The Personalist Project

A friend linked a video rant on Facebook the other day called, "Dear Oprah Winfrey: there's no such thing as 'your truth'". It's full of snark. 

I so wish conservatives wouldn't do this! I wish we wouldn't behave as if the way to promote and defend objective truth is to deny and diminish subjective truth. 

There is such a thing as "your truth", and "speaking it" is really important. So is listening to others speak theirs. Oprah is right about that, however wrong she may be about other things. 

What is "your truth"? It's the truth of your experience, your thoughts, your feelings, your perspective, your interests, your priorities, your motivations, your interiority. It's not reducible to your opinion. For instance, "I get melancholy when I listen to Irish music" is a statement of fact, not opinion. I'm not sharing my opinion of Irish music; I'm sharing my experience of Irish music. To say, "I know what you mean when you speak of emotional neglect and abuse; I've been there," is to express a truth (or a falsehood), not an opinion.

A friend of mine recently shared that she hates her husband's habit of grabbing her out of the blue. Maybe the husband is trying to be playful. Maybe it's his way of expressing sexual desire. But his wife doesn't like it. It makes her feel disrespected in her body and in her agency. It makes her mad. That's important information for her husband, isn't it? It's important for the marriage that she "speaks her truth" and that her husband pays attention to it. 

Calling attention to subjectivity doesn't entail subjectivism any more than preaching community entails communism or emphasizing femininity entails feminism. As Karol Wojtyla wrote, long before he became JP II: "we must not forget that the subjectivity of the human person is also something objective." 

Imagine how bad it would be if a wife told her husband, "I don't like it when you grab me like that. I find it rude and off-putting," and her husband were to reply by saying, "You're wrong. It's not rude or off-putting at all. It's playful and sexy." He would be adding disrespect for his wife's feelings and preferences to disrespect of her body and agency. It would be an example of exactly the kind of egotism that ruins relationships. "My experience and feelings trump yours. Mine are reality; yours are subjective nothingness." 

It's really important that we understand that when we do that what we are communicating to the other is "I matter; you don't." It is the very opposite of love. 

Being open to the subjective reality of others is the beginning of everything good in the interpersonal realm. Without it there's no friendship, no love, no communion, no solidarity, no evangelization, no civil society. Remember that line from Pope Benedict that I've quoted before:

This is how the Apostles’ adventure began, as an encounter of people who are open to one another.  For the disciples, it was the beginning of a direct acquaintance with the Teacher, seeing where he was staying and starting to get to know him.  Indeed, they were not to proclaim an idea, but to witness to a person.

Being open to others means taking a genuine interest in them as individuals, as subjects—their thoughts, feelings, preferences, perspectives, and so on. It means, further, being willing to share truthfully about ourselves—our real, honest selves, not our false or "willed" selves, not our merely superficial or in-denial selves. Everyone who's been in a 12-step program learns this wisdom and tries to practice it. We regret when we fail to practice it. We understand it as a failure of love and truth—a failure that typically comes from fear and habit.

"Speaking my truth," for most of us, involves moral effort and virtue. It takes genuine self-knowledge (often hard-won), courage, integrity, humility, vulnerability. Until we start consciously making that effort, we typically don't realize how accustomed we've become to speaking (and hearing) platitudes or instructions or projections or evasions or half-truths or lies—things that protect or puff up egos; things that radically interfere with real communion. 

What's true on an intimate level between friends and in families is true on wider social level too. The goodness of "the marketplace of ideas"—the free exchange of real views—is one of the fundamental values of democracy. It's essentially linked to the dignity of the person. To be an individual is to have views. To respect others as individuals entails being open to and respectful of their real views.

When we stop living and acting from that fundamental truth, civil society breaks down, as we see happening all around us today.

Of course the fact that there is such a thing as "my truth" doesn't mean there's no such thing as the truth. Of course there are such things as objective facts and values. Nothing in a pregnant woman's subjectivity can alter the objective moral worth of her baby. Whether she wants the baby or not; whether or not she realizes that that baby is a person, that baby is a person, and it's not okay to kill it.

We can defend that kind of truth without pretending it's the only kind, just as we can believe in the immortality of the soul without asserting that the body is worthless.

Comments (9)

Rhett Segall

#1, Jan 21, 2018 9:33am

For a relationship to be nurturing it must be authentic; for  it to be authentic communicating our "subjective truth" must be a leitmotif. The example you give, Katie, brings that home. I am reminded of the essay of Carl Rogers: " Characteristics of a Helping Relationship". Rogers considers of prime importance "congruity",  by which he means a unity between what a person feels and his/her accurate expression of that feeling.  If others can trust that what we say accurately expresses what we feel than we are providing a solid foundation for a nurturing relationship. 

However I would qualify Rogers' point on congruity. I agree that we should be aware of the nature of our feelings and own them. But if the feelings draw our attention to a negative attitude the proper response to those feelings would be to "dis-sanction" them. Suppose the lady in your example feels jealous when her spouse talks to other women. Suppose there are no objective grounds for that feeling. For her to say to her husband "I don't like to see you alone with other women. It makes me furious." is to curtail his freedom and create a possible wall between him and his wife.True, the wife has a certain authenticity in expressing her "subjective" truth. But in doing so she  negates the deeper truth she has towards her husband, i.e. crediting his faithfulness towards her.

