The Personalist Project

Long, long ago, in my ninth-grade English class, our longsuffering teacher, Ms. Whatshername, did a unit on Study Habits, or some such topic. There were time-management tips, like remembering that when you sit down to study it can take half an hour just to get settled in and gain a little focus and momentum. There was also an intriguing point about the sense of hearing: that by honing in on, say, your teacher's voice or the construction crew outside, you can actually change the way the sound waves enter your ear. I wouldn't be able to explain the physics of it, but it was striking. More things than we realize are under our control.

And then there was this: Learn how to separate out what's being said from the person who's saying it. Don't make yourself unable to hear or understand a truth just because it comes to you via somebody with a funny accent, a tacky wardrobe, or a squeaky voice. Don't invest the message with the superficial qualities of the messenger.

It was like a precursor to the motto of the International Academy of Philosophy, where I'd go eight years later: Love all truth, and love it in all things. Don't cut yourself off from truths that come from unlikely sources, in unexpected packages.

I thought of that the other day. A priest I know is not especially impressive-looking. He has allergies, I think, and sometimes his voice breaks, or he's interrupted by a cough. He speaks softly, in a tentative, inoffensive kind of voice. He's not inflammatory, not a yeller.

But if you listen to him, you might do a double take. His words are invariably unflinching. Life is about getting ready to die! Untiring faithfulness, no matter what! The world is going to end one day, you know!

it would be easy to let the sound of his voice go in one ear and out the other, taking for granted that his words must be as innocuous as his appearance. To sit there, feeling comfortably superior, a critic rather than a student, falling for the illogical assumption that the strength of an idea ought to be judged by the superficial features of its spokesman.

I think we're especially prone to such illogic because of the images we see in videos every day. Not just violent or pornographic video, but nearly all video. It all has one thing in common: the attractive and appealing ones are the heroes, and the ugly or forgettable-looking ones are evil or inconsequential. This happens not only in blatant propaganda but in the telling of wholesome and noble stories, too. No matter how we go on about getting beyond appearances, it never seems to happen.

So thank you, Mrs. Whatever-Your-Name-Was! I'm sure you'd be shocked to find that unpromising-looking freshman was paying attention.

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