The Personalist Project

Life threatened by consciousness

Plants can grow only when their roots are in the dark. They emerge from the dark into the light. That is the direction of life. The plant and its direction die when the root is exposed to the light. All life must be grounded in what is not conscious and from that root emerge into the brightness of consciousness. Yet I see consciousness becoming more and more deeply the root of our life. A relation to other lives is seen, one event is brought under the same law as others, and we get closer and closer in our scrutiny to the beginnings, the origins of life. The root of life itself, what is innermost to it, is lit up. Can life sustain this? Can it become consciousness and at the same time remain alive?

Romano Guardini, Letters from Lake Como

One of my favorite bloggers, Kelly Mantoan of This Ain't the Lyceum, has two children with Spinal Muscular Atrophy. Her post this week is about that, but it's of interest to just about everybody, parents or not, special needs or not.

Kelly recalls:

I remember the first time Fulton asked me if he would be able to walk when he was an adult. I was getting him ready for bed, when BAM I was hit between the eyes with his innocent question. I remember answering him in a matter of fact way,  “No, you’ll always need a wheelchair.”,  and then getting a bit teary about it later as I recounted the episode to my husband.

Since that first time, Fulton and Teddy have asked Tony and I numerous times why they can’t walk, why can’t we just teach them to walk, and several other variations. As painful as these moments can still be for me, I realized very quickly that they were nothing of the sort for either Fulton or Teddy.

As a special needs parent, especially one who sees the milestones of her healthy children side by side with the limitations of her disabled children, I need to watch that I do not think my sons are any less happy than their siblings simply because they can’t do all the same things or require doing something differently.

When you have a special-needs child, it's ever-present. Even if (like me) you aren't inclined to build your identity around it, it's still easy to forget that you're seeing things through your own eyes, not your child's.

I want this post to remind you that Fulton and Teddy, and people like them, can speak for themselves and even I, as their mother, cannot fully share their experience. My stories may be about them, but they’re not Fulton and Teddy’s stories. My feelings may run the gamut, but they do not reflect how Fulton and Teddy feel. If my life is overwhelming, hard, frustrating, or upsetting, it is because that is my subjective opinion, and maybe I should check myself to make sure those feelings are appropriate, rather than assuming my life calls for such emotions. If my sons are not overwhelmed, frustrated or sad with their situation, why am I?

You see? She's not just saying "It's important for me to keep my feelings in check." She sees that life sometimes "calls for" some emotions, sometimes for others. Some feelings are fitting for a mother watching her child navigate the special-needs life, and others are fitting for the child himself. But more than that--each is separate and distinct, belonging to the subjectivity of one person, not another. Even if the two people are mother and son.

Maybe that seems obvious. But look again: it's surprisingly easy for us to try to "usurp" each other's subjectivity, in all kinds of sneaky or unconscious ways. Maybe we assume somebody feels the same as we do. Maybe we project our feelings onto other people. Or we try to manipulate them into feeling as they "should." Or into feelings advantageous to us. Maybe we think of other people's affective lives as extensions of ours. We can end up by forgetting they have their own subjectivity at all.

When Fulton and Teddy now ask me questions, I realize they’re asking with the same intention of any five or eight year old who casually asks, “Why is my hair brown?”, “Can I be a famous singer when I get older?”, “Why can’t I fly?”. Their disappointment is just as fleeting as when I tell them, “No, you may not make explosives.” or “No, we can’t have ice cream for dinner.”  *I* still feel a twinge of sadness because they won’t ride bikes or play football or experience many things my older children take for granted, but thus far, they won’t feel sad unless I imply to them they’re missing out on something great.

Now this is interesting. Even though Kelly very insightfully notes that she doesn't own their feelings--that their subjectivity and hers aren't one--she does see that she has a chance to influence them. She can do this by respecting their feelings as theirs, or by pressing her own upon them. She can spread the contagion of her own sadness upon their matter-of-fact acceptance of their limits--or not.

If later they become wistful because they can't join the football team, at least it will be their own wistfulness. Just as she shouldn't force hers on them, she shouldn't try to force them not to feel what they feel. Encouragement and realism is one thing; usurpation is another.

But it's tricky, especially in the case of parent and child.

For children who, due to severe disabilities, will not live to see adulthood or be able to function as adults, there’s no reason the time they do have can’t be filled with love. Children can feel love and joy from a bed. If we choose to see each moment they have as a drain, a waste, or pointless suffering, then that speaks to our perspective, not our child’s.

