The Personalist Project

A year ago, I started an early-morning workout program which, to my shock, is working for me. It's taught me a lot about the non-workout parts of my life, too. 

But something else occurred to me, something with ramifications far beyond whether you can teach one sedentary, fifty-something grand multipara new tricks or not.

The way the program is set up, you get a point every time you come to class, keep a food journal, participate in a 5K, and so on. You can also earn a point for going to orientation. Once in a while, if the roads are icy and class is cancelled, everyone gets a point for their unfulfilled desire to show up. Rack up enough points and you get a generous discount next time.

But give us human beings a system, and we'll find a way to game it. At some time during each session--usually perilously near the end-- Uncle Larry, our coach, starts getting emails, calls and queries from us, his coach-ees, asking just how many points we've racked up, exactly how complete our food journal has to be, precisely how late we can arrive and still count as having attended a session, and so on. We start wondering whether, perhaps, there's a way to get credit for perseverance and consistency without, well, persevering and being consistent.

We start focusing on points for their own sake, forgetting that the only reason the point system, with its promise of a discount, exists is to encourage us to succeed. We fall into the What's the Least I Need to Do? approach. We try to get away with short-changing ourselves and sabotaging our success for the sake of of the reward that was put there to facilitate our own accomplishments.

Students are the same way. They sleep in; they miss their deadlines; they don't open their mouths all semester, and then, a week before finals, they appear in the professor's office, announcing earnestly that they're worried about their grade. The grade, rather than an indication of accomplishment, becomes an end in itself. They're industriously trying to rack up points while missing the point--to count as educated without the labor of learning things.

We religious people fall into the same trap. We put our faith in checking off the boxes--the rosary box, the devotion to St. So-and-So box, the novena box... The practices were meant to draw us closer to a Person, but we act as if they're invested with magic powers that will allow us to sneak past St. Peter without the slow building up of virtues and genuine acts of love.

I'm not talking about the idea that we can earn our way to Heaven--that we, single-handed, could be virtuous enough to deserve eternal bliss. That would be a mistake, but a different one. The points mentality is more subtle, because we don't always notice we're falling into it. We're not trying to sabotage our own accomplishment--we slip into thinking that of racking up points and becoming holy are one and the same.

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