The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 27, 2023 - 2:15:46

Out of the abundance of the heart

Kate Whittaker Cousino, May 21, 2018

I have something more substantial in the works for this space, but I had to take a moment to share an observation I made this morning. 

I've begun a series on my Patheos blog on #tonicmasculinity --a set of examples of good men--not extraordinary men, not high-achievers or celebrities--but quotidian, relatable men who live well, without the taint of the toxic models of masculinity that hurt so many men and women.

When I posted about this series, a reader pointed me towards a post on the website entitled "6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person."

The main thrust of the article is one I have to disagree with. The author says repeatedly that all that matter is what you can offer others--your value is equal to your utility, even if that utility is sometimes in the form of social enjoyment. The low point of the article comes when the author unwittingly sums up this particularly American definition of identity in very blunt terms.

Your "job" -- the useful thing you do for other people -- is all you are.

...You don't have to like it. I don't like it when it rains on my birthday. It rains anyway. Clouds form and precipitation happens. People have needs and thus assign value to the people who meet them.

This far in, I could not decipher why my reader would recommend this article to me. What relationship is there between this utilitarianism and the kind of positive masculinity I am attempting to describe? 

But then, the author stumbled into something that almost--almost--gets at the deeper relationship between being and doing, the self and the acting self:

Don't get me wrong; who you are inside is everything -- the guy who built a house for his family from scratch did it because of who he was inside. Every bad thing you've ever done has started with a bad impulse, some thought ricocheting around inside your skull until you had to act on it. And every good thing you've done is the same -- "who you are inside" is the metaphorical dirt from which your fruit grows.

Of course, he immediately loses the thread and concludes, 

But here's what everyone needs to know, and what many of you can't accept:

"You" are nothing but the fruit.

Nobody cares about your dirt. "Who you are inside" is meaningless aside from what it produces for other people.

So close, and yet so far!

It resonates because it is almost true. You cannot separate the man from his choices. Our selfhood is the soil our fruit is rooted in. 

But he's wrong to say that the fruit is all that matters. The value of a life cannot be weighed in utilitarian terms, no matter how others choose to judge you.

Faith without works is dead. The just man justices.  And yet...and yet...

What we do, how we act, matters as much for how it shapes our selves as it does for how it expresses the self. And when we are beyond much doing, when our choices are limited, when our bodies no longer allow us to express everything we hope or want or intend--we are still people, acting in thought and word, small kindness and quiet prayer.

Whether or not anyone sees it or knows to value it. 

So I cannot accept a worldview that would reduce a person's value to "what they have to offer," regardless of whether it might help individual men and women to take responsibility and begin doing. If your choices are all made with an eye to an invisible scoreboard charting your utilitarian value, what aspect of your self are they an expression of? What kind of person are you?

No, there needs to be more. Not a separation of self and action, but a unity that strives for authentic growth in truth, not out of utility. 

Until we act, we can be mysteries even to ourselves, the depths of subjectivity left unplumbed and unexplored. 

I am more than my actions--but it is only expressed through action that the self can be known. 

For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. 

Luke 6:43-45