Lots of authors remind us that even a life of handicaps has dignity, that people with muscular atrophy or diabetes have just as much value as any "normal" person. So they do. But this point is almost the opposite: Kelly's not just saying that objectively her children are as valuable as anybody else's; she's urging us to take seriously their subjectivity. She's pointing out that unless we do that, our vision of the objective truth of their life will be hopelessly skewed.

It's a good reminder for all us "normal" people, too.

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Family visiting from Holland (joy!) combined with internet problems (aggravation!) have made for light posting of late. But I'm still reading and reflecting in the background. A person with my cast of mind can't help it.

A visit to the Emily Dickinson homestead last month has me digging into a biography, besides the poems. The biography mentioned ED's copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, which had this line marked:

We’re nettles, some of us, and give offence by the act of springing up.

I loved it so, that I immediately searched for Aurora Leigh and began reading that too. (EBB's Sonnets from the Portuguese surpass Shakespeare's, in my opinion. But they're the only things of hers I've read till now.)

A theme in that great poem/novel—a man proposing to a woman, not because he loves her, but because he thinks she'd be the ideal helpmate for his life's mission—reminded me of Jane Eyre, so Jules and I began listening to that again, too. 

I am feeling fairly bowled over by the potent personalism of four nineteenth century women:

Charlotte Bronte, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and George Eliot.

Each of them dwells sensitively and artistically on the mystery of subjectivity, and the difficulty we have (individually and collectively) in realizing it duly. The tendency of our fallen nature is always to reduce others to categories, to project our own motives onto them, or to use them for our ends and interests.

Take these lines, spoken by Aurora to the cousin who wanted her for his mission:

"What you love,
Is not a woman, Romney, but a cause:
You want a helpmate, not a mistress, sir,–
A wife to help your ends . . in her no end!

He protests, and she continues:

With quiet indignation I broke in. 'You misconceive the question like a man,
Who sees a woman as the complement Of his sex merely.
You forget too much 
That every creature, female as the male,
Stands single in responsible act and thought
As also in birth and death.

This insight is the valid core of feminism.

But it's not only in inter-sex relations that a person needs to assert herself against reductions. Earlier on in the poem/novel, Aurora had to contend with an aunt who resented the awakening of her interior life, in as much as it wouldn't be subjected to the pretend authority of convention. The aunt had become her guardian when her parents died, and had tried to mold her according to her stiff notions of propriety. But Aurora had discovered poetry, and with it her individual passion and vocation.

But I could not hide
My quickening inner life from those at watch.
They saw a light at a window now and then,
They had not set there. Who had set it there?
My father's sister started when she caught
My soul agaze in my eyes. She could not say
I had no business with a sort of soul,
But plainly she objected,–and demurred,
That souls were dangerous things to carry straight
Through all the spilt saltpetre of the world.

In all of Emily Dickinson's writing we find the same constant. She is discretely presenting indications that there is more richness and depth, range and subtlety, freedom and responsibility in her subjectivity than the surrounding society is apt to allow. She, like Aurora and Jane Eyre, knows profoundly that her prime responsibility in front of God is fidelity to her own sense of right, even in the face of peer pressure to conform. And she knows it requires immense courage, especially when the "peers" are family members, who imagine they're acting for her good when they set out to curtail and suppress her individuality.

Take this line:

There are depths in every Consciousness, to which none can go with us.

That's personalism in a nutshell.

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I've lived a sheltered cyber-life: I was never even blocked from a Facebook group--until last Friday. It was surprisingly enlightening.

I'd joined a large, exceedingly useful and friendly diabetes support group. We were just about to get a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) for my daughter, and this group specialized in that particular experience--even our particular brand. The members were invaluable for heading off crises and glitches. Or rejoicing with you when the number on your meter matched the one on your CGM.  Or commiserating with true compassion when your negotiations with the pharmaceutical-insurance-industrial complex broke down. Or sharing your consternation about that lady who swears her brother-in-law's cousin used to have type 1 diabetes but was cured by oil of oregano and cider vinegar.

I was feeling especially grateful for the existence of my virtual community. I was starting to imagine I knew these fellow travelers personally--all 11,000 of them.

And that's when I made my mistake. I shared a post I'd written for Aleteia about remembering the person behind the glucose number, even though (as I noticed only later) they'd stated clearly that both people and posts that violated their guidelines could be deleted without notice. Two of those guidelines, which I'd skimmed over, were "no hot-button topics" and "no self-promotion."

I posted the piece and was immediately blocked.

