The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 21, 2023 - 6:10:55

A long post about self-assertion as a moral call

Katie van Schaijik, Jan 22, 2013

I've referred several times to the master/slave dynamic that has menaced human relations since the fall. (Being a deep and fundamental truth, it bears repeating.) Persons were designed to live lives of mutual love and service, on a footing of equality with one another. But with the fall came the twin tendencies of domination and slavishness, both of which have to be constantly resisted in ourselves and others.

Those who are stronger, who are inclined to be domineering, must learn to check their power, for love. Those who are weaker and inclined to be dominated must learn to assert themselves, also for love. We have to assert ourselves over and against those who are trying to dominate us.  This is true on both a communal and an individual level.

Yesterday we commemorated the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., which was all about the people of an illegitimately dominated race standing up for themselves—collectively insisting on their dignity as persons. (Did you know that MLK, Jr. studied personalism at Boston University?)  

The same thing is called for on an individual level. I remember vividly a moment from childhood. I was playing with my younger sister and had some idea for something fun we could do together. (I was seven or eight at the time; she was five or six.) I sent her on a mission, "Go get the scissors." She happily said, "Okay!" and started downstairs. Then, abruptly, she turned around and said with indignation, "Hey! Why don't you go get the scissors? I'm not your slave!" I was shocked and taken aback by this rebellion. She'd always before done whatever I told her to do. I was also hurt. I hadn't meant to treat her like a slave! I hadn't been mean or domineering! I was just naturally the leader, since I was older and had all the fun ideas. I felt unjustly accused and misunderstood. At the same time, though, I had to acknowledge that she had a point. In a flash, I understood that if I wanted her companionship, I would have to treat her like a peer instead of a subordinate.

It's not an easy lesson to learn. We don't change overnight. The tendency to dominate others is deep-seated and difficult to detect and uproot. More difficult for some than for others. My children taught me the lesson afresh, not so many years ago. I had learned enough by this point to know that I had to leave them free. I had had a lot of repenting to do about having been too controlling with them when they were little. So now, about whatever it was they wanted, I said, "Well, I won't controll you. You'll have to decide." The three older ones laughed, "You won't control us, no. You'll just make us feel horribly guilty if we make the wrong choice."

Once again I was both pained and chagrinned. Here I had been conscientiously leaving them free to decide for themselves! And yet, I saw that they were right. I wasn't using anger and threats of punishment, but I was still manipulating them emotionally. Instead of leaving them truly free to make their own choice, I was trying to guilt them into doing what I thought they should do. More repenting.

While I've been busy absorbing this lesson, I've also had to learn to assert myself against those who are illegitimately dominating me.

This can be painful and difficult. It feels unloving. To a person who is used to being "in the background" (as a matter of temperament or in a given relationship) self-assertion can seem unnatural—even sinful. And very often the one trying to dominate has no idea that that's what he is doing. He would be offended at the very idea. He is not being domineering, you are being rebellious, arrogant, unchristian. So he reinforces your own misgivings and the difficulty of your moral task is compounded.

Still, the task remains. Self-assertion is, as Karol Wojtyla puts it in Love and Responsibility, part of our vocation as persons. his whole relationship with this world, with reality [man] strives to assert himself, his 'I', and he must act thus since the nature of his being demands it.

This deep personalist insight is the kernel of truth underlying feminism. Being, in a true sense, "the weaker sex", women have been realizing a particular call to assert themselves against male domination. (This post was inspired by a you tube video I watched yesterday about the legendary music teacher, Nadia Boulanger.  I have a separate post to write about that amazing woman, but for now I just want to point to something a former student of hers said about meeting her—her bearing and demeanor, her habit of wearing a pince nez, like a professor. He said, "I think she wore it deliberately...In those days, in order to exist, a woman had to assert herself.")

It is, in a way, as Jules argued in his first Person class lecture (you can listen to the audio, here), the central moral insight of the entire modern period.

Take a classic illustration from Fiddler on the Roof, which I discussed at length in my courthsip course last year. When the eldest daughter and the tailor tell her father that they have pledged their love to each other, he is at first outraged. What is this? According to tradition, it's the Papa who chooses the husband for his daughters. He rants and yells. He is contemptuous of the poor tailor and his pretentions to his daughter's hand. The tailor is intimidated. But then, he becomes indignant and gathers the courage to assert himself: "Even a poor tailor is entitled to some happiness!"

It's a pivotal moment. It is the moment of collision, with two possible outcomes: brokeness and rupture, or love and communion. The father's response is to stop ranting and look at the tailor with new eyes. "He's beginning to sound like a man." Then he looks at his daughter. "Look at my daughter's face. She loves him."

He recognizes that he is standing in front of real values, which he ought to respect. If instead, he insists on his "rights" as the father, he will lose his daughter. Even if she submits to him, he will have damaged her and damaged the affection between them. Or else, she will walk away. She will break with her parents, causing them bitterness and pain.

Happily, the father acknowledges the authenticity of the love between his daughter and the tailor. He implicitly grants their right as persons to determine such an important question for themselves. He voluntarily checks the power he has in custom and law to force his own will on her. And as a result, the bond of love and affection between father and daughter is strengthed and deepened, not broken or frayed.

In other words, her self-assertion (and the tailor's) established the conditions for a new depth of love and communion.

I could go on all day. But I'll stop, and recommend again that everyone who wants to understand this whole mystery better take Jules' class on the Person. It's not too late to sign up!