The Personalist Project

I used to be a serial guru follower. Not back when I was five or six and my parents were flirting with Eastern religions--I was just a mother-and-father follower in those days. Wherever they went, I followed (and they went all over the place, both geographically and religiously. Eventually we all became Catholic and stopped switching allegiances.).


No, I mean that as an adult, I used to search for gurus who would help me stay afloat as a child-rearer, a cook, a manager of money, a grownup human being. (Later I searched for homeschooling gurus and writing gurus.) At the tender age of 25 I abruptly became a homemaker (or began trying to); at 26, a mother. My cluelessness was unmistakeable, and the obvious solution seemed to be finding a leader to follow. For some reason I assumed I ought to pick one and stick with him or her. it didn’t occur to me that I could pick and choose elements of one person’s system and combine them with elements of someone else’s.


 I obeyed the doctor who oversaw my first pregnancy, too, with a kind of reverential awe which with hindsight looks exaggerated and misplaced.


People make the same assumption sometimes in the spiritual life. They glom onto a pastor, a writer, or even a saint, and set out to obey his every directive. If the chosen guru falls into scandal or under the sway of a bad idea, they either defend him to the death, refusing to see the obvious, or else throw out the baby with the bathwater, abandoning the good along with the bad and the ugly.


I feel free to pick and choose now, and it bothers me surprisingly little when I find that someone who’s been helpful to me has objectionable ideas, too. When Dave Ramsey, whose money advice is mostly commonsensical, made a crack in which he seemed to be blaming parents of large families for their poverty, it didn’t send me heading for the hills. Marla Cilley, without whom my housekeeping skills would be 100% instead of 75% abysmal, has a sentimental streak that is wholly alien to me, but she’s still uniquely gifted at what she does. I’m not going to throw out my timer and my routines in horror just because we’re something short of kindred spirits.

I’m trying to remember why I used to take such an all-or-nothing approach, and to understand why other people do. Maybe we realize that you can’t pick and choose when it comes to truth or morality,


so we assume there's something wrong with doing so in other areas. It can seem disloyal, even if it's really not, to pick and choose when it comes to patriotism and family traditions. Maybe that fear slips in to judgment about other subjects. Maybe, too, it’s sheer inertia and fatigue, or sloth. It would certainly be easier to just locate a single leader and follow him, relieved forever after of the weight of discerning for yourself what to do, or communicating with God about your decisions. 

Maybe it's insecurity and inexperience: that was me as a new mother. Or sometimes it’s an attachment, like a crush: not the romantic kind, but the fleeting excitement of believing you’ve encountered the one, unique figure who will singlehandedly lift you out of all your problems and lead you to happiness.

But at best, it's an abdication of responsibility; at worst, it can slide into idolatry. The world needs mentors, and it needs heroes to admire, but it's better off without gurus.

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Comments (1)

Gary Gibson

#1, Nov 9, 2014 5:42pm

A very good observation, Devra - one that most of us have to learn (again and again).  I absolutely love the music of Keith Green, whose anti-Catholic sentiments surprised most of my Christian and Catholic friends alike.  I said "I buy his music, not his theology".  Every human being has something good to offer us - even if they are heretics or "anti" something important to us.  It takes many of us a long time to realize that we have the capacity to sort out the things that other people present to us.  Take what is good and leave the rest.

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