The Personalist Project

The will

The most evident feature in an act of will is the efficacy of the personal self.  This efficacy is immediately given: it is reflected in the awareness of the acting person as an act of the will.

John Paul II, Person and Community

Are you a gaslighter? Of course not, right? 

You would expect that gaslighting--"a form of manipulations that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception and sanity"--would be a rarity, practiced only by the few malevolent bullies. How many of us, after all, would take on the elaborate project of tricking people into questioning their own sanity? 

I'd guess that in its full-blown form, it's exceedingly rare. I remember once when the girls in our college dorm hatched an elaborate plot to convince our friend Heather that she had napped straight through till the evening of the following day. When she woke up after an hour or two one Thursday, she found us traipsing around in towels and curlers, pretending to prepare for Friday night. The whole dorm was in on it, and it almost worked.

That was just for fun.

But there are other, much more common scenarios. Trying to manipulate other people's perceptions isn't unusual at all, unfortunately. How firm a hold, after all, do most of us have on our own memories or perceptions? Especially the ones about how someone has treated us. These kind are exceedingly susceptible to twisting--because of fear, jealousy, wishful thinking, defensiveness, or projection.

And it can be tempting to gaslight your children--or at least to seize control of their perceptions of what's normal, acceptable, and possible. All the tokens of respect that we know we're supposed to offer people in general can seem out of place when it comes to your own children. With grownups, it's easier to realize we don't know all that's going on in their own hearts. We don't pry; we don't assume; we don't manipulate. Or we do, but at least we realize we're not supposed to.

But with children...well, we have stewardship of their upbringing. Because they're more transparent than adults, we can be tempted to assume that we're seeing all there is to see. We've been children, after all, and they've never been adults. We've experienced being two, or five, or thirteen. They've never been twenty, or thirty or (yikes!) fifty-two. We make an exception to our nonjudgmentalism and easily grant ourselves permission not only to judge their motives and their hearts, but to try to improve them.

(Although if you look back to your own childhood, chances are you remember the frustration of dealing with some grownup who was both certain she saw into your heart and entirely mistaken. And because children have smaller and less sophisticated vocabularies, they are often unable to articulate just where the grownup is getting it wrong. And that's assuming an unusually receptive grownup, one with the humility to realize she might be getting it wrong and the patience to listen to a child's explanations). 

Manipulation of children for their own good, or just for the sheer convenience of a grownup, used to be more blatant, and more socially acceptable. I remember my father telling how his beleaguered mother used to pick up the phone and say to the dial tone: "Hello? Is this the man who comes to take bad children away? Well, I have a bad little boy here..." My father would panic and mend his ways, at least for ten minutes or so. Apparently these tactics weren't uncommon in Grandma's day.

These days, we look askance at them, and rightly so. But a popular childrearing series recommends what may be a more insidious form of manipulation. When a child commits some infraction, the authors advise, the parent should say, very quietly and calmly, something like, "Oh, I'm sorry you did that. We'll talk about the consequences later. Try not to worry"--retaining a veneer of respectful courtesy, but with all the benefits of a cowed and anxiety-ridden culprit.

Full-blown gaslighting may be rare. But the temptation to usurp someone else's perception s of reality is anything but.

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There's a bit of dialogue floating around Facebook these days, linked from imgur, on the differing ways men and women experience sexual validation and objectification. Summarizing and simplifying a great deal, the basic thesis is that men don't understand complaints about sexual objectification because they themselves so rarely experience (and, the theory goes, thus crave) sexual validation.

 

 What caught my eye was the language used and the assumptions it reveals. "There's not much room to be the object rather than the subject" says the original post. "We don't talk about how...straight men are desexualized and denied the ability to be sexualized object[s]." 

While I was still trying to put my finger on the root intuitions involved in this complaint, a FB commenter made a revealing remark:

"I have to wonder if this desirability/usefulness dichotomy is at play. A man who can't believe he's desirable for anything but his utility also can't help but be threatened by the notion that women don't need him. We've got a bunch of men out there whose self-esteem and notion of their own place in relationships is all predicated on the "breadwinner" model, being shown a picture of femininity where the woman can be both beautiful/desirable and powerful/useful, without any complementary picture of masculinity as anything other than the latter, and finding that picture distressing for reasons they can't fully admit even to themselves."

Once I realized that this (male) commenter had translated "sexual object" as "beautiful/desirable," something clicked. As a woman, I've had a lifetime of trying to suss out the difference between "beautiful" and "sexually desirable": two terms that are frequently, incessantly used interchangeably, but which can represent very different experiences. Even women who don't want to be sexual objects might aspire to beauty. 

