The Personalist Project

Sometimes I think my writing belongs in the self-help aisle instead of the philosophy section. Not that I have delusions of expertise, but I've done so many things the hard way over the last half-century, it's left me with a desire to spare other people all the trouble I can. And of course genuine self-help is built upon a right understanding of the person.

Anyway, you be the judge. Here's what happened today.

I woke up a little late. My prayer time, such as it was, was squashed into a shorter period than usual. My husband was out of town.The all-day robotics club competition I need to attend tomorrow, plus the prospect of moving again (and nailing down someplace to move to) within six weeks or so made for continuous, unnerving background noise in my overwrought psyche.

                   Picture seven additional kids, two older, tireder parents, and a less                                                                       bucolic setting.

Before I knew it, I was making loud, obnoxious declarations about what needed fixing in the habits and characters of each of my children, and the morning was going downhill fast.

I removed myself from the objects of my obnoxiousness and asked my internet friends: What's your favorite trick for salvaging a bad day?

Like many good things, the ideas that came pouring in were not earthshaking or blindingly original, but they were wise. Accomplish one thing. Take a nice long walk, a nap, a shower. Watch a funny video clip, a happy full-length movie. Have some chocolate, some Doritos, some coffee, some wine (suggested separately by Kamilla, Nancy, Amy and Iris-- not to be ingested all at once). Make some popcorn; take a bath; do a craft with the kids; try a little knitting

The point is not the merits of this remedy or that. Nor is it just hitting on an effective method of relaxation. It's recovering not just momentum, but protagonism in your own life--reclaiming your lost steering wheel.

When I first read Karol Wojytla's Acting Person, I wanted to learn about that steering wheel. I knew human beings possessed free will--at least in theory. It's at the heart of our metaphysical makeup. But our free will is not so much a fact or a possession as a quality to be repeatedly reclaimed and expressed, minute after minute. We keep slipping into abdication. We let ourselves be led along by a mood, an advertisement, a temptation, somebody else's strong personality. Sometimes we even believe we're using free will when we're actually being manipulated. Our self-knowledge is not very reliable.

Wojtyla discusses the classical distinction between a human act--in which the core of the free person is engaged--and an "act of man"--an act that happens in, or to, the person, but doesn't really have him as its author. You can have conscious occurrences unfolding in you all day long without once being their real author. You can perform physical actions all day long without really making them your own or moving a single step closer to, as Wojtyla puts it, "becoming who you are."

So back to self-help mode: how does this play out in daily life?

Don Aslett, a cleaning expert and a sort of motivational and productivity guru, wrote an article once in Practical Homeschooling about salvaging a bad day.  If a day begins inauspiciously, we tend to cement it in our minds as a Bad Day and see every subsequent setback, no matter how minor and manageable, as just one more confirmation that we're trapped in a spiral of futility. Pretty soon, we are. Instead of addressing each one in a commonsensical way and moving on, we get overwhelmed. 

But it doesn't have to be that way. We can decide to identify each setback as the minor obstacle it is, and carry on from there.

Another example: as Dr. Ray Guarendi points out, there's a tendency to watch out for when you're trying to build a new habit--say, as a New Year's resolution. He's talking about an exercise routine, but it applies to lots of things. The sequence to avoid goes like this: lapse, relapse, collapse. You miss your workout one day? That's a lapse. You miss it two days in a row, deflated by having missed it once? That's a relapse. You give up on it altogether, because you missed it twice? That's a collapse.

But it doesn't have to be that way. You can insert your free will and decide not to be derailed, choosing to focus on the illogic of treating failure as inevitable. 

I hesitate to write about these things because they seem so obvious. But I figure if I need so many reminders to reclaim the steering wheel, maybe I'm not the only one.

Comments (4)

Gary Gibson

#1, Jan 9, 2016 9:20am

Devra (I do love your name- never heard of a "Devra" in my life before you!),

I love your writing style.  It is unique, pithy, humorous, and chock full of insights that anyone can benefit from (even a 65-year-old grampa who is planning to retire in 8 months or so).  We all do the things you describe here, especially "letting go of the steering wheel" of life and abdicate our free will.  That is an important point that should not be ignored.  EXERCISING our freedom to CHOOSE how we respond to the "randomness" of life is something we all can do.  In fact, it is what we are called to do.  Continual choices, minute by minute, develops our interior ability to carry on - with purpose, good will, humor, self effacement, and humility.

Please keep writing, even if you overcook supper or miss the fight in the kitchen. You are courageously marching forward in a not-so-easy life, and inspiring so many of us (and yourself!) in the lonely battles we all have to fight.  Give my regards to Louie, the Cat!

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#2, Jan 9, 2016 11:20am

I love this reflection. The idea of human action--freely willed and engaged--as an essential element to "becoming who we are" has been very important to me. The times when I fail to recognize and embrace my identity as an "acting person" and let myself be caught in a cycle of reaction are the times I feel not fully myself, not fully alive.

I quipped on Facebook today about "post-holiday letdown" and the solution I've found, which is to create something, however small. I have a list by my desk of ways to "reboot" a bad day, as well. Like the suggestions your friends gave you, it's a varied list because the essential element is that I *do* something instead of merely drifting.

Karen Hufford

#3, Jan 12, 2016 9:10pm

love this Devra, and can relate to it in so many ways-- we sure miss seeing you in Ann Arbor!

Devra Torres

#4, Jan 14, 2016 5:58pm

Thank you, Gary, for those very, very kind words! I will happily give Louie the Cat your regards.

Kate, yes, it's so easy to act as if we don't have the ability to "reboot." But we always do. It's like the point St. John Paul makes, I think in Veritatis Splendor, that there's a lower limit beyond which we are not to go--hence, the "thou shalt not's"--but no upper limit to good actions. There's no limit to the number of times we can start over in this life.

Karen, thank you! I miss you, too--anytime you all want to do a road trip, our house is open!

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