The Personalist Project

In elementary school I used to endure frequent agonies for a very silly reason. You see, the teacher would regularly select someone to be in charge of advancing the film strip to the next frame. (Too young to remember film strips? That's what teachers used to put students to sleep before PowerPoint was invented.) I'd sit there,  hoping against hope that she wouldn't call on me, because I had no idea how to do the job. Everybody else did (I assumed), but I didn't. 

Why didn't I just ask? Well, but then the teacher would find out that I didn't already know. Unthinkable. I was supposed to know.

Did I outgrow this ridiculousness? Yes, eventually. But even in high school biology, my teacher, a battle-scarred veteran of the public-school system who could and did run classes in his sleep, used to write the entire lesson on the board, complete with charts and diagrams. Every day. I couldn't really see the board, but I didn't want to say so. Instead, I flunked the class and took it over again, borrowing a classmate's notebook to copy from. Every day. 

I spent many years doing things the hard way, because I believed--or at least I felt as if--I was already supposed to know everything. It wasn't that I was lazy. I devoted plenty of energy to futile attempts to conceal my predicament. 

If you're still with me at this point, you may well be wondering what value the experience of an inexplicably clueless child could possibly hold for you. Well, read on.

I assume I was an extreme case. At least I hope most people don't live like this.

But I think it's very common in the spiritual life. Not knowing how to pray, or get close to God, or conquer a vice, often leads, not to trying to find out, but to futile and repeated attempts to make sure no one--not even God Himself!--discovers that you don't already know. To faking one's way through, carefully avoiding the one thing that might help.

My cluelessness about the inner workings of the filmstrip mechanism was a simple lack of information. Most people wouldn't hesitate to simply acquire the data they needed. But when it comes to spiritual things, there's a stigma--at least a perceived stigma--to the ignorance. You're just supposed to know--not only "supposed to" as in "expected to," but "supposed to" as in "moral-ought to." Admitting ignorance is admitting a moral failing. But either way, until you admit what you're lacking, you can't hope to address it.

I remember a priest at a day of recollection describing how sometimes a person gets to the point where she throws up her hands, lifts her eyes to heaven, and blurts out, "OK, fine! I just can't do this! I need help!"

And then the Holy One, he said, breathes a sigh of relief and says, "Finally! Now I can get somewhere with you!"

He knows we need help. We're not going to fool Omniscience anyway! Trying to hide it from Him is even sillier than me trying to hide my lack of technical know-how from Ms. Zelinski in the third grade. Trying to hide it from other people cuts us all off from the assistance and empathy we're designed to give one another.

Being a successful fraud is the worst thing that could befall us.

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