I think maybe what both men and women crave—the better men, anyway—when they say they want to be desirable is the sense that they have value for something innate to themselves, rather than for their utility. And it's easy to look at sexual desirability as being something like that—something innate, something people just want to be around, that doesn't have to be worked for or earned, that makes people value you for yourself. 

It gets very convoluted because "beauty" and "desirability" get mixed up together, but if you think about what is being said when someone is called "desirable"—that's a transitive verb. You aren't just "desirable," you are desirable TO someone. It's not a value held in yourself, it is a value assigned to you according to what you offer the other. As is "utility." I think desirability is really just a subset of utility--or maybe utility is a subset of desirability. It's not really very different to be desired for your utility or to have utility as an object of desire.

In this way, there really isn't a "desirability/usefulness" dichotomy. They are variants on the same theme. Having utility because of your perceived "market worth" is utility. Desiring to have a mate that others recognize as a "good catch" because of her perceived sexual value or his perceived earning potential reduces the person to a possession in either case.

But, like I said, it's confusing because we don't have a way to distinguish being valued and esteemed for your person from this objectifying kind of desire. Outside of the philosophical circles, we don't have good ways to talk about the different between good-for-us and good-in-itself. Beautiful people have an aesthetic appeal that can be about more than possession and use (although it can be degraded to use). So do graceful people, and courageous people, and humble people, and kind people, and honest people. These qualities are attractive because they are good-in-themselves, and that kind of good calls for a response from us.

I think my commenter is probably right that the shift in women's roles over the last century has left many men off-balance. He describes a simplistic utilitarian arrangement--but it is an understandable one, and there is security in feeling that you understand your role, what you have to offer and what you are owed in return. The suffragist and feminist projects upset that understandable exchange, one that also included other domestic forms of use and exchange in child rearing, housekeeping, and social obligations. 

Flipping through Netflix recently, my kids and I wound up watching a handful of episodes of the slightly satirical show, "Barbie: Life in the Dream House." One episode poked fun at how Barbie has had hundreds of careers over her history, but Ken's primary role is as her boyfriend. She is both breadwinner and sexual ideal; Ken serves a purely ancillary role based on how helpful he is to her. The relationship is clearly unbalanced, and the show has some fun with that.

Funny or not, it does satirize this experience of modern relationships as being out of balance. I can't regret the gains made for women over the last century, but I think it is important to recognize how this perceived imbalance in modern relationships fuels both reactionary responses and the sort of searching for new sources of utilitarian value seen in the imgur discussion. We need to present the case for a new, non-utility based way of relating to one another, men and women.

The way forward must be to shed utilitarianism in relationships, to value the person as being good-in-him/herself...and I'm worried because I feel like our society is increasingly losing the vocabulary and the incentive to see anything at all as good-in-itself outside of its utility to us.

It's not an easy task to attempt to counteract this trend. We must bear witness in our lives and our words to the conviction that it is entirely reasonable to dedicate oneself to a lifetime of knowing/loving one single person in a particular way, knowing we'll likely fall into all the errors lovers are prone to at one point or another, but confident that the goodness of the other justifies the attempt. Just as the good of your own person—your own incommunicable subjectivity—is itself worthy of the attempt, apart from your immediate utility to any other person.

Image credit: via Imgur, https://imgur.com/gallery/6wltd
Image credit: Barbie and Ken by madelineyoki, via Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/42219708@N02/3902343984

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Our friend Rosa lost her husband Chema the other day. Together they have eighteen children. I wrote about Chema here, but his story is incomplete without hers.

When we first knew Rosa and Chema (during our family's decade in Barcelona), we had three children and they had four--we thought. We found out later that two more had died in infancy.

I was on hand more than once when Rosa would mention this to people. A stranger at the school Christmas show or the grocery store would casually ask how many kids she had. "Four [or five, or six, or eight, or ten]," she would answer, smiling. "And two in heaven."

The stranger might start looking uncomfortable, but Rosa's smile never faded. "It makes you realize," she'd go on,"that your children belong to God, not to you, you know?" 

The stranger, who probably hadn't bargained on sailing so suddenly beyond the shallows of chitchat, would blanch at first, but then it would dawn on her that Rosa really meant what she said. I have no doubt those brief conversations stuck in the minds of a lot of people, just as they did in mine.

When Rosa and Chema's eldest living child, Carmi, was 22, she died during an unsuccessful pacemaker replacement. (Like several of her brothers and sisters, she'd suffered from the family heart malady.) At the funeral, her brother Juampi remarked that most people thought it sad that she'd only had those 22 years on earth. "We didn't look at it that way," he said. "We were glad she had the 22."

