The Personalist Project

In elementary school I used to endure frequent agonies for a very silly reason. You see, the teacher would regularly select someone to be in charge of advancing the film strip to the next frame. (Too young to remember film strips? That's what teachers would use to put students to sleep before PowerPoint was invented.) I'd sit there,  hoping against hope that she wouldn't call on me, because I had no idea how to do the job. Everybody else did (I assumed), but I didn't. 

Why didn't I just ask? Well, but then the teacher would find out that I didn't already know. Unthinkable. I was supposed to know.

Did I outgrow this ridiculousness? Yes, eventually. But even in high school biology, my teacher, a battle-scarred veteran of the public-school system who could and did run classes in his sleep, used to write the entire lesson on the board, complete with charts and diagrams. Every day. I couldn't really see the board, but I didn't want to say so. Instead, I flunked the class and took it over again, borrowing a classmate's notebook to copy from. Every day. 

I spent many years doing things the hard way, because I believed--or at least I felt as if--I was already supposed to know everything. It wasn't that I was lazy. I devoted plenty of energy to futile attempts to conceal my predicament. 

If you're still with me at this point, you may well be wondering what value the experience of an inexplicably clueless child could possibly hold for you. Well, read on.

I assume I was an extreme case. At least I hope most people don't live like this.

But I think it's very common in the spiritual life. Not knowing how to pray, or get close to God, or conquer a vice, often leads, not to trying to find out, but to futile and repeated attempts to make sure no one--not even God Himself!--discovers that you don't already know. To faking one's way through, carefully avoiding the one thing that might help.

My cluelessness about the inner workings of the filmstrip mechanism was a simple lack of information. Most people wouldn't hesitate to simply acquire the data they needed. But when it comes to spiritual things, there's a stigma--at least a perceived stigma--to the ignorance. You're just supposed to know--not only "supposed to" as in "expected to," but "supposed to" as in "moral-ought to." Admitting ignorance is admitting a moral failing. But either way, until you admit what you're lacking, you can't hope to address it.

I remember a priest at a day of recollection describing how sometimes a person gets to the point where she throws up her hands, lifts her eyes to heaven, and blurts out, "OK, fine! I just can't do this! I need help!"

And then the Holy One, he said, breathes a sigh of relief and says, "Finally! Now I can get somewhere with you!"

He knows we need help. We're not going to fool Omniscience anyway! Trying to hide it from Him is even sillier than me trying to hide my lack of technical know-how from Ms. Zelinski in the third grade. Trying to hide it from other people cuts us all off from the assistance and empathy we're designed to give one another.

Being a successful fraud is the worst thing that could befall us.

Comments (7)

Rhett Segall

#1, Jul 26, 2016 9:26am

Thank you for sharing very practical examples of the kind of torture we put ourselves through! Devra, your simple childhood examples certainly have adult parallels. Not hiding our insecurities with others allows others to offer help-it is a gift to allow others to give to us.

Darn, though, if I don't have another side. I did very well in my graduate theology degree-please excuse the trumpet. However, there was one course I couldn't quite master-the eastern religions and their esoteric vocabulary. So I was completely open with the professor-"This is confusing stuff-I'm not sure I get it" I pronounced in my naivete.  And so I didn't get it-an A! I wonder if I had been silent the prof might have given me benefit of the doubt.

Which brings up the popular maxim: "Fake it until you make it.". Or as Debora Kerr sang in "The King and I": " Whenever I feel afraid I hold my heard erect and whistle a happy tune so no one will suspect...when I fool the people I fool myself as well...!

So this all begs the question "Just how revealing should we be?"

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Jul 26, 2016 10:18am

I like your question a lot, Rhett. I've been learning that there's no true communion without vulnerability, and that the refusal to accept our own neediness and offer it to others is one of the greatest obstacles to right relations between persons.

On the other hand, I've also learned that another one of the great obstacles is the fact that many people use the vulnerability they see in others to despise them and/or take advantage of them.

Part of our normal discernment, then, seems to me to involve a sensing of when and whether another person is open to us—willing and able to respond to our vulnerability without contempt or abuse.

I think one reason children (and adults) decline to ask for help is that they have experienced their weakness being used against them. Maybe it's no worse than a sibling or a friend mocking them for not knowing something. But that may be enough to put a sensitive child on guard.

An accumulation of those experiences can lead to a crippling of the personality.

Devra Torres

#3, Jul 29, 2016 5:17pm

It's true, we needn't (in fact, shouldn't) go around baring all weaknesses and ignorance indiscriminately. On the one hand, we need to work on discerning the likely response of others. On the other, we need to make sure we ourselves are the kind of people who can receive other people's trust without abusing it. I've been rereading Fr. Michel Esparza's Self-Esteem without Selfishness--just for pleasure, now that I'm done translating it and can enjoy it more), and he talks a lot about "humble self-esteem." Anyone lacking in either humility or healthy self-confidence will have a hard time discerning, because our view of other people and their likely reactions to us is so easily distorted, either by pride or an unhealthy kind of self-abasement. 

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Jul 30, 2016 10:52am

I've been interested to find in Amoris Laetitia that the Holy Father talks about self-acceptance and learning to love and forgive ourselves as a kind of prerequisite for authentically loving others. And he talks about that knowledge it as a kind of achievement of our day and age. "We know now..."

It interests me especially because it's new for me too. I used to scoff at the idea that love-of-self was the ground of love for others. I saw it as pseudo-wisdom—pop psychology gobbledygook. But in the last several years I've learned existentially that it's true, and I've learned to be immensely grateful for this modern "discovery."

One of the causes of strife and tension and misery in our world is that many, many people—maybe most—are suffering under a load of self-hatred and self-rejection. And those things make it impossible for them to enter loving communion with others.

Devra Torres

#5, Jul 30, 2016 12:07pm

Yes, yes, yes! That was what struck me so much about Self-Esteem without Selfishness when I was translating it, and now I'm rereading it for pleasure and seeing how deeply it resonates with experience and with good advice I've been getting elsewhere. Only when you have a healthy, reality-based self-confidence do you have the power to retain your freedom and ACT out of freedom, never fear, when you're interacting with people who tend to manipulate and pressure (even those who don't mean to be that way or realize they are that way). If you have that inner freedom, you're free to not take the bait, not let things set you off, not let everybody "push your buttons." But if you're mired in self-contempt, every criticism just confirms what you're already convinced of: that you're unworthy.

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Jul 31, 2016 9:57am

Here's Amoris Laetia, 107:

Today we recognize that being able to forgive others implies the liberating experience of understanding and forgiving ourselves. Often our mistakes, or criticism we have received from loved ones, can lead to a loss of self-esteem. We become distant from others, avoiding affection and fearful in our interpersonal relationships. Blaming others becomes falsely reassuring. We need to learn to pray over our past history, to accept ourselves, to learn how to live with our limitations, and even to forgive ourselves, in order to have this same attitude towards others.


Rhett Segall

#7, Jul 31, 2016 5:15pm

The reflections on love of self and self esteem  reminds me of a couple of anecdotes, one about Carl Jung, the other about a fellow teacher.

A patient of Jung asked  for an additional session. Jung said he couldn't oblige as he had someone else lined up. A short time later the patient comes across Jung at the beach.

"I thought you said you had to meet with someone" the patient said, indignantly.

""I did." Jung replied. "Myself."

I once asked a social worker at the high school where I taught how she could keep her sanity constantly working as she does with teens with emotional problems.

"I'm very careful to set aside time for myself" she responded.

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