The Personalist Project

One of the many good ideas I never really got around to implementing was to celebrate Mother Teresa's canonization by doing something for the poor.

Which poor? I didn't know. I guess I had in mind the faraway poor--certainly something more glamorous and unique than leaving canned goods in the basket in the lobby of St. Mark's, around the corner. If I had gotten around to it, I'm afraid I would have announced it on Facebook, too. I wouldn't put it past me. I would have felt funny about doing that--because surely if your right hand is not supposed to know what your left hand is doing, you can extrapolate to "and don't blab it all over Facebook, either." But I probably would have told myself I was publicizing it to encourage others to do the same. I probably would have believed me, too. 

But it really doesn't matter, because I didn't get around to it.

Now compare this tangled mess of utterly fruitless mental gyrations to the true Mother Teresa approach. People would come up to her and ask, "Mother, what can I do?" and she'd say, "Go home and love your family."


We should help the faraway poor. Of course we should. We shouldn't use family as an excuse to neglect distant people in awful, desperate situations, especially brother and sister Christians being persecuted and exiled and tortured. But we don't help them instead of attending to obligations nearer at hand. Otherwise a lot of us well-meaning people could end up like Mrs. Jellyby, a Dickens character famous for devoting her life to unfortunates in Africa while her own children wallowed in avoidable squalor.

Dickens, of course, says it better:

Mrs. Jellyby, sitting in quite a nest of waste paper, drank coffee all the evening and dictated at intervals to her eldest daughter. She also held a discussion with Mr. Quale, of which the subject seemed to be--if I understood it--the brotherhood of humanity, and gave utterance to some beautiful sentiments. I was not so attentive an auditor as I might have wished to be, however, for Peepy and the other children came flocking about Ada and me in a corner of the drawing-room to ask for another story; so we sat down among them and told them in whispers "Puss in Boots" and I don't know what else until Mrs. Jellyby, accidentally remembering them, sent them to bed.

Go home and love your family. Come on. You'd think a world-famous Nobel Peace Prize winner could come up with something more original than that, something on a little bit of a grander scale. You'd think she'd know how to talk about "building rapport with targeted population segments,"  or "targeting resources to appropriate communities,"  instead of falling back on corny, amateurish jargon like "children" and "home" and "family." 

But where does this weird illusion come from, that makes me imagine that what goes on in my own house, my own family, doesn't "count"? It's not that I object to loving my own family--who would argue with that? Maybe it's that I've tried to love my own family--and I do! Don't get me wrong!--but I've also failed, over and over, to love them effectively. Something in me would really prefer to try something a little different, something that, just maybe, I can succeed at for a change, Something that sounds a little more impressive. 

But if the world is full of people like me, we'll never get anywhere. 

Comments (5)


#1, Sep 9, 2016 10:38pm

"Something in me would really prefer to try something a little different, something that, just maybe, I can succeed at for a change". Yep, that would be me. I had a conversation with God just this morning. You know it really stresses me out that I am not getting to do anything that I am good at. What if you were not good at anything? Would that make you of less value?

Still struggling with this as more and more stresses get added on to the piles.


#2, Sep 12, 2016 7:49pm

I'm a good dancer;  when I was 12, my picture was taken at a dance in junior high - it's in the yearbook I still have.  I was a break dancer and a pretty good "popper" - at least that was the impression I got when people formed a circle around me and started clapping and hooting and hollering.  Then afterwards people said, "That was great Peter, how do you do that!"  My friends and I, in high school used to love the dances and at least "we thought we were pretty good dancers", but the truth was we just loved to dance.  I can draw pretty well too (at least, I got an "A" in my college drawing class), and I love to make people smile and laugh;  and sometimes I'm successful and sometimes not, but when I do imitations of people (without being disparaging or obnoxious, which isn't always), people are stunned and want me to do it over and over, and sometimes I have to say, "no, that's enough".  I'm not always comfortable doing these things I'm "good" at, but I try to accept them unconditionally, knowing that these are my strengths, and try to do something positive with them.


#3, Sep 13, 2016 2:04pm

Aquinas said that in all His omnipotence God did not create the best of all possible worlds because there is no such thing, just as there is no such thing as the highest possible number; that the law of non-contradiction applies to God as well as humans.  What I glean from this is that there is no perfect solution for the world or myself; that I must learn about and accept this world, others and myself based on what I find, no matter what I find.  It’s a choice to accept what I find or to not accept it- to face the truth about the qualia I find in myself and others and this particular world I find myself in.  It’s subtler and more difficult than I think it is to face what I find, accept it, and live in it because it takes effort, it is a skill, and it is active, not passive to do this, but when I do it, I have a sense that I have overcome this world, myself and others as the barriers to truth or to God that these things often pose as, and maybe I come closer to knowing truth or God.


#4, Sep 13, 2016 2:06pm

It’s not my place to judge these qualia; I can only accept them for what they are.  I’m not saying I’m proud I love to dance and to think I’m good at it, or to draw and receive recognition for it, or to find satisfaction in making people laugh, but it’s what I’ve found out about myself through experience.  It’s just what I’m “geared” to do.  These are subjective qualities unique to the person I am.  I have a choice in what I decide to do about these qualia.  But they’re always going to be there no matter what I choose, and I can keep discovering new things about myself too.  The stumbling blocks are always about loosing focus on the discovery of these qualia; finding myself acting as if I am Godlike, or that I must be saintly in knowing these things and therefore I am somehow “above it all”, or that I presume to know qualia that I have no experience of whatsoever.  These are the only things I can speak of and be sure about but the temptation is always there to front myself as some kind of lightening bolt of pure intuition.  Pray for me St. Theresa.


#5, Sep 13, 2016 2:43pm

spelling correction:  St.  Teresa, not St. Theresa!  My God, will I ever get it right?!:)


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