The Personalist Project

Four years ago (have I been writing here that long? Hooray!) I reflected on whether we're meant to be self-centered or other-centered, and concluded: "Well--both!"

We're meant to shift back and forth, it turns out--you can tell, because the Bible is full of admonitions like "Love your neighbor as yourself," and "With what measure you measure, it will be measured unto you," and "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you."

You see? We're supposed to keep moving from self to others--neither just plain self-centered nor just plain altruistic. Because our true good is compatible with everybody else's? Yes, but it's not just that. As I tried to explain it then:

There’s a common thread here: [these principles] keep on drawing you not simply towards others, but back and forth from your own desires, obligations and actions to everybody else’s.  They keep reminding you to acknowledge the personhood, the interiority, the subjectivity, of both the other and the self.

There’s room for both self-realization and the generosity of altruism. We're not supposed to exclude others and their good from consideration; nor are we supposed to be other-centered in a way that neglects legitimate self-realization--the kind of thing St. John Paul was talking about when he kept urging us to "become who you are!" As I put it then:

What I’m trying to put my finger on is [...] the way the commandments require us to shift back and forth between ourselves and others. 

Consider what happens when I ask myself:

Do unto him what I’d want done unto me?  What would that be, exactly?  The measure I’m measuring with?  Is it a generous measure, or miserly, or too harsh?  Is it cynical, or merciful?  What if someone made the same assumptions about me that I’m making about that guy?  How would I react if someone treated me with such grudging, marginal justice?  Or with overflowing generosity?  Do I really know what makes that lady tick?  What if she assumed she knew what makes me tick?  What does make me tick?

I’m forced to consider both the other as subject and myself as object—or, at least, myself from the point of view of someone who doesn’t happen to be me.

Where am I going with this? Well, it occurs to me that there's a counterfeit version of it--something that mimics it closely enough to deceive us into thinking we're on the right track when we're wandering further and further into the no man's land of what Pope Francis calls the "self-referential."

This wrongheaded approach to the self and all those other selves out there is what drove Jesus crazy (so to speak) about the Pharisees: their incessant twisting around to check out other people's failures to keep the Law. And also their curling in upon themselves to admire how they measure up, compared to all those sorry specimens. All this was a twisting of that back-and-forth balance enjoined by the Gospel. The Pharisees weren't just being selfish--they were, in their way, more "other-centered" than most.

But of course they were misguided. Yes, they were concerned with other people's souls--wanting to examine and micromanage them--and maybe they told themselves they were doing that for the others' good, or at least because truth and goodness are so important. But it was a counterfeit concern: they were using the prostitutes and tax collectors as a foil for their own superior virtue--as accessories to set off their own central Self.

You can err by indifference to others' interiority. You can also go wrong by an unhealthy interest in it. Casting critical, suspicious, sidelong glances at the competition is not at all the same thing as looking into the eyes of a fellow thou. 

But it's not always so obvious when you're the one doing the glancing.

Comments (1)

Jules van Schaijik

#1, Sep 3, 2016 7:53am

Interesting post on a widespread problem, Devra. I know lots of people who are way too concerned with others :-)

I don't think however that the motive for this sort of unhealthy other-centeredness is always a desire to boost one's own self by comparison. Sometimes it seems to be just an unwillingness or inability to let go, a need to manage a situation or a group. Parents and pastors are often tempted to meddle with others out of a misguided sense of responsibility.

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