And here are a few things I learned: 

  • I'd been assuming without realizing it that people who get blocked must have been guilty of something obnoxious which they were too clueless to see or too stubborn to stop. That was unjust.
  • Being blocked anonymously and impersonally is disconcerting in a way that being insulted to your face is not. Maybe not worse, but eerily different. You not only disappear off the face of the earth as far as the group members are concerned, but they also disappear for you. If you search, they won't be there anymore. 
  • On an infinitely smaller scale, it's the same kind of evil as a totalitarian regime turning someone into a non-person and rewriting history without him. Not only do you no longer exist; you never did. You're so non-existent that even the option of a plea for a second chance is cut off. The best you can do is to sign in as somebody else, taking on a secret new identity like some shady character under a witness protection program.
  • It makes you prone to self-doubt. Not necessarily a bad thing! When I was blocked, at first I assumed it was because of the religious nature of the post. It wasn't very religious, and I was proud of how inoffensive and accessible I was certain it was. But it did talk about justice and mercy, and it did include a short quote from St. John Paul II. Only later did I consider that the self-promotion might be the problem. Then, and only then, did I really look at the guidelines, which were posted unmistakably at the top of their page. Lo and behold, they spelled it all out: no hot-button topics; no self-promotions; violators may be blocked without notice.
  • It turns out I am one of those arrogant people who takes a cursory look at the rules of the game, blithely assumes they couldn't possibly apply to her, and then gets indignant when consequences ensue. (Although I did include a note inviting them to take the post down immediately if inappropriate, and I do think that a less touchy moderator would have taken me up on that offer. But then, moderators with thousands of members to police may not have time for subtleties.)
  • My sense of communion with 11,000 strangers was, of course, an illusion. We might provide each other with useful information; we might even shed a tear for someene's child's brush with death because of a careless school nurse--but we didn't truly know each other at all. 

I'm having a friend plead my case, and if that doesn't work out, there are other, similar groups. It's just a first-world problem. But it's also a bracing reminder that personal interaction in cyberspace isn't always what it seems.

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The other day I ran into a piece of natural common ground shared by two kinds of people--homeschooling religious types and young black men--who, according to stereotypes, are supposed to be on opposite sides.

The quote is from the blog DarwinCatholic, about the author's experience of being reported to Child Protective Services. (His toddler was briefly out of his sight, and a passing stranger anonymously reported the family to CPS and the police, too, making no attempt at personal contact first).

He writes:

This has given me a deeper sympathy for the way in which people who are frequently profiled by the police develop a corrosive relationship with law enforcement and the civic administration in general.

It wasn't a question of just investigating the particular suspicious circumstances, either.

This was essentially a stop and frisk of the whole family, the whole house, our whole lives. [...] Within moments it was clear that we do not have a chronic problem with children playing dangerously or wandering the neighborhood. However, the law and state policy require the social worker to dig into everything: How do we handle arguments? How do we relax? Do I ever drink? How do we punish the kids? Where do the kids sleep? What do they eat? What chores do they do?

Their whole approach to family life was presumed guilty until proved innocent, and he sees a connection to police policy:

It's wrong and corrosive to the social fabric to stop people at random on the streets to see if they have weapons or drugs. It's wrong to conduct deep searches of their cars and persons just to see if they might be doing something illegal. It's wrong to subject a family to this kind of scrutiny in ways that have no relation to the "offense" reported.

He clarifies:

I don't blame the people we dealt with, who were as nice and accommodating as their jobs allow them to be, but I do blame our laws and our society. We have bad laws and a society in which people think they're doing some kind of a good deed to call down the heavy hand of the law on each other over the tiniest thing. 

And I want to clarify, too: in some cases--and in some states, apparently--CPS is too prone to invade a person's life without cause. I've seen it happen. This is not only painful and disruptive; it generates all kinds of ongoing legal headaches and heightens suspicion on both sides.

But in other cases--whether because of overload or negligence--CPS allows children to remain in obvious danger. Living near Detroit for a decade has convinced me that yes, this does happen.

I'm not claiming the expertise to judge which is more prevalent. And I want to make as clear as humanly possible that my focus is not on CPS vs. parents or police vs. Blacks. Who could possibly imagine that what internet needs now is one more blogger's opinion on any of that? What I'm interested in is the personalist (or anti-personalist) implications of all of us moving among our fellow human beings and regarding them--and being regarded by them--as guilty until proven innocent. 

Policemen and security guards, of course, have to profile people. If you're taking your shift at the 7-Eleven and you're advised to be on the lookout for a young Hispanic male, you can't waste time treating every elderly Caucasian female with equal vigilance. You have to ask yourself: Does this person fit the description or does he not?