Juampi takes after his mother.

But isn't that a little ... inhuman? Could anyone who loved a sister, or a daughter, be so unmoved?

Well, first of all, unmoved is the wrong word. Maybe "unshaken" would be closer. After Carmi died, one of her sisters was a little taken aback at how their mother kept on smiling, kept on working and attending to everybody else's needs, apparently as usual--and she called her on it. Rosa explained that every morning she'd cry for one hour, pray for one hour, and then carry on with caring for her husband and her other 14 kids. I'm sure she offered up every difficult smile, every tedious page of paperwork, and every messy diaper out of love for her daughter and for God. She chose to honor them by jumping back into daily life wholeheartedly and staying on top of everything her family counted on her for.

Unusual? Definitely. I'm not offering this as a one-size-fits-all model of grief management. But unnatural? No. Rosa comes by it very naturally. You'd have to know her father, Don Rafael, also a force of nature, to grasp just how unsurprising Rosa's approach is. He also raised an enormous family while founding schools and international organizations, sometimes flying home from across the country just to have dinner with his wife and kids, carrying on at full tilt even as the tumor that eventually took his life grew and grew.

Rosa is surprising in other ways, too. "Yo me considero muy feminista (I consider myself very much a feminist)," she told me once. At the time I rolled my eyes and retorted silently, "Rosa, there are no feminists with 18 children." But, like a growing number of people today, she didn't understand the word as implying the slightest conflict with the vision St. John Paul II articulated in his work on the dignity of women. And no one could accuse her of being insufficiently pro-life.

She and Chema weren't "providentialists," though I've never met anyone whose faith in Providence was more unshakeable. She told me once that with each of their pregnancies they considered whether this was the right time for another baby--and then decided it was. 

Rosa had a baby every year we lived in Spain--once it was twins--and she also worked full time. She'd take her maternity leave, go back to the office, take her next maternity leave, and so on--and on, and on. She was intensely interested in the ins and outs of the family business, and also in child development. She and her relatives founded a preschool that put into practice the principles of early stimulation they believed in and ran it out of their basement, taking turns being on duty with all the children. 

An American transplant and fan of attachment parenting, I remarked once that I nursed my babies not only for the nutrition but also as an excuse to spend time with them. Rosa did what all the Spanish women I knew did (if they nursed at all): they timed the feedings--x minutes on one side, then on the other, and ya esta--that's it--moving systematically onward towards whatever nap or bath or activity was next on the agenda. Rosa confided that maybe she was a little hesitant to get attached, because of the loss of those two babies early on. Much later she surprised me by remarking that she had taken my words to heart and now made a point of relishing the time she spent nursing her babies, rather than rushing on to the next thing. 

I could tell more stories. but she can tell them better. Her book, What's Your Secret, Rosa?, has just been translated into English, and can be found here.

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We're all acutely aware of the need to exit our respective bubbles. When we surround ourselves exclusively (especially in cyberspace) with likeminded people, it's not that we might end up talking past each other. It's that we won't get around to talking at all. We risk being cemented into our own cluelessness about how people outside our chosen ghetto see the world. We miss out on the bracing "resistance," as Max Scheler calls it, that reality offers.

It's all true. I'm all for it. I'm in the midst of a dialogue with a liberal friend, and our first step was to recommend to each other our own favorite websites--the ones that rise above an exclusive focus on the idiocy of their opponents.

On the other hand...

There's something to be said for building up a community of people fighting the same battle. The "Benedict Option" may mean many things to many people, but one thing it affirms is the value--for those who choose it and for civilization at large--of banding together and forming communities of the likeminded.

So, how do you know when to preach to the choir and when to target "the other"? How to hone your message so as to get the greatest possible mileage out of every utterance? 

Maybe it's not the right question.

Once i was giving a talk at a morning of recollection. I was ill-prepared this particular day, mostly making it up as I went along. Finally I ground to a halt and was sheepishly gathering up my papers, when a woman I'd never met before ran up, gave me an enthusiastic hug, and exclaimed, "Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU! That was EXACTLY what I needed to hear today!"

I don't know what I said, but twelve years later, we're still close friends. 

So you never know. Sometimes we overthink whether the situation calls for preaching to the choir or "translating" our words into language that someone different might be receptive to, or be able to hear at all. Sometimes we imagine that every single moment has to be a teachable one, however much tortured phrasing that might require

Yes, we ought to be smart enough to avoid slapping the verbal equivalent of ear plugs on our conversation partners--but on the other hand, this is one person, talking to another, not a machine emitting sounds according to a predetermined algorithm. Don't be mechanical about spitting out what your perceived audience presumably wants to hear. Don't place all your confidence, all your faith, in conversational tactics and preparedness.

