The Personalist Project

One of the lines that stays with me from the high-flying years of the charismatic renewal in the '80s came from a homily or a talk by (I think) Fr. Michael Scanlon at FUS.  He recounted the day when a fellow-traveler in the renewal asked him, "How are you doing, Father?" He replied, "Pretty well, under the circumstances."  Then came the robust retort: "What are you doing under the circumstances?"

It was a great laugh line for spiritual pep talk.  And it captures an important personalist truth.  We're meant to take charge of ourselves; to master our circumstances, not to be mastered by them.  We are self-determining moral agents, not just undergoers-of-experience.

On the other hand, too much emphasis on that point can cause us to neglect another personalist truth, namely the mystery of individuality.  

For instance, I've been noticing again over the course of the last couple of weeks that I am much more affected by things around me than others are.  Grey weather and bad political news can really get me down.  Everything looks bleak.  I feel sapped of moral energy.  Then come a few items of good news or a break in the clouds, and I'm like a different person.  When the temperature is just right and the sun is shining, I can sit in my garden and breathe in joy and out worship.  When it rains for several days together, weltschmerz begins to overwhelm me.

I experience all this as inscrutably related not only to my weakness-of-will issues, but to my nature as woman, my melancholic temperament, and to  "individual essence," which is abnormally sensitive in certain respects. In other words, I am, objectively, more vulnerable than, say, my husband, to "circumstances."  

Another priest in Steubenville used to admonish the students sternly, "No moods."  He meant well.  But I think it had the bad effect of making those who suffered from mood swings feel and look guilty.  It tended to imply that people with robust health and even-keel temperments were more virtuous than people who had to contend with bodily weakness and swinging hormones.  And it overlooked the fact that particular vulnerabilities are tied to vocation.  Alice von Hildebrand used to say such weaknesses are often the flip side of a real strength: responsiveness to beauty, or passion for truth and justice, say.

The trick is to keep all truths in right balance.  Somehow we have to find a way to live in the concrete in a way that respects the truth of our being, both as persons and as individuals.

Comments (2)

Patrick Dunn

#1, May 14, 2012 5:02pm

I don't mean to be nitpicky, and perhaps (I believe, actually) this is what you mean, but are we really meant to "master" our circumstances?  I think we are, if possible, to master how we live in the midst of, or respond to, our circumstances - and, yes, to change what we can and should regarding our circumstances - but ultimately, there are things we cannot change which, I think, God understands and allows, in a sense, to be our context of holiness (to borrow a concept from Fr. Marc Foley, OCD).  I think, at least potentially, there are things that we are "under" and which we somehow, maybe due to vulnerabilities or weakness, inevitably "undergo," and that prove to be more than our potential for self-determination. 

I agree with the point about virtue and weaknesses, vulnerabilities and vocation. 

Finally, I agree regarding the mystery of individuality, yet if that truth is not kept in balance, as you say (especially with humility), it can be exploited and do 'violence' to others.

I share the feeling Kafka had:

"Not dehumanized; human, rather, all too human. It was people in their insatiable fullness, not in their mechanized emptiness, that Kafka feared." -Zadie Smith, "The Limited Circle Is Pure," in The New Republic, 11/3/03

Katie van Schaijik

#2, May 14, 2012 5:09pm

You're right, Patrick.  I meant "master our circumstances" only in a limited sense.  I'm glad you clarified.  We can't control and shape all of reality.  A lot of "mastering" in the sense I mean involves accepting what's given--including our own impotence (at times) to change our circumstance.  

There's a great Victor Frankl quote that belongs here.  I'll have to find it.

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