The Personalist Project

For a long time, I labored under the illusion that spontaneity, especially as practiced by me, was a charming thing.  This misconception has been slowly, and I do mean slowly, draining away over the past couple of decades.

One early intimation that something was amiss came when my husband and I were newlyweds moving to a different apartment.  He seemed distinctly uncharmed by the large quantity of boxes I had packed up and helpfully labeled “MISCELLANEOUS.”

 I was mystified.  What did he want: a boring, regimental, conformist wife?

(Now that I have eight children who take after me, his perspective is much less baffling.)

I’ve been reading Time for God by Fr. Jacques Philippe again,

and I’ve come across some helpful distinctions among various qualities that go by the name of spontaneity.  He clears up my old (and possibly widespread) misunderstanding of freedom.  Here’s the way I thought it was:

True Freedom isn’t doing what you want, but doing what you should. When you want what you should—when your desires are in line with Objective Truth—then to follow your desires is to act with true freedom. 

I could see the point.  I wasn’t yearning to be out of touch with Reality.  Still, this explanation seemed to take all the fun out of it.  It seemed to leave no room for spontaneity, just conformity. 

It did make sense, but it involved redefining freedom so drastically that it lost all its appeal. I felt as if someone were trying to put one over on me.

What Philippe brings out, though, is this: just as when we give up being self-seeking we finally get a chance to develop a real self—a real personality—so when we advance beyond being ruled by our whims, we get a chance to exercise real freedom, real spontaneity. 

He begins by explaining the limits of spontaneity in the context of prayer:

An argument that comes up fairly often and may prevent people from being faithful to mental prayer goes like this:

“Prayer is terrific, but I only pray when I feel an inner need….To start praying when I don’t feel like it would be artificial, forced, even a sort of insincerity or hypocrisy…. .I pray when I feel a spontaneous desire for it.”

The answer is that if we wait until we feel the spontaneous desire for prayer, we may end up waiting until the end of our days.  That desire for prayer is very beautiful,

and also unreliable.

(But by all means, take Katie's advice and go see the wonderful Ushpizin, from which the picture is taken!)

True spontaneity—even what I thought of as “the fun kind”—doesn’t mean being a slave to your own whims: 

Real freedom does not mean being ruled by one’s impulses from one moment to the next.  Just the opposite.  Being free means not being a slave to one’s moods; it means being guided in a course of action by the fundamental choices one has made [emphasis mine], choices one does not repudiate in the face of new circumstances. 

This was interesting: freedom allows you to abide by your own real choices.  Of course, once you see it, it seems obvious.  I preferred being a slave of my whims to systematically packing up boxes, and look what happened.  It didn’t serve even the short-term goal of making my life any easier.  Nor did it further the cause of the smooth move or the peaceful and happy life together that my husband and I both wanted.

Or worse: setting store by false spontaneity could easily break up a marriage, sabotaging your own ability to “be guided in a course of action by the fundamental choices” you yourself have made—in this case, “I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad.”

After all, Philippe asks:

Which is the most genuine, authentic love—the kind that changes from day to day according to mood, or the stable, faithful kind that never goes back on itself?

Truth, not superficial inclination, is the guide to the authentic use of freedom.  We must be humble enough to recognize how fickle we are.  Someone who is wonderful today strikes us as unbearable tomorrow, thanks to a change in the weather or our mood. 

What we couldn’t live without on Monday leaves us cold Tuesday.  This kind of decision-making makes us the prisoners of our whims.

So spontaneity wrongly understood can be enormously damaging.  It’s clearly in our own best interest to master our whims.  Do we need to give up spontaneity altogether, then?

Philippe clarifies further:

Everyone wants to be able to act spontaneously, freely, without constraint.  That is perfectly legitimate: human beings are not meant to be constantly at war with themselves, always doing violence to their nature. 

I was happy to see that.

He goes on:

The need to battle with ourselves is the result of the inner division caused by sin.  But our natural aspiration for freedom cannot be satisfied merely by giving free rein to spontaneous desire.  That would be destructive, because our spontaneous desires are not always directed to what is good; they need to be deeply purified and healed (emphasis mine).  … Once this restoration of right order to our tendencies has been accomplished, we become perfectly free; we naturally and spontaneously love and want what is in accordance with God’s Will and our own good.  Then we can safely follow spontaneous tendencies, because they have been set right and brought into harmony with God’s wisdom.    

I love the emphasis on healing rather than getting in line—very helpful when explaining the place of spontaneity and freedom to those who might have developed an allergy to conformity talk.  Everybody senses we need healing, even if some proposed remedies are more plausible than others.

 In reality, conformity with the good, the true and the beautiful is not going to constrict anybody’s freedom or ruin anybody’s happiness.  But why invite misunderstanding?

Well, I'll leave you to figure it out.  I have some mysterious boxes to unpack.

Comments (3)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Oct 26, 2012 9:21am

Beautifully and truly said, Devra!  I, too, have grown to appreciate the value of order and discipline—though I fear it doesn't yet show in my way of living. :(

Newman has a meditation on the theme:

He, then, is perfect who does the work of the day perfectly, and we need not go beyond this to seek for perfection. You need not go out of the round of the day.

...If you ask me what you are to do in order to be perfect, I say, first—Do not lie in bed beyond the due time of rising; give your first thoughts to God; make a good visit to the Blessed Sacrament; say the Angelus devoutly; eat and drink to God’s glory; say the Rosary well; be recollected; keep out bad thoughts; make your evening meditation well; examine yourself daily; go to bed in good time, and you are already perfect.

Not very romantic, but simple and true.

I admire and envy the freedom to achieve great things that disciplined and committed people have.  I feel how my own lack of discipline ensnares me and prevents me from doing and achieving what I really aim for...

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Oct 26, 2012 9:26am

But!—a caveat.  (I can't help myself.)

I agree with every you and Jacques Phillipe say here.  But I have more than once experienced the idea that "freedom doesn't mean doing what you want, but doing what you should" being misused.  I've seen it applied in ways so that it means something more like this:

"My making you do what I think you should is not coercisive, it's true freedom, because true freedom isn't doing what you want, but what you should."

Someday I have to write a post on Catholicism and the fascist temptation.  

Jules van Schaijik

#3, Oct 26, 2012 9:50am

He seemed distinctly uncharmed…

Sounds like his spontaneous reaction did not meet the conditions you refer to in the title of this post!

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