The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 25, 2023 - 12:50:06

Who decides?

Katie van Schaijik, Oct 19, 2020

Here's something I've noticed about myself: My understanding is closely bound up with my sense of personal mission, and while, looking back, I can see a clear line of development, the way is marked by key moments of insight that caused dramatic shifts.

Maybe this is true for everybody. I don't know. It's true for me. I carefully preserve and cherish those moments, which serve as living premises for the path forward into Truth. They're like teachers whispering in my ear, "This is the way. Walk in it." (Isaiah 30:21)

One came into my life about 15 years ago. We were in the midst of an intense personal and professional crisis. It was an earthquake. Solid ground was crumbling under my feet. There was a lot of ruin, a lot of rubble. 

A line from Kierkegaard was playing on a loop in my head: "The sadness of being alone in the understanding of a truth." I kept picturing Edith Stein too: the moment she walked away from her revered Professor Husserl, sorrowfully convinced that some Reality couldn't be communicated via reasoning, but only through a personal holocaust. 

There was a practical point at issue for us. Intelligent, religious people were divided over it. Someone said to Jules (whose job was on the line): "Reasonable people can disagree." Jules said, "Yes. But the question is, 'who decides?"

That was the breakthrough for me. Who, in justice, has the authority to decide? 

More often than not, I suddenly saw, interpersonal (and interpeople) conflict comes down to that question. What may look outwardly like nothing more and nothing other than a rational dispute in the objective realm is actually, at bottom, a moral struggle between Power and Love—with one party trying to control and subdue while the other fights to defend his freedom and right. Consciously or not, one party is acting according to the master/slave dynamic, while the other is animated by its opposite.

There's a wonderful passage in Mark Twain's Joan of Arc that illustrates the point. Maybe I've mentioned it before. Joan is about to lead a charge against an English stronghold, when some officious councilor, some military expert intervenes. He wants her to wait. He wants a committee to discuss the strategy first. He admonishes her that it would be rash for her to act without that approval—against, you could say, "the interagency consensus" of the day. She asks him flatly if the king has commanded him to stop her. He demurs and begins to explain that even though the king hasn't, per se, authorized him to...

While he's still talking Joan shouts, "Charge!"

She was clear about who decides. She also understood that that "councilor" was trying to undermine her confidence and usurp her right.

Here's another way this cosmic moral struggle plays out in the practical realm: We avoid deciding and acting in our zone of responsibility out of fear or laziness or excessive deference. We eschew choosing, because choosing is hard. The WW II movie The Battle of Midway has a scene showing an American Admiral in doubt. So much is on the line. There is conflicting intelligence and advice coming at him from all sides. He's paralyzed with anguished perplexity, until someone says to him: "When you're in command, command," and he accepts the fact that, like it or not, the fate of the battle is up to him. He must gather his inner resources and make a prompt decision based on his lights—his experience, his gut. To demur, to hesitate, to hedge, would be to fail his men, his country, his mission.

We can go wrong by sticking our noses into someone else's spiritual terrain and/or by not taking proper command of our own. 

It would be impossible to exaggerate the centrality of this principle to Wojtyla's personalism, and, we can say, to the whole modern world. The cosmic struggle between good and evil is the same as the battle between freedom and force, between subjective agency and the objectification of persons.

We see it playing out now on the political stage: Who's in charge of US government and policy? The "experts" or the people? Who answers to whom? We see it at play in the Church. Are the people of God objects of the clergy's ministry? Are we nothing more than sheep? Or are we responsible co-agents with a share in the sacred offices of priest, prophet and king? And we see it in the intimate struggles of our private lives. It's beautifully expressed in that wonderful serenity prayer that has served as a beacon for millions of souls in trouble:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.

Right moral formation and right interpersonal relations involves, maybe more than anything else, the identification, establishment, fortification, provision, exercise and management of our own "spiritual terrain," our personal and communal zone of freedom and responsibility.