The Personalist Project

Hospice voluteers in our area have inaugurated a book club, as a way of sharing our experiences and interests and getting to know each other better. The first book we're reading together is The End of Your Life Book Club. It's written by Will Schwalbe, who chronicles his mother's dying of pancreatic cancer. Both great readers, one of the ways they cope with the tedium of her chemo treatments is by reading and discussing books together. Mary Anne Schwalbe comes across as an extraordinary woman, who lived a life of dedication to good causes, especially the cause of refugees. She was a believing Christian and a life-long activist, convinced that the way not to be overwhelmed by the problems of the world was to do what one could to address them. Once she took a leave of absence and spent a whole semester helping Sisters of Charity caring for Laotian refugees in shocking conditions of poverty and deprivation. She helped thousands. Her last energies were devoted to founding a library in Kabul, because reading is a path to freedom.

She was not the kind of "humanitarian" whose "generosity" involves having a high-paying job at a prestigious organization implementing programs funded by other people's money. She was the real deal. Her concern for human beings was concrete and personal. She spent her own time and money on behalf of the causes she served, and she constantly strove to do more, feeling it was the way to "make a return" for all the blessings she had received.

One of the things I liked most in the depiction of her character was the way she brushed off, with some irritation, compliments on her courage (for traveling into war zones to help refugees, for instance). She wasn't courageous, she was only doing what she loved to do. Courageous was a term for people who did what they had to do—what was right to do—even though they were suffering and afraid. She especially admired people who are willing to take an unpopular stand. That takes real courage.

So far so admirable, for someone like me. But then there are the jarring notes. Her son, who authored the book, is gay. So is her daughter, who is raising two of her grandchildren with her lesbian partner. These are mentioned in the book without the slightest remark, as if their homosexuality is a complete non-issue in her life of Christian service. Her son's lack of faith gives her some sorrow, but his homosexuality evidently none at all. Her other son is on his second marriage. Her husband, the father of the family, doesn't figure much in the story.

Then there is her passionate admiration for Obama. Her intense interest in his election occupies some of the last months of her life. She seems to take it for granted that his Presidency will be a great and wonderful thing for the world.

How can this be? I wonder, did she not believe at all in Sarah Palin's Christianity? Did she think Republicans villains? Could she see nothing true in their philosophy and platform? Did she not perceive the evil of abortion? Could she not understand how much of the suffering in the world had come from leftist ideologies?—from "immanentizing the eschaton?" Couldn't she see that the teachers unions are ruining education? Or that the breakdown of the family leads inexorably to the exploitation of the individual?

How would she have looked at someone like me? Someone who thinks that the defense of life and of marriage is the central moral call of this moment in history? Would she have seen me as the enemy?

Because this question is perturbing my heart and mind, a passage from an article in the September issue of the New Criterion jumped out at me today. The article is by Solzhenitsyn's widow, Natalia, about The Gulag Archipeligo. That book, which took the world by storm and precipitated the demise of the Soviet Union, was not a political treatise, not a philosophical meditation, she said. It was more like an epic poem. A poem about good and evil in the human heart. She quotes her husband:

If only it were true that there exist evil people insidiously committing evil deeds, whom it is necessary simply to separate out and destroy. But the line dividing good from evil cuts through the heart of every human being...This line is not static within us; it sways to and fro over the years. Even in a heart imbued with evil, it allows a small bridgehead of good to remain. And it permits a small niche of evil to surivive even in the kindest of hearts.

It's good to keep our sense of this lively. Every human heart has both good and evil in it.

Our society is terribly polarized, politically, these days. We tend to be either of the left or the right. We see the world so differently from fellow Americans on the other side (some of whom are in our families) that it's sometimes hard even to converse on any but the most superficial topics. Touch on deeper questions, and we're suddenly enemies. The misunderstandings—even between those who are sincerely committed to the Good—seem so deep and comprehensive that I am tempted to despair of being able to bridge it.

Mary Anne Schwalbe, though, said something to her son that struck a chord, and maybe points to a solution. He was asking her how she can know whom to trust. (How can you know, for instance, that this Afghani interpreter travelling with you isn't secretly a jidhadist, biding his time?)

The thing is, you can’t just talk to people. We learned that. You have to work with people— that’s how you find out more about them. You can still be wrong. But you just know a lot more that way. That’s true no matter where you are.

This seems to me right. Very incarnational. Very Theology-of-the-Body like. Also very like Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. It's not enough to have ideas and talk about them. One must do. And in doing, the truth outs—the truth of oneself and one's thoughts is tested and proved. Also the truth of one's companions is revealed. Humanity emerges. Illusions are dispelled. Divisions are exposed. Bonds are established. Things get sifted.

Consciousness of this basic truth is part of what motivated me to join hospice. Lots of my fellow volunteers are leftists. They think Obamacare is great. They think Reiki is a godsend. I suppose many of them would think (if they knew) that my views on homosexuality prove I'm a bigot. I'm hoping that by getting to know each other in actual service to the dying, we'll find our way to truth together. In any case, I mean to try. I'm sick of just having thoughts.

