The Personalist Project

Man and social institutions

Every sort of moral, every sort of civil, every sort of politic[al] institution, aiding the rational and natural ties that connect the human understanding and affections to the divine, are…necessary, in order to build up that wonderful structure, Man.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the revolution in France


Easter has come, but I am still meditating on the Passion, and what it tells us about the relationship between God and man—and between body and soul.

The first theological controversies the Church grappled with were over the nature of Christ’s divinity and humanity. Christ’s body was so violated, so weak and beaten and broken, that it is tempting to set it aside, to say that his body was merely a shell, a human part that he inhabited but which didn’t partake in his divinity. After all, how could God be broken? How could God die?

But that is exactly what God did and what the Church concluded then and affirms now: Christ was both God and man, whole, undivided. He was God when he died, and when he rose again. His body and human nature are as integral and proper to his person as his divine nature.

Christ died. He suffered that sundering of body and soul that awaits us all, so that we could live beyond it and know a bodily resurrection. But his Passion began before his crucifixion, and I’ve begun to wonder whether his Passion might not have begun even earlier, with his Incarnation, with the small violations of the body that plague all men and women.

We live in an age that talks about “bodily autonomy” as though self-governance of our bodies is a given, as though control of our own bodies is something we should be able to take for granted and protect as a right.

I don’t think that’s how embodiment works, at least not in a fallen world.

The bodily autonomy argument is a powerful one because it does feel obvious and intuitive. It's why rape is such a violation—because it uses the body against the individual's will, introducing a wound between will and body, self and self. It's why illness and disability can provoke so much anger and such a sense of betrayal. Our body IS our self—we are embodied souls, ensouled bodies—and the antagonism between body and soul, body and will, is a wrongness, a consequence of sin, as demonstrated by the ultimate rending of body from soul: death.

We feel the wrongness of a body that does not obey, that is subject to forces beyond our control, in the same way we feel the wrongness of death.

But just as there is no escape from death, there is no escape from bodily weakness and interdependence.

Christ was dependent on his mother while in utero. He was a weak and helpless infant. He was a child who must have had scraped knees, bug bites, hosted parasites and viruses. He must have had times of frustration when he wanted to do things his small body wasn’t yet capable of, lacked the speed to outrun bullies, lacked the strength to imitate his foster father at the work table. He was a young  man who needed food, who thirsted in the desert, who was tempted, whose feet were dusty and calloused, who knew exhaustion and muscle aches.

Can God be thirsty? Hungry? Tired? Bruised? Did God struggle against bodily temptations—to run or fight when adrenaline was pumping, to lash out or break down when tired?

The early Church concluded that the answer is yes. God became man so that he could share in our humanity even unto death. God, who is wholeness, was broken in body in order to reconcile us to ourselves.

Christ took our brokenness, and made it whole. 

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Last month, my excellent daughter Susanna found an excellent deal on a flying lesson through Groupon. Remembering that I'd always wanted to go hang gliding (but figuring that was a little reckless for somebody with so many offspring counting on her), she generously forked over some additional babysitting money and surprised me with a lesson too.

Cruising at 2,500 feet above Gaithersburg--which looks a lot more picturesque from the sky--the instructor asked if I was looking at the instrument panel or at the horizon.

"The horizon!" I replied instantly. "It's too beautiful not to!"

His eyes lit up. "Exactly!" he replied. "You'd be surprised how many people get up here and spend the whole ride with their eyes glued to the dashboard."

The metaphor is irresistible. We're always losing perspective and missing the point: God-fearing people racking up devotions and forgetting all about union with the King of the Universe; teachers neglecting to notice the mind-boggling wonders of that universe in the heat of rushing to finish the science textbook; mothers, eyeballs riveted on recommendations for optimal feeding and sleeping habits, forgetting all about enjoying their babies.

As our instructor pointed out, you actually do a better job when you keep your eyes on the horizon rather than the buttons and dials. Do check the instrument panel--you don't want to find yourself hurtling to earth, no matter how much you enjoy the scenery on the way down--but you'll never become a true pilot by focussing on the minutiae to the exclusion of the sheer fun of it. 

I don't just mean we need to stop and smell the roses. I'm thinking of a tendency that Christians are susceptible to, a tendency to discard and suspect the good things of this world, to refuse to enjoy them unless they can demonstrate some obvious utilitarian value, some capacity for leading us to a more supernatural and "noble" plane. As Fr. Martin Rhonheimer points out in Changing the World: The Timeliness of Opus Dei (which addresses a much broader topic than the title suggests):

Worldly things are not to be reduced to "mere means." They are to be elevated to their highest and final purpose: to manifest God's creative love and splendor.

