The Personalist Project

History of personalism

The history of the person, therefore, runs parallel with that of personalism.  It will not unfold itself on the plane of consciousness alone, but throughout the length and breadth of the human struggle to humanize humanity.

Emmanuel Mounier, Personalism

Some over-familiar words that deserve a closer look:

God grant me the wisdom to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

It's part of the Serenity Prayer, popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous. Like many cliches, it's well known for a reason. But about that "wisdom to know the difference" part--here's something I hadn't thought of before. 

The things we think we cannot change--they tend to be things about ourselves. And the things we imagine we can? Those are mostly things about other people. It's hard to say which is more frustrating: laboring under the illusion that you could change somebody else if you could just pinpoint the right technique--or staying mired in hopelessness because you imagine you're powerless to change yourself.

In fact, we've got it backwards: we can't change other people (not directly, not deeply). And we can change ourselves--certainly not in every way, or without the "Higher Power" that AA also acknowledges--but still, our ability to change ourselves is a whole lot greater than we tend to give it credit for.

The things I cannot change are the ones that depend on other people's free will (leaving aside, of course, the laws governing matter, logic, metaphysics and such.) The things I do have hope of changing are located in my own subjectivity.

(The more I write, the more I realize that the subject requires more distinctions than I can articulate here--so I mean it as a springboard to further discussion, not a stand-alone claim.)

Maneuvering between hope for change and acceptance that "it is what it is" is a balancing act. On the one hand, it takes some doing even to arrive at the conviction that no amount of brilliant phrasing, powers of persuasion, manipulation, or coercion is going to change other people's character, or wiring, or inner self (though an influential person can change someone's self-perception, confidence level, or manner--via anything from intimidation to inspiration.).

On the other hand,  the futility of trying to change others isn't the whole story. We ourselves are far more "fixable" than we imagine. (Again, this is not something we can accomplish single-handed. As the wise Flannery O'Connor puts it, "God rescues us from ourselves if we want Him to.") 

One thing He can rescue us from is what Jacques Philippe calls "limiting beliefs." We all lug some of these around with us--from a wound in childhood, or some refrain that was drummed into our head so persistently that we never thought to question it. Just psychologically speaking--apart from the possibility of supernatural aid--we place all kinds of unnecessary limits on ourselves--things we're convinced we're not good at or would be overwhelmed by. The longer we let such beliefs sit there, the more plausible they start to seem. 

On the other hand, people do have their limits. We're wired a certain way. No amount of tinkering will turn my tone-deaf son into the next Brahms, and no amount of nagging will transform my sanguine daughter into a phlegmatic. Even raw material plus practice plus experience plus grace doesn't equal "infinitely malleable."

What do you think? Do you have a story to tell? How have you acquired the wisdom to know the difference?

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There's a Solzhenitsyn quote which I love, and quote frequently--I quoted a related passage here only a month ago. The quote goes like this:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? – Alexander Solzhenitsyn 

The trouble with making a division between "good people" and "bad people," as Solzhenitsyn says, is that a focus on “them” out there distracts from the true battleground within. And the Enemy is more than happy to tunnel in behind to find those vulnerable, weak and secret hollow spots inside each of our souls.

I’ve seen and heard of more of this than I’d like—wonderful, well-meaning people with a war mentality, who are so set on defending against the visible "enemy" that they fail to notice the rot within until it eats away so much that even the facade begins to crumble. The tragedy is only compounded if there was help freely available, but rejected because it came from “them”—the world, the other side, the enemy, whoever—and so, in the end, we fall. Because we believed ourselves already sanctified, instead of in need of salvation along with the rest of the world.

I thought of this passage today while reading Simcha Fisher's fantastic post about Everyday Martyrdom. In it, Simcha concludes that,

Life in Christ is a life of a thousand, million little deaths: deaths to old ways of thinking, death to false security, death to complacency, death to trivial comforts. Any time you inquire about your Faith, you are whispering to Christ, however reluctantly, that you are open to killing off some part of yourself that does not deserve to live.

All of that is a way of saying that the hardest evil to destroy is the evil within our own hearts, the sins we hold so close that it is an act of courage to even imagine life without them. To destroy these would truly mean dying with Christ, and as much as we Christians like the idea of “putting on the new man” and “rising with Christ,” that dying bit is a bit hard to swallow.

And it does feel like dying, to ruthlessly root out the selfishness, pride, wilful blindness, anger, spite, jealousy, covetousness, and indolence rooted in your own heart. It feels like killing the most inward impulses, the things we do and say on autopilot, the motivations that we act on without even fully understanding them, clothing them afterwards in loftier language and assigning them a higher purpose because we don't fully understand even ourselves.