But here's what can happen: "fitting the description" can get treated as a crime in its own right. This might seem too obvious to mention, but plenty of people blur the line. For example, when a policeman shoots a man who turns out to be innocent but who fit the description of the guilty party, it's relevant that he "fits the description," sure. It's evidence that the cop wasn't just randomly, arbitrarily shooting an innocent man. It affects the level of subjective responsibility of the culprit.

But it doesn't mean the victim was even slightly guilty of anything at all.

However, profiling people--judging them according to "the description"--in everyday life, is also disastrous. It's the disease--or the exacerbation of the disease-- masquerading as the cure.

As the toddler's parents found out, it's probably a good thing to see things from the perspective of the profil-ee--the one who "fits the description"--once in a while. As the blogger notes, it caused him to "develop a corrosive relationship with law enforcement and the civic administration in general." And that made it easier to see why often-profiled people might be suspicious and defensive.  Suspicion begets suspicion. Treating someone as guilty until proven innocent begets being treated that way yourself. 

And proving innocence is nearly impossible. Pretty soon nobody trusts anybody until they've done the nearly-impossible. We all feel justified in hair-trigger judgments and even hair-trigger violence.

Once again, labeling persons and lumping them together seems like the only practical approach. And once again--just as in evangelization, education, patient care, mental health, and all truly human interaction, it leads to nothing but dead ends.

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As a teenage convert to Catholicism, I found that novenas took some getting used to. I didn't have a clear idea (at all, at all!) of what was and what wasn't an integral part of the Faith. I figured I'd better start saying some novenas, just in case that was on the test on Judgment Day. 

Except I couldn't. I couldn't finish a single one. The virtues of consistency and perseverance, which have never been conspicuous in me, didn't suddenly appear when I switched religions.

Besides, being new to Roman rules and regulations, I wasn't at all clear on the spiritual status of saying half a novena, or a whole one in fits and starts over the course of 11 or 12 days. What if you forgot a day? Did you have to start over? Were you supposed to pick up where you left off? Would you get five-ninths of the grace, or what?

I couldn't figure it out--not that I tried very hard--so I just gave up attempting novenas for twenty years or so. I also learned that it was perfectly possible to be saved without them, so I mentally assigned them to the box where I kept odd Catholic practices which, though kosher, were matters more of taste than dogma.

But then I got invited to say a very short, very easy novena for a friend who'd been suffering from infertility for years. I broke down and joined in, and I did it! All nine days! 

About nine months later she had her miracle baby, and I was very glad I'd (somehow, apparently) had a part in it.

After that I said some more novenas, and they were answered in startling and unmistakeable ways. Jobs appeared out of nowhere; psychological burdens were suddenly lifted. I mentioned this to my sister, Abby. "According to anything I know," I puzzled, "There's nothing about saying a prayer for nine days that would make it more effective."

"Exactly," she replied. "According to everything YOU know."

Good point.

I'm not advocating superstition. My aversion to it was what made me suspicious of novenas in the first place, Certainly you can pray one, or splash holy water around, or wear a scapular, in a superstitious way--imagining there's some unseen power in, say, the number nine, or the piece of cloth--and that by tapping into that power you can bend God to your will.

But it need not be approached that way at all. There's a much more natural way of looking at it: that maybe there's something at play here that I have no knowledge of.

Nothing implausible about that.

If the Church, in Her wisdom, recommends (not requires) the practice of novenas, then there's probably something to it, and the fact that it's not what I would have expected really has no weight at all. 

Remember when Naaman the Syrian suffered from leprosy and was advised by Elisha to bathe seven times in the unimpressive Jordan River of the unimpressive Jewish people? He resisted: Damascus had more striking rivers, and besides, Elisha hadn't even bothered to meet him in person to thank him for the ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten festal garments he'd sent to Israel. But in the end Naaman listened to his servants and was healed just as thoroughly as if he had embraced his instructions enthusiastically in the first place.

When I was a Protestant kid at Bible Memory Camp, we memorized a lot of verses. (If you could recite enough by heart, you could win a glow-in-the-dark cross from the catalog.) One was: "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts." Another was: "Man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart." 

It's easy for us to focus on the impressiveness of someone's real estate (the rivers of Damascus), or the lavishness of someone's payment (the shekels and talents and festal garments) or our trust in our own minds (overlooking details like our lack of omniscience). But what goes on inside a person--like humility (the willingness to take advice from slave girls and servants) and trust (even if it comes only after skepticism and rage) is more powerful than all the outward appearances and magic numbers in the world.

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