The Personalist Project

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Accessed on December 10, 2018 - 5:41:08

Truths and Consequences

Kate Whittaker Cousino, Feb 09, 2018

Setting consequences in place gives someone a clear choice and sets them free to make it.

Our job is to accept their consequence. We let them know that they can choose a or b. If they choose a, certain things will happen; and if they choose b, other things will happen. This is clarity and freedom.

This mindset does so many good things. It helps you get clear about what you want. It forces you to communicate what you want directly. It keeps you from being judgmental, nagging, controlling or cajoling -- all of which bring about bad feelings in the relationship. And most of all, it preserves the freedom of the other person to make his own choice, something he has had all along, is clearly exercising anyway, and that you are not honoring. 

--Dr. Henry Cloud, coauthor of Boundaries

I hit a low point in my life seven years ago, and two books helped pull me out and bring clarity to the fog. The first was Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend. The second was The Selfhood of the Human Person by John Crosby.

The two books are very different in writing style, intended audience, purpose, and genre--one is a self-help book and the other a work of Personalist philosophy--but they both spoke persuasively to me of the inviolability of the free will of each person.

A person may be coerced, forced, or acted upon against their will, but their will itself--the part that chooses and acts--remains autonomous and outside the power of others. There remains a boundary between your will and theirs, between your choices and theirs, and between your moral responsibility and theirs. If you want to truly love others, you need to respect these boundaries, just as God loves us so much that He desires that we be able to return--or not return--that love freely, of our own choosing.

This divine perspective on the origins and purpose of free will make it something sacrosanct. Autonomy refers to self-governance. We must govern ourselves because nobody else can enter into our subjectivity and make our choices for us. Even when we commit ourselves to obedience, as in religious life, that obedience has to be freely chosen with every day and every act of compliance. This is how it must be, or obedience could have no value. Coerced obedience--external compliance with no free assent of the will--is a violation, not a virtue.

When we try to stage-manage others or accept undue responsibility for other's choices and moods, we treat their inner lives as extensions of our own. We fail to recognise them as persons distinct from ourselves. True respect for persons requires that we recognise not only the other's common humanity, but also his or her incommunicable subjectivity and moral autonomy.

I was lost in shame and anger when I picked up these two books, all those years ago. I felt shame and responsibility for the ways others had let me down. I resented the choices I'd felt forced to make alone and the choices I was still avoiding making. Cloud and Townsend, and Crosby, made me see that refusing to choose is itself a choice.

This deeply personalist understanding of autonomy and agency has been revolutionary for me. It's not easy. It never becomes easy. It is difficult to accept other people's choices when they run contrary to my hopes or wishes, and it is probably even harder to own my own desires and ask openly for the things I want or need.

Sometimes, I get the impression that Boundaries has filtered into our cultural awareness in only a negative form. We frequently hear talk about "setting boundaries" as a way of shutting people out and controlling what (and who) you are exposed to. But that's not the heart of it. The heart of it is self-knowledge--figuring out what you do actually need and what your true responsibilities are--relinquishing your attempts to control other people, and accepting that all choices have consequences.  

It's hard to accept that you can't make things go the way you wish they would, and have to work with and around other people's freely chosen actions (or inaction). But it is ultimately freeing--for you and for the people around you.

When you make room for each person's free will, you make room for real affection, love, vulnerability, trust, and self-gift to grow.