It will feel like throwing your own heart on the fire, when you do it, when you destroy that bit of your heart, when you embrace the small martyrdom of opening a part of your life to God's will and excising what is contrary to life with Him.

It will seem like the world must be forever artificial, colourless, dull, unfair. And then, like turning off a flickering fluorescent light and opening a window shade, all of creation will come crowding in, carrying Christ like a crowdsurfing Messiah, to set the husk of your heart to rights and fill it with living, green, sprouting vitality.

Image: Saint Peter Repentant by Francisco José de Goya (1746 - 1828), Public Domain 

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"Snowflake" has become the insult of choice for certain people: like the Ivy League students who scamper away to safe spaces to scribble in university-provided coloring books after an upsetting election. Or the ones who get away with excluding unapproved thoughts from the marketplace of ideas, even if they haven't read the book those thoughts were expressed in.  This whole generation, the one that can't manage to "adult" like everybody else, Minecraft-ing away in their parents' basements and declining to form families of their own. "What is it with these special snowflakes?" people my age wonder. "When will they figure out that there's nothing special about them, that they have to play by the same rules as everybody else?"

On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, a contemptuous "Nothing so special about you" is not the best message for a generation in the throes of epidemic anxiety, depression and suicide.

I understand the point. As the father in The Incredibles puts it: "If everybody's special, nobody's special." If we praise people to the skies just for showing up, handing out participation trophies like candy, we're not doing anybody any favors. Or we end up like the mother of a new college freshman overheard asking the orientation staff, "Is this a peanut-free campus?"--encouraging the children to imagine themselves entitled to a customized environment wherever they may roam.

Still, I hate to see "snowflake" turned into an insult. There  are billions and billions of snowflakes, and they all look alike at first glance. Just like people. Yet each one, it turns out, really is absolutely unique. The assumption that they were as interchangeable as they looked collapsed as soon as decent magnifying glasses were invented.

Maybe rather than, "Hey, buddy, you're no more special than anybody else," a better message would affirm that although everyone's special, no one's exempt.  Everybody is a unique and unrepeatable subject, created directly, for his or her own sake, by Almighty God, out of sheer love--but everybody is bound by certain realities. Unrepeatable subjectivity is real, and so is human nature. Unique is unique, but true is true, false is false, biology is biology, and moral law is moral law. 

In fact, we're all both more one-of-a-kind and also more deeply bound by realities we never chose than we could possibly imagine. We're both wretched and noble. We possess inalienable dignity and unbelievable stupidity and incompetence. We're both self-governing subjects, capable of making free choices with eternal consequences, and creatures about which God can very truthfully remark, "Without Me, you can do nothing."

So what we need, I submit, is to get beyond sneering, "Nothing so special about you" and murmuring, "You're so special that heaven and earth need to be modified continually for your convenience." 

Neither is helpful. But both come from somewhere.

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Listening to an audio book while I was trying to sleep the other day—soon after conversation with a friend about the problem of clericalism in the Church—I happened to catch a passage that illustrates exactly the kind of thing I am trying to express when I speak of the need to develop a “slave side" theology and morality.

It’s from Emily of New Moon, by L.M. Montgomery, author of the Anne of Green Gables books, among many others. Her reputation is as a writer of sweet and sentimental books for children. But she hated that reputation.

I’ve just finished reading a biography of her, which is heartbreaking. She was acutely sensitive to the common problem in the Victorian era she grew up in of adults dominating, even tyrannizing over children. Her mother died when she was two; her father abandoned her to the care of her maternal grandparents. The grandmother, while a good and virtuous woman generally, was unsympathetic to her highly sensitive and imaginative nature; the grandfather was irascible and domineering.

Montgomery’s adult life, despite her enormous success as a writer, was plagued by depression, insecurity, insomnia, headaches and miseries of various kinds, all very familiar to anyone who frequents “recovery rooms” for adult children of dysfunctional families.  One of her sons was a kind of psychopath. She seems to have died from Bromide poisoning that led to suicide.

Anyway. “Emily” is a young girl who has been orphaned and sent to live with two spinster aunts, one who is kind and one who isn’t. Aunt Elizabeth plainly resents and envies the girl, though she is in denial about those feelings in herself. She imagines it’s her duty to discipline and curtail what she judges to be Emily's excessive spirits. One day she decides to do it by cutting off her niece’s hair. It was too abundant. It was sapping her strength.

'You don't mean that are going to cut off my hair, Aunt Elizabeth,' she exclaimed...

'Yes, I mean exactly that,' said Aunt Elizabeth firmly. 'You have entirely too much hair...Now, I don't want any crying.'....

Emily was distraught. She was at her aunt’s mercy; there was no one to intervene on her behalf. She felt completely helpless.

