I want to continue our conversation about the “self-referential person”--the one who lights a lamp but then gets scared and hides it under a bushel, reluctant to go out into all the (contaminated) earth to preach the gospel.
We can agree there's a big differentce between fearful, self-imposed isolation and the legitimate effort to found new communities and develop a sense of identity for oursleves and our descendents.
That doesn't let us off the hook completely, though: we still have to discern--over and over--when and how to engage the culture and when and how to repudiate it. St.Augustine's speaks of the Israelites taking "gold out of Egypt"
--a metaphor for embracing whatever good is to be found in a culture. We have to do the same, keeping an eye out for the "fool's gold" mixed in with it. (A relative's insistence that Twilight was a nice, wholesome story about chastity comes to mind.) When to embrace, when to adapt, when to reluctantly reject, when to run screaming in the other direction--no blueprint in the form of established childrearing norms is about to materialize to assist us. As Katie points out:
When there's natural community, we have a way of life handed down to us. When that breaks down everything has to be questioned, examined, figured-out, re-assembled, doubted, [and] second-guessed, etc., which is exhausting
I'm pretty sure there's a link between the breakdown of natural community life and the kind of discernment-fatigue people like me suffer, which seems to me a sort of spiritual fibromyalgia.
Still, I agree with you very much about the insubstitutability of personal judgment. And maddening as it sometimes is, it does seem to me a kind of calling for our generation.
Jules contributed striking a quote from Glenn Tinder:
The condition of mass disintegration… intensifies human guilt… by depriving people of traditional and accepted patterns of life… Often parents are left only with a few notions vaguely based upon the hypotheses of unknown, and frequently philosophically ignorant, psychologists. This of course constitutes an opportunity for a very creative kind of parenthood. But to have to train children and, in addition, to determine the final ends and the methods of such training is about as difficult a responsibility as a human being could assume. Parents who accept this responsibility are required, implicitly, to choose among competing philosophies of man, the world, and civilization; furthermore, they have to do this when they are young and inexperienced and must, on the validity of their choices, stake in some measure the lives and happiness of their children. Never can it have been more true than today that the sins of the fathers are visited on the children.
I wholeheartedly agree. But here's the silver lining:
The comforts of a "traditional and accepted pattern of life" can be a decidedly mixed blessing. I once spent an entire decade in a sustained state of culture shock—precisely because I felt trapped in a “natural community,” bound by some very definite “traditional and accepted patterns of life.”
Our family had moved to Barcelona, where my husband was teaching, earning his doctorate, and generally holding things together for all of us. There were various reasons for my abject failure to adapt, but one stumbling block was the omnipresence of the unwritten rules: a “that’s just the way it’s done” for every occasion—in everybody’s mind but mine.
It felt totalitarian. The rules invaded every nook and cranny of life, from the proper kind of ham for your tostada at merienda to the single correct way to part your hair to the bearing and rearing of your children.
Some of these rules were clearly better than what I was used to, for instance:
- Don’t go around looking like a slob (even if you’re very, very old, young, tired, or pregnant).
- Don’t eat lunch alone at your desk.
- Don’t get fat.
In some cases they were worse:
- Don’t insist on a carseat for your baby.
- Send your toddler to all-day preschool.
- Don’t be caught dead wearing last season’s fashions.
And sometimes they were just different:
- Pierce your little girl's ears.
- Eat supper at ten o'clock at night.
In America, of course, we have unwritten rules, too—but many of them are along the lines of
- Do your own thing.
- Hey, whatever works for you.
Now, even I could see that living in a natural community—foreign or not—had one distinct advantage: If you’re not continually occupied with designing, evaluating, and second-guessing all the creative decisions you’re forced to make, your mental energy can occasionally be turned towards other things! Someone has already invented the wheel: you’re free to drive the car. Whole swaths of daily life can (to switch metaphors) be put on automatic pilot.
Of course, the personalist ideal is not passivity and unreflectiveness. Automatic pilot alone will never lead you to "become who you are." Our most personal actions are not the ones we perform in reflexive mimicry of a collective expectation. That doesn't mean we have to reflexively reject expectations, either.
But if some things are on automatic pilot, it allows us to concentrate on the truly "human acts" in which our freedom, rationality, and self-possession are fully engaged.
So here's the silver lining: we have the unique opportunity to enjoy the best of both worlds. In 2013 American, most of us don’t have that option of reflexively conforming to a prefabricated set of cultural norms. We therefore don't have the temptation to delegate discernment to our ancestors entirely.
But we need not ghetto-ize. It's possible to join, or found, a micro-community of the kind John Janaro (and then-Cardinal Ratzinger) have referred to, one which enriches the world rather than just running from it, inviting people in, offering them an alternative to the toxic, disintegrating ruins around them. We want ot make sure to avoid the kind of cultish tendencies Katie and discusses here, but these are not inevitable.
I think it's true: this is our generation's calling. We're living on a construction site,
not in the suburbs.
It promises to be exhausting. But it doesn't have to be embittering, and it's not likely to be boring. Besides, every calling comes complete with the grace to carry it out.