The Personalist Project

One of the students in my coursthip class (though I feel funny referring to him that way, since he's older and wiser than I am) made a great personalist observation yesterday. After class, the discussion ranged over the subject of the cultural epidemic of undermotivated men.  Frank noted that it used to be the case that sons were expected to take up their father's profession, regardless of their interests and aptitudes.  Realizing that that wasn't quite adequate to the mystery of individuality, more recent generations of fathers have instead taught their children, "You can be anything you want to be."  But this has led to a widespread problem of aimlessness.  Kierkegaard called it the despair of "being lost in a sea of possiblities."  

Frank said he thinks that parents should instead ask their children: "What do you think you should be?  What do you think you were made to do?"

I love this!  It respects the mysterious individuality of each person's vocation in the world, and each person's responsibility to discern and decide for himself or herself what he will do with his life, while it introduces the notion of ought into personal vocation. It directs freedom to purpose, and teaches children to look for it, prayerfully, in and through his subjectivity.

This is a theme stressed by Newman and Wojtyla: the problem of freedom  is resolved by a right sense of the moral ought.  Without it, freedom is reduced to arbitrariness or licence.  And the person is paralyzed and depressed.

It reminds me of a passage from The Jeweler's Shop.  Andrew is explaining his decision to propose to Teresa.  He says that though he could have chosen other women, or turned away from Teresa, there was something in him that said about her, "You ought to."  In other words, love had matured to the point where he was ready to freely chose to bind himself permanently.  He'd found the key to human happiness.

Comments (10)

Devra Torres

#1, May 3, 2012 1:14am

"Realizing that that wasn't quite adequate to the mystery of individuality..."

That's a great line!

Yes, I never found "you can be anything you want to be" very credible, or helpful, or motivating.   

Patrick Dunn

#2, May 3, 2012 11:39am

That convergence of each person’s free choice and their response to the moral ought approaches the nature of true discernment, I think. 

I wonder about is whether discernment is discovery – as in God having something of a ‘plan’ for our lives that He desires us to fulfill – or if it is more ‘open’ or even dynamic than that. 

A fear I have is never finding that “ought” which should direct me, or never realizing it even if I have found it in the abstract.  The possibility of never fully being who I ought to be, never doing what I should do, horrifies me. 

Somewhat separate thought: I wonder about the nature and characteristics of the “ought” that Andrew consented to.  What was that experience like, when that “something in him” spoke to him about her?  Did it feel like a heavy burden?  Was it something that one would typically want to consent to?  Did it coincide with the fruits of the Spirit, and perhaps could those fruits be evidence that one has indeed found the correct “ought” to guide one’s life—as opposed, say, to simply feelings of guilt that may or not be authentic?

Katie van Schaijik

#3, May 3, 2012 12:43pm

I think it's key to see that the "ought" Andrew experienced was a serene and interior sense of rightness, as opposed to an experience of a command from outside that I am obliged to obey, like an order from my superior officer.  It was a sense that grew gradually in him, over the course of his friendship with Teresa.  He gradually came to recognize in her an "alter ego," a companion.

So, not something imposed from without, but something that grows organically within.  Hence, it was en experience of freedom, not opporession.

Patrick Dunn

#4, May 3, 2012 3:55pm

Thank you, Katie.

I struggle accepting that, not as the truth about Andrew's experience, but about the truth about how God calls us, me, because some of the call stories from Scripture (like with Mary, for example) do appear to be "from without."  I don't mean that would exclude our freedom to cooperate; it just seems to be more (at least seemingly overtly) a product of God's initiative.

Scott Johnston

#5, May 3, 2012 5:36pm

In looking to Mary, perhaps it is helpful to consider the whole Magnificat--the beautiful and prophetic prayer that Mary utters at the conclusion of her encounter with the Angel Gabriel.

What was she sensing spiritually in her heart about this message given to her about her role in God's plan?

"My spirit rejoices in God my savior."

I'm not a very good personal example, I have to say. But, I think in the lives of the Saints, one of the consistencies about discovering and embracing a vocational call "from the outside," from God--is joy. A sense of joy and gratitude and rightness. I think we see that with Mary.

And I might add, this need not necessarily be a highly dramatic, earth-shattering sort of experience. But at least at minimum a qiuet, interior, peaceful joy.

Scott Johnston

#6, May 3, 2012 5:57pm

St. Ignatius of Loyola composed (part of the Spiritual Exercises) two sets of guidelines ("rules") for "discernment of spirits." They give advice for people trying to grow in holiness--grow in the spiritual life. And this applies as well, for discerning God's will in one's life (i.e., a vocational call).

The first set of rules is for those starting out ("the first week" of the exercises). The second (shorter) list, is for those further along ("the second week").

Rule one of the second week says, "It is proper to God and to His Angels in their movements to give true spiritual gladness and joy, taking away all sadness and disturbance which the enemy brings on."

See here for a link to both sets of rules (English translation from Spanish). Note he used the language and expressions of his time, which in some respects can strike us as somewhat odd.

Scott Johnston

#7, May 3, 2012 6:03pm

And I would like to link to an excellent point of advice about discerning the difference between the joy (i.e. "consolation") that comes from God, vs. ordinary good feelings that come from ordinary life events.

See, this short excerpt, "The Difference Between Consolation and Feeling Good."

(I don't know if the above web site is generally recommendable; but this particular piece, I think, cantains very good advice).

Patrick Dunn

#8, May 4, 2012 12:21pm

Thank you, Scott.  I indeed sense that what you've highlighted about Mary is true for all authentic experiences of a vocational call even as I've struggled with thinking about this more abstractly at times. 

Teresa Manidis

#9, May 6, 2012 8:20pm


I've been seeing this trend more in my perceptive friends.  Whereas my peers grew up with a resounding, big-brass-band playing 'YOU CAN BE ANYTHING!' in the background, many of my Asian friends grew up with quite a different parenting approach, where their future was, in many ways, decided for them (my Korean friends, for example, went to elementary and high schools geared directly for PreMed or music careers, regardless of their desires or interests).

A good middle ground seems to be parent as counsellor.  Not saying 'you can be ANYTHING' but not deciding for them, either.  If my son chooses a career in business that will tap into his people-person-group-dynamic-let's-all-work-together attitude, I would support that - he is a people person.  If, however, he said he wanted to sit in a room all day and do long division (i.e., work only with abstract ideas) I would strongly caution against it - and not feel guilty about it.

And even my youngest guys write essays, 'What I think God is calling me to be when I grow up' :)

Katie van Schaijik

#10, May 6, 2012 8:30pm

Today at Mass the pastor mentioned the upcoming ordinations to the priesthood of some seminarians from our parish.  It made me think again how much I'd love it if at least one of my three sons were to become a priest. But it's plain to me that the issue is out of my hands.  We moms can't do what earlier generations of parents did without hesitation or compunction: decide to give our children to priesthood or the religious life.  

This is clear evidence of the truth Dr. Crosby unfolds so persuasively in our "manifesto", don't you agree?  The idea of personal selfhood has been developing across human history and Christian experience. 

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