The Personalist Project

I stood by a table spread with photo albums and memorabilia at my grandfather's funeral luncheon last week, puzzling out connections, names, stories, and memories with a cousin and a woman I'd never met before, a neighbor of my Opa's, I think. My mother had found some old documents from Opa's youth among his things--immigration papers from his journey from the Netherlands to Canada,  a list of all his luggage on that trip, travel permits, educational certificates (all in Dutch), journal entries from his time in a German work camp, his original passport. My mother translated them as well as she could, but for a few she had to email a cousin and elderly uncle in the Netherlands for help providing context and translations. Oom Ben (my great-uncle and my Opa's youngest brother) sent back a brief recollection of the different directions the family went during and after the war. 

It was interesting reading Oom Ben's recollections, his memories of his older brothers, including my Opa, whom he called "Geert" but who was known as "Gerald" after his move to Canada. Oom Ben told the story of how "Geert" obtained permission to leave the work camp to visit his brother in another camp in another part of the country. The camp commandant told him that he could go, but there would be "big trouble" if he wasn't back by the end of the weekend. My Opa caught a train and made the trip. When his family scolded him for doing something so dangerous, Opa said, "But I made it and am here." As far as we know, he was back in camp at the appointed time. 

Aunts, uncles, friends, neighbors, children and grandchildren--everyone who grieves my Opa has different memories, different recollections of him. Standing by that photo album, I realized we were putting our memories and knowledge and stories together like a puzzle to see a larger picture of the man we'd lost. 

A larger picture, a more complete picture--but did that make our individual fragments less true in comparison? None of us knew all of what Opa had lived and thought and done. We never do know everything about our loved ones--we never can. We are limited by finite time and unequal means of communication. The core of the person, the subject, is incommunicable, a reflection that can easily become discouraging. 

But does incommunicability prevent us from being able to ever truly say we know another? Can we say we love, when we don't know every facet of the beloved? 

Is knowing and loving another impossible?

I don't think so. I heard many new stories of Opa, but they expanded rather than contradicted what I knew of him. Each story confirmed his character and fleshed out his history, giving depth and color to my own memories of him. We all knew Opa in different ways, within the context of different relationships--but we did all know and love him. 

We love. And we know in part--but each part, even if through a glass darkly, is enough to say, "I know you." For every interaction--every word, action, movement, and act of the will--comes in and through and from our subjectivity. We are visible in our choices--the ones we make and the ones we avoid. We may know each other in a limited fashion, but we can know each other truly. The whole is in every part. 

Someday, I hope to greet my Opa again, in the land where Light illuminates all that is hidden. I will see him then more wholly himself than he has ever been, more completely than I ever have. And I will know him for my Opa, and recognizing him by the pieces of life we shared with one another, I will know him in the revelation of the complete picture--the whole person. 

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Comments (1)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Jul 11, 2017 10:19am

Thank you for this beautiful, deeply personalist reflection, Kate. 

I love the formulation that we are visible in our choices, and the whole of the self is in every part. It's mysterious, but true. We experience it constantly. 

I love it when Jules tells some story from his youth that I'd never heard before, or when I learn something new about his forebears. 

And I love the hope we have of knowing those we love fully and rightly in eternity, as we can't here on earth.

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