Comments (8)

Michael Healy

#1, Nov 29, 2012 12:12am

I thought this was a great post Katie.  I've been having some similar debates, not so much with myself, as with my sister.  We agree on a great many things, even politically, though she is California leftist Democrat and I am midwest rightist Republican.  We've discovered that as you go around the globe from left to right or right to left there are surprising areas of common ground.  Yet we still pass in the night when it comes to the relative moral (and political) importance of questions like marriage, abortion, and homosexuality on the one hand and global warming, the evils of capitalism, and the good of government control on the other.  We each have our insights and our blind spots, no doubt.  Neither of us is just good or just bad.  "[T]he line dividing good from evil cuts through the heart of every human being...This line is not static within us; it sways to and fro over the years." 

I also like Swalbe's thought that "You have to work with people—that’s how you find out more about them."  This wisdom goes all the way back to Aristotle on friendship!  It takes time to build knowledge and trust.


#2, Nov 29, 2012 9:23am


The "Gulag" and Sozhenitsyns work in general are essentialy Augustinian. The Model is The Confessions. A lot of his critics I think miss that. Work is redemptive and so working together is also. How to create a political model based on work and redemption. In "Ivan Denisovich" it is work that keeps the Zeks from despair. 

Jules van Schaijik

#3, Nov 29, 2012 9:56am

Our neighbor, a faithful Catholic and staunch conservative, used to be the mayor of our town. He told me once that in local matters political affiliation plays only a small role. "People just get together and look for the best practical ways to meet the needs of their community." This is an instance, I think, of the sort of thing Schwalbe means. Political disagreements between people are much less significant when they roll up their sleeves to do some concrete service to real individuals around them.

I guess this is another argument for small government, which get's us right back into the thick of political controversy :-)

To Don:

I didn't know that the redemptive nature of work is a theme in the Confessions. But I have not read it in a long time. Also from long memory, I had the impression that work kept Zeks from the despair only by distracting them from it. But that would only hide the despair, not overcome it.  Am I wrong about this?


#4, Nov 29, 2012 10:32am


And ye shall labor all the days of your life is a theme in Genesis.

Suffering and labor and work are intimately related I think. It is not a theme overtly in The Confessions except that conversion is work. When we work we are participating in an act of creation. When we convert there is suffering and labor invloved and we turn to be more wholly involved in Creation.  When the Zeks for instance mix mortar and begin to build a masonry wall in sub zero temps the labor and suffering enables them to participate in an act of creation and this is essentially human in a dehumanizing situation. In this act of creation there is hope.  I think I read it as more of a positive than you did. I recently read a quote of Mother Teresa. " I have found this paradox that when you love until it hurts there is not more pain only more love"  Labor, Love Suffering Creation 

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Nov 29, 2012 10:45am

I understood her point differently.  Or, maybe better, I received it differently—as answering a particular want of mine.

Work offers an answer to the problem of radical miscommunication and alienation between persons.  We see things so differently that conversation (i.e. talk) has become nearly impossible.  When people look on the same reality and see completely different things (e.g. some see abortion as basic women's rights, while others see the slaughter of innocents), talk about it tends to increase the alienation.  We are tempted to despair of communication, never mind true unity.

This has to do with the limitedness of each one's perspective.  It also has to do with the fact that, just as each heart has a mixture of good and evil, each one's thinking is a mixture of truth and illusion. Also lies.

All of us have some illusions—about ourselves, about others.  Some are deeply ensconced in illusions and denial.  

Work has a way of bringing us into contact with reality that is missing from mere talk.  And true communication comes from being in reality together.

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Nov 29, 2012 10:47am

I don't mean to be disagreeing with you, Don, or Jules.  Only highlighting something particular.

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Nov 29, 2012 10:57am

Here's a concrete instance from the book.  One of the books they read and talked about together was W. Somerset Maugham's, The Painted Veil.  I haven't read the book, but I did see the movie.

When the wife, desperately lonely and estranged in a remote part of China with her bitter husband, began working with the nuns who had an orphanage there, several things happened.

1) Her idea of nuns as miserable, repressed, and pathetic women was transformed.  She now saw them as beautiful and heroic, full of life and love.  She began to get the relation between love and sacrifice.

2) She began to see how spoiled she was and how selfishly she had lived her life.  In working with the orphans, she also became less selfish.

3) She began to admire her doctor husband for his work among these wretched people.  Seeing her work, her sweetness and goodness with the children, opened her husband's heart toward her.   True spousal love began to grow between them for the first time.

Katie van Schaijik

#8, Nov 29, 2012 11:02am

It can also work the other way.  I'm thinking of Newman's concern (before he became a Catholic) about Angelicanism being a "paper religion".  He believed it wasn't that, in fact, but that it might appear to be so.  But then, later, he found it was.  When it came into contact with reality, if fell apart.  

Similarly, you can admire someone and their ideas—think they're great, right on target—only to discover, when you actually work with them, that the reality of their character is very different from what comes across in their talk.

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