in Gethsemane. Christ cried out in agony and desolation on the Cross. Why? Because suffering is real. Death is horrible. It is not from God. He accepted and allowed and used all the evil and suffering that came into the world through sin, but it was not His will that there should be evil and suffering. He wept.

Want to comfort the grieving? Do as Christ did and as we are commanded to do, and weep with them.

Stand before the mystery of their subjectivity, of the completely unique and unrepeatable relationship with their loved ones lost by each mourner. Stand silent before the grief that eloquently tells the real, incommunicable value of the dead.

In this way, we affirm that each loss is a real loss, that each injustice suffered is a real injustice. As Simcha reminds us, when every fibre of your being cries out against the wrongness of death, you are protesting a wrongness God never intended for us.

This is the mystery of sin in the world. This is why we need Jesus. Sin creeps into all of our lives, and someone else's sin can bring death--the enemy, death, the consequence of sin, the broken thread in the weave of Creation--into the lives of the innocent.

We are God's beloved children. And so He weeps over the death that sin brings into the world, even as He calls us to choose life so that we might live forever with Him. 

God does bring good out of our evil, over and over again, but He does so with our cooperation. We are not God's playthings, pieces to be moved around the board into our appointed positions by any means necessary. 

The world is broken and groaning for her healer.

And Christ wept.

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