The morality of the day would have called for her meek and uncomplaining submission to her aunt’s authority. But something unexpected happens.

Aunt Elizabeth returned with the scissors; they clicked suggestively as she opened them; that click, as if by magic, seemed to loosen something—some strange formidable power in Emily's soul. She turned deliberately around and faced her aunt. She felt her brows drawing together in an unaccustomed way—she felt an uprush as from unknown depths of some irresistisble surge of energy.

'Aunt Elizabeth,' she said, looking straight at the lady with the scissors, 'my hair is not going to be cut off. Let me hear no more of this.'

An amazing thing happened to Aunt Elizabeth. She turned pale—she laid the scissors down—...and then for the first time in her life Elizabeth Murray turned tail and fled.

What the rest of the passage tells is that the aunt had been spooked because she had seen the image of her father (Emily’s grandfather, whom she had never known) in the girl’s transformed face; she had heard his voice in the phrase (highly characteristic of him) “Let me hear no more of this."

What I think the Church urgently needs today is a “loosening of the formidable power” from “unknown depths" given to laity in our nature and dignity as persons redeemed in baptism—our Father’s face and voice—the power to stand up forcefully against all forms of domination, including from the clergy.

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I'm going to talk about Geekdom--communities of enthusiasts or fans--for a little bit. Bear with me.

One of the things self-professed "geeks" often argue about--and geeks LOVE to argue--is what it means to be a "geek," and who qualifies. Sometimes the debate is playful, but sometimes it's an attempt to exclude people for being "fake geeks." 

When the question came up again in a couple different places recently, I put some thought into it. Why is this such a perennial debate, and what can it tell us about the divisions in other communities? 

The answer to "what is a geek" seems clear enough when you use the word as a verb. Generally, if someone is "geeking out," they are enthusing, effusive, interested in everything related to the object of geekiness, unabashed, unironic in their tastes, unconcerned with impressing anyone else, caught up in the subject--sometimes to the point of obsessiveness--fairly glowing with positive excitement over the virtues of the subject.

If enthusiasm is what unites geeks, then what is it that divides us? Why do even well-meaning geeks find themselves at odds, and why do a smaller number seem to be more interested in nitpicking and exclusion than in celebrating the actual object of their professed interest?

There is a division of sorts in here between geeks who take their obsessiveness to the next level of becoming very involved in deep analysis of their favourite subject, and those who prefer merely to celebrate the aspects of the fandom that they find particularly attractive. This division may have something to do with why the question of "who/what is a geek" comes up so often.

(Beginning to see the applicability to communities of faith?)

Over-analysis itself is very geeky, but it doesn't work well to hold your analysis too tightly or take yourself (or your subject matter, even) too seriously, I think, especially to the point of rejecting other fans for their lack of in-depth knowledge or intimidating non-fans with your intensity.

I mean, when you voluntarily call yourself a "geek," you're kind of STARTING from a place of wry self-deprecation, aren't you?

More to the point--while it's true that enthusiasm can lead to intense interest and debates over minutiae, it's also true that nobody's enthusiasm begins with the minutiae.

(Images like this one might spark some enthusiasm, however!)

Nobody loves TOS (the original series) Star Trek, to give an example, because they were persuaded that it is a great work of art that can hold up to lofty critical analysis. They love it for a myriad of other reasons, ranging from the appeal of the characters to the resonance of specific themes to a kind of nostalgia for the era in which it aired or the time in their life when they encountered it.

I can, nonetheless, have a grand old time talking about classic archetypes in TOS. But even when I do that, I know that the actual appeal and role in my life is more human and personal and complex than that, and sometimes the best response to the complexity of "what makes me light up with excitement" is simple acceptance that it is so.

I enjoy the conversation and debate, because it allows me to dwell on details and aspects of something I enjoy, but it isn't the reason for my enjoyment.

The debate is not the beloved thing.

The argument over "what is a geek" gets people caught up in the question of which topics are geeky or artistic or obscure enough to "count" as geeky, and how detailed and exhaustive your knowledge of your topic has to be. But neither of those questions gets to the heart of the enthusiast's love. 

My appreciation--my love--of a story or creative medium or genre--does not rest on a simple, explicable set of sophisticated/artistic/universal grounds, even if I might occasionally mount a playful defence along those lines. It doesn't depend on my ability to retain details or explicate the virtues of the loved thing. It is what it is.

Love is a fact, not a proposition.

Part Two: Theology is Not Faith

Image credits: 

"Ready for Battle" by RalfHuels (photographer), Anja Arenz, Chris Kunz, Dossmo, Niamh, Paolo Tratzky, Svenja Schoenmackers, via Wikimedia Commons

"Samantha Cristoferreti drinks coffee in the Cupola" by NASA, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons 

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