The Book of Proverbs says to "lean not on your own understanding." And Christ Himself, in the Gospels, warns us against overthinking our reaction even at the moment of arrest, because  "words will be given you in that hour." As a former evangelical-to-the-point-of-fundamentalist-to-the-point-of-anti-intellectual, I realize, believe me, that these verses can be twisted. Their potential for misinterpretation rivals even "Judge not," and "She has loved much." Our understanding is a gift that's meant to be used, not just fearfully stored away. And, as every student who tried relying on "words will be given you in that hour" instead of studying for the test knows, whatever it means exactly, it doesn't mean "Be unprepared!" You still have to do your homework, it turns out.

But maybe it means this: Leave room for the unexpected--whether a clear case of the Holy Spirit intervening, or just from a healthy respect for spontaneous communication between persons. Be wise as serpents, yes, but be not forever calculating and trusting in thine own calculations. Have a sense of the pros and cons of phrasing things this way or that, but also acknowledge the limits of your power to hear with someone else's ears.

So get out of those bubbles! Or not. As long as you treat persons like persons, and not generic targets of your wisdom. 

IMAGES

Bubbles: Pixabay; Benedictine monastery: CityDesert; Robot: Pixabay;

Target practice: Pixabay

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Yesterday was my oldest son's birthday, and it got me musing about the nature of time and the self, and how there is a continuity to the self from conception through into death (and, we Christians believe, into eternity).  

I look at my son, and because I have known him so well for so long, to my mind's eye it sometimes seems like I can almost see him telescoped back in time, not like a series of still images superimposed upon one another, but as a smooth progression, as a continuous whole. 

There's a funny bit of description in one of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, from the point of view of a recently deceased character:

"The living often don’t appreciate how complicated the world looks when you are dead, because while death frees the mind from the straitjacket of three dimensions it also cuts it away from Time, which is only another dimension. So while the cat that rubbed up against his invisible legs was undoubtedly the same cat that he had seen a few minutes before, it was also quite clearly a tiny kitten and a fat, half-blind old moggy and every stage in between. All at once. Since it had started off small it looked like a white, cat-shaped carrot, a description that will have to do until people invent proper four-dimensional adjectives."

So what am I getting at? 

I've been talking about characteristics my son has retained over the years, but that's really only a marker pointing to the more important truth about the person, which is that we are ourselves, continuously, regardless of development, acquired knowledge or wisdom, sins or virtues, environment or experience, shame or joy, brokenness or wholeness, independence or interdependence. Even as we change and grow, we remain on an essential level, ourselves. We are a single person, in time as well as space, not a multiplicity of persons.

We know that this is true, of course, but we frequently talk and act as though it is not. We procrastinate as though it isn't ourselves who will have to pick up the pieces, and shift blame on our past selves as though we can leave behind our old sins without making amends, simply by outliving them. We are often ashamed or embarrassed by the people we used to be, or angry with our younger selves for mistakes made without the benefit of our present experience and wisdom...and then we make new mistakes because we fail to learn the lesson of humility that would remind us that we have more to live and learn yet.

Sometimes we hide ourselves and the changes, doubts, and movement of soul within us from our loved ones for fear that they will say, "He is not the person I loved"—until the illusion crumbles and we are revealed.

Sometimes, we are the one who feels betrayed to find that a loved one is different than we had assumed. We say things like, "she's not the person I knew" as though a stranger has come and usurped our friend or spouse or child's place under cover of darkness. 

We speak this way because it describes an experience, the feeling we have about the way people change and the shock that can come with finding someone changed. Sometimes we talk about past self as another person because we want to mark an epochal change or commitment, metaphorically divide ourselves into "the old self" and "the new self" as a way of putting aside childish or unworthy things. There's a place and a purpose for some of this language.

But it still remains true that from an eternal perspective, we are all something somewhat akin to that cat-shaped carrot. My son is not just the person that my small wrinkled newborn or my clever, funny preschooler became. That baby was Guillame. The child was Guillame. And the young man before me is my son, Guillame; one person, changing and moving but always no more or less than a single, unique, valuable self. He will carry himself through life, everything he has experienced and known shaping him in a long, continuous process.

And while I may not always feel I know him as well as I do now, I suspect I will always be able to look at him and recognise the baby he was, the child of my youth, at one end of the foundation of the person he is.

Image credit: Life Stages by Nazrul Islam Ripon (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: Gui turns 12 by Author. 

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