The Personalist Project

I've been struggling with writer's block lately. Thoughts flit across the landscape of my mind--brief tantalizing glimpses of larger ideas--and then slip away before I can get a grip on them, clothe them with words, pin them onto my screen. One moment, some insight is dazzlingly clear in conversation--but by the time I grab paper or keyboard, it's faded into murky obscurity. 

Times like this challenge not only inspiration and income, but they can challenge identity. We live in a culture, here in North America, where it is routine to start conversations with new aquaintances by asking, "and what do you DO?"--meaning what is your career, your occupation, your daily grind? 

Even vocation and avocation can be reduced to the same terms of careers and usefulness. The artist needs to be creating to be an artist; the priest must be baptizing and burying and saying Mass to be a priest. We are all busily doing, often with an eye to what others see or think of us. 

I think of myself, somewhat timidly, as a writer. But can I be "a writer" if writing is a drag and a slog? Am I still "a writer" when I have dry days, weeks, or months where nothing substantive leaves my desk to wing its way to the world? And if I am not "a writer"--who am I?

If we are tempted to define ourselves by our careers or our productivity, this is probably because there is a seed of truth in this understanding of identity. Who we are and what we do are inextricable from one another because who we are and how we act, what we will, are inextricable.

"The just man justices," Father Hopkins tells us.

"What good is it, my brothers," asks James in his letter, "if someone says he has faith but does not have works?"

Our acting--our doing--stems from and shapes our selves, our being--we are faithful or not, just or not, truthful or not, loving or not, according to whether we strive with our choices to manifest our best, most actualized selves. 

But whether or not I write, in general, has less to do with that sort of identity than does why I write, and what is expressed in my writing. If I think on "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right"---if I set my mind on those things that come from God, in other words--I will write quite differently than if I am full of pettiness, anger, jealousy, or bitterness. 

And if I do not write? Well then, I am not "Kate writing"--but I am still Kate. And whatever it is that Kate is will be expressed in the things I am doing--whether the quotidian tasks of housekeeping and laundry or the pursuit of different expressions of beauty, decorating pysanky or singing with others. I can be "Kate cleaning up vomit" and "Kate walking the dog" and "Kate editing someone else's writing" and "Kate taking a nap," and through it all, I am myself. 

Writing is a good thing (and I need to fulfill my commitments as a writer) but it isn't who I am, even if it is an expression of this particular person in this particular time. We don't lose our selves when we change our occupations; we aren't lessened in essence by the loss of skills or abilities through injury, illness, changing circumstances, or age, any more than my son was less perfectly himself as a baby learning to walk than he is now as a fledgling teenager learning to program and write plays. 

(I mentioned vocation earlier. We Catholics believe that a priest is a priest forever--the priesthood marks a soul in an eternal way. The priest who leaves the ministry and is laicized does not act as a priest, but he is not "un-ordained." The aging priest retains his priesthood even if he is no longer capable of administering the sacraments or acting as a pastor in a ministerial role.)

Personalists sometimes talk about incommunicability--a long word with a simple meaning. It means that none of us is ever able to be completely and perfectly known to another. Our expressions of our selves--our words, our actions, our creations--all fall short of communicating the fullness of our subjectivity. What we do--what we choose to foster and grow through habit and practice--are important, and they do all, taken together, truly reflect something of who we uniquely are. But we are always, always more than what we do on the outside. 

So here I am, writing about what it means that I cannot write. The irony does not escape me!

And as I write, I am "Kate, writing." But when I am called home at the end of my life, whenever that might be, I will not be called before the throne by my occupation, by my accolades or by my accomplishments.

I will be called by name by the One who knows me better than I know myself, the One before whom nothing is incommunicable and in whom no deed offered in love can be lost. 

Comments (1)

Rhett Segall

#1, Apr 6, 2018 11:38am

Kate, you raise a very important issue regarding our identity, i.e. it's relationship to our gifts. I suppose it confronts people with time related gifts, e. g. athletes, vocalists, models.  I know that Philip Roth stopped writing some years back because he felt he had nothing more to say. Pasternak has Dr. Zhivago planting potatoes so that he could write while he was not writing. Obviously there is no formula for the relationship between the muse and discipline; I guess only the living of it is the answer.

Your reflections do strike home. Three years ago I retired after 49 years of teaching theology. Like Jesus I was happy being a teacher. But I knew and know that our identity  has to be deeper then our gifts.

Nonetheless I think our gifts are vital in forging our fundamental identity as Christians. I can't help but think of Flannery O'Connor's comment "I write because I write well."  And I'm particularly touched by Eric Liddel's comment that "I believe God made me for a purpose but He also made me fast and when I run I feel His pleasure." Liddel won the 400 meter race at the Paris Olympics in 1924. He died a missionary in China.

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