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Jan 21, 2018 10:18am

Thanks, Rhett, for your thoughtful feedback.

When it comes to "wrong feelings", i.e. feelings in disaccord with reality (not quite the same, I think, as "negative feelings") Von Hildebrand uses the term "disavow". According to him, if I feel a wave of jealousy when I see my husband talking to another woman, I should use my will to disavow the feeling as wrong and unworthy.

I used to agree with this idea of von Hildebrand's, but I don't anymore. Or at least, I would want it to be qualified much further before agreeing with it. I'll come back to that. First, I want to point out that a person expressing honest feelings doesn't, in fact, curtail anyone else's freedom.

The fact that something I do makes someone I care about furious doesn't bind me to refrain from doing it. What binds me is the objective moral law and my own conscience.

Imagine a wife worried enough about her husband's drinking that she decides to go to Al Anon. This makes him furious, since it implies that he has a drinking problem. Is she bound not to go? No. She's free. Her conscience may tell her she ought to go.

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Jan 21, 2018 10:23am

The fact that I get furious when my husband does something doesn't give me a right to control his behavior.

What it gives me is a responsibility to address my problem. That will include:

1) Owning my feelings.

2) Trying to understand where they come from.

3) Deciding how to deal with them without hurting self or others.

Maybe I need therapy. Maybe I need to talk with husband about the situation. Maybe I need some distance for a time. Maybe I need to talk to God about what is going on in me...

I need to run to mass. More later.

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Jan 21, 2018 12:51pm

About von Hildebrand's notion of "sanctioning or disavowing" feelings.

When I first learned it, I appreciated for the way it showed that persons can take a stand toward their feelings. If we're overcome with envy, for instance, we can acknowledge that we are overcome and that that's bad. We can use our will to reject envious thoughts. We can make an effort to replace them with better thoughts... All this resonated with me and my experience. It vanquished the form of libertinism that makes "whatever I feel" the guide of my life. "If it feels good, do it."

We are not directly responsible for what we feel in a given moment, but we are responsible both for how we judge those feelings and for what we do with them. So far so good.

But I have come to think that von Hildebrand's idea—at least the way it's typically understood—tends in the "excessively objectivistic" direction, leading to inauthenticity and denial. I've experienced it in myself and I've seen it in others.

I think those who adhere it to are under a kind of pressure to express not what they feel, but what they judge they ought to feel. 

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Jan 21, 2018 1:03pm

It tends to short-circuit the all-important stage of sitting with, acknowledging, feeling our feelings, and letting them reveal truth to us.

Suppose my child commits some minor infraction, and I get enraged. My morally immature reaction is to blame my child. It's her fault I'm so angry. A more mature response would be to recognize and regret the disproportion between the cause and its effect in me. I see I am at fault. I disavow the feeling and apologize to my child.

If I do that too quickly, though, I will miss the opportunity to discover why such a small thing led to so much anger in me. Where is that coming from? What does it tell me about myself? That, I propose, is where the rubber really meets the road in the moral life.

Rhett Segall

#6, Jan 21, 2018 1:08pm

I am reminded of the little rhyme connected with educating our feelings: Name it (anger or upsetness, sorrow or depression) claim it, (yes this is me!) tame it (not destroy it)  and aim it (don't break the dishes! Naming and taming are critical.

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Jan 21, 2018 1:20pm

yes, but not too soon. Not before we've done more than name it, we've felt it; listened to it, and inquired about it. Not before we've let it reveal what it has to reveal. Not before we've let it teach us about ourselves. 

A friend once shared that his wife asked if he could come into the kitchen and help with the dishes. He said, "Yeah, sure," but then didn't go. She got annoyed and asked again. He burst into tears.

He might have just disavowed that reaction as ridiculous, inappropriate, and unmanly, and forced himself to go into the kitchen. Instead, he asked, "Where did that come from?"

On reflection, he realized that growing up, his parents would frequently fight after dinner in the kitchen. 

His reluctance and his tears weren't about the adult husband refusing to help his wife; they were about the fear and violence he'd experienced as a little boy. Those things were worthy of tears—tears he had never shed, because it wasn't safe to shed them.

Sam Roeble

#8, Jan 23, 2018 6:03pm

Thanks for this!It prompted me to do a personalistic study of the Harlem Renaissance,  especially Dubois' "Double Consciousness" 

Rhett Segall

#9, Jan 25, 2018 9:20am

Our different roles definitely affect our "subjective truth".  Dubois' ideas on group identifying dynamics reminds me of my multiple roles-husband, father, teacher, citizen, etc, as a person. One of the weaknesses in Carl Rogers' unconditional regard is its tendency to repress our roles as one in authority-parent, teacher, etc.-and to see every relationship as a therapeutic task. Some times I must put aside the therapeutic dimensions of a relationship and act as parent, teacher,, cop, etc. My "subjective truth" at that moment is to be what the situation and my responsibility calls for. If my 16 year old son has been drinking at a party I might want to engage him in a therapeutic dialogue but I must bracket that, at least  for a time, and hold him accountable.

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