I grant the importance of not absolutizing the goods of this world. I know how easy it is to attach yourself to the gift at the expense of the Giver--but some people, and even some theologians, leap from the discovery that earthly goods are finite and non-absolute to the conclusion that they're illusory and dangerous--that our main response to them should be suspicion and detachment. This is a shame.

And what about the lingering sense that it's not right to enjoy life when there's so much suffering in the world?  Cardinal Ratzinger (who as Pope Emeritus Benedict celebrated his 90th birthday the other day} had this to say decades ago in The Salt of the Earth. 

Something I constantly notice is that unembarrassed joy has become rarer. Joy today is increasingly saddled with moral and ideological burdens, so to speak. When someone rejoices, he is afraid of offending against solidarity with the many people who suffer. I don't have any right to rejoice, people think, in a world where there is so much misery, so much injustice. 

Does this make sense? It does, up to a point. But, he continues:

The loss of joy does not make the world better--and, conversely, refusing joy for the sake of suffering does not help those who suffer. The contrary is true. The world needs people who discover the good, who rejoice in it and thereby derive the impetus and courage to do good.

Discovering the good and rejoicing in it is not a selfish indulgence, it turns out:

Joy, then, does not break with solidarity. When it is the right kind of joy, when it is not egotistic, when it comes from the perception of the good, then it wants to communicate itself, and it gets passed on.

In fact, it's a more effective motor for spreading the circle of happiness and decreasing the domain of misery.  Cardinal Ratzinger continues:

In this connection it always strikes me that in, say, the poor neighborhoods of South America, one sees many more laughing, happy people than among us. Obviously, despite all their misery, they still have the perception of the good to which they cling and in which they can find encouragement and strength.

As we carry on the absolutely necessary work of sharing the joy and decreasing the misery, we should guard against spreading the contagion of our own spiritual poverty and short-sightedness. 

In this sense we have a new need for that primordial trust which ultimately only faith can give. That the world is basically good, that God is there and is good. That it is good to live and be a human being. This results, then, in the courage to rejoice, which in turn becomes commitment to making sure that other people, too, can rejoice and receive good news. 

I'm not saying fun will save the world. But a misguided suspicion of "useless" happiness can only make things even worse.

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Stranded at a library the other day (not complaining!), I ran into a book by one John Zeisel called I'm Still Here: A new philosophy of Alzheimer's care. I've only read the first 40 pages or so, but he seems to avoid the kind of happy talk that flies in the face of reality. He doesn't pretend the disease is curable, or easy, or really positive in any way. But he does make two important points.

First, some troubles that we think of as Alzheimer's symptoms are actually avoidable side effects. For example, if a person wanders because she's at loose ends, or becomes agitated because of some unmet need, that's not a direct symptom of the disease, It can, at least sometimes, be avoided.

He also points out that although Alzheimers cannot be cured, it can be treated. What sense does that make? If there's no hope of a cure, why bother with treatment?

Well, for one thing, some treatments can delay the progress of the disease. I remember my mother saying that she'd hate that, and I'd probably feel the same way. But think of it this way, Zeisel says: at a certain age, a delay is as good as a cure--in fact, it's the same thing. If you can delay the worst of Alzheimers until, to put it bluntly, the patient dies of something else, you haven't just postponed the worst; you've escaped it.

He has other advice, too. For example, asking, "Do you know who I am?" can lead to confusion and embarrassment: the patient 1) may know perfectly well who the person is but not be able to pluck the name from her memory on command, or 2) she may not recognize the person at all and wonder why she's expected to, or 3) she may not remember the person but may sense that she's supposed to--also distressing and embarrassing. This could all be avoided by simply saying, "Hi, I'm Devra, and I'm happy to see you!" or some such thing. There's no need to quiz her.

This is not theoretical for me. My mother took care of her Alzheimer's-afflicted mother, and now she has it herself. Last time I talked to her, before hanging up, I said, "I love you, Ima," and she replied, "I love you, too, honey--what's left of me."

I tried to tell her that even if she didn't remember, and no matter how confused she was now, I knew there was more of her than what was "left" now, that I had known her for 52 years and remembered lots of things we did together, things she taught me, all kinds of things. She was in this condition now, but she was still a person. I have no idea if it helped, even for a minute.

Long, long ago, when I knew nothing about anything, I wrote a master's thesis on Self-Possession and Temporality in the Human Person. Boy, was it theoretical--a fascinating mind game, trying to tease out in virtue of what, exactly, we dare claim that we're the same person no matter our stage of development, degree of impairment, all the inevitable changes in body, outlook, personality.... I was 25 years old and had no skin in the game, nor could I imagine ever having any.

Now it's a practical matter. A relative who knew my mother long ago sent her condolences, expressing admiration and affection for "the person your mom used to be." I know what she meant. It feels that way to me