The Personalist Project

Today's post is inspired by something my friend Monica overheard and shared on Facebook. She writes:

Tonight, a woman in the craft store said to her friend:  

I don't put up a tree.  But if you noticed, there's a wreath on my door. There's always a wreath on my front door. I decorate it for Lent, then Easter. In the summer I decorate it for Ramadan. Soon it will be decorated for Hanukkah, then Christmas, then Kwaanza. 

Her friend:  Wow. That's a lot of decorating.   

She: It is. People celebrate God all year long. I mostly celebrate their celebrations.   

I mostly celebrate their celebrations. How's that for counterfeit diversity in a nutshell?

How does it feel to have somebody "celebrate your celebration" while showing no knowledge of or interest in what it's all about? I can tell you exactly how it feels. A politician recently put a menorah in his office sometime around mid-December. He called the photographers, lit all the candles at once, said a few generic, Jewish-friendly words about the courage to stand up for one's traditions, and then hurried on to his next photo op.

He probably meant well. Still, it was jarring and comical. To celebrate Chanukah, you need eight full days, some very un-generic prayers addressed to the King of the Universe in commemoration of the rededication of the Second Temple, and (at least around here), lots and lots of chocolate coins. To do it right, you also need potato latkes, which, properly prepared and ingested, will put you in a blissful food coma for hours. You gather the relatives, you light the candles, you say the prayers, you sing the songs, you eat the latkes, you slip into the food coma. They tried to kill us; we survived; let's eat.* Then repeat for seven more nights.

But what busy politician has time for such stuff? Solidarity with the Jewish community, check! Next up: Kwanzaa! Make it snappy!

The thing is,"celebrating other people's celebrations" without celebrating what they're celebrating is a hopelessly external approach to other people and and the things they love. You're not really connecting with them at all. Some of the trappings, none of the substance.

It's a nice gesture--especially if, like the lady in the craft store, you go to the trouble of "a lot of decorating"--but it's not remotely what it's pretending to be. You're not joining in their celebration; you're mimicking it. You're acknowledging that other people care about something without rising above your own indifferentism. You'd be better off diving into a vigorous celebration of whatever it is you do believe in.

It's one thing to celebrate the diversity of human religious expression. As St. Pope John Paul pondered in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, maybe that's why God allowed such fragmentation: so we could all benefit from contemplating things from so many different angles. We're enriched by, say, all the different rites within the Catholic Church, and also by the many grains of truth in non-Catholic and non-Christian religions and cultures.

But it's quite another thing to pretend that you can encompass all this diversity between your own two ears. That's not diversity; that's just chaos. 

UPDATE: My friend Moncia has pointed out that the impression she had of the Wreath Lady was that she was not really pretending to do more than she was actually doing. She was entering into other people's experience of God by honoring their own ways of honoring Him.

The politician, on the other hand, is almost the opposite. "Cultural appropriation" may be an overused term, but he, Monica points out, is guilty of just that, and for the sake of personal agrandizement, too. This is very different from the Wreath Lady's efforts.

In short, I have unintentionally been guilty of what is pretty much the cardinal sin of personalism: taking another person's experience third-hand and twisting it--or at least hastily assuming I understood it--and placing it in the service of my own preconceived narrative.


*Theme of all Jewish holidays

Comments (1)

Rhett Segall

#1, Nov 26, 2016 7:23pm

Devra, I'm reminded of a scene  in "Brideshead Revisited" where Sebastian and Charles go into the Chapel and Sebastian genuflects. Charles, who has no religious feelings, genuflects too.

""Why did you do that?" Sebastian asks indignantly.

Charles says he just wants to be polite.  Sebastian makes it clear to Charles that he doesn't appreciate genuflecting just for politeness.

I'm also reminded of a Flannery O'Connor incident where she's with some people who somehow get into a discussion of the Eucharist. One of them says she thinks the Eucharist is fine as "a great symbol".. Flannery says "If it's just a symbol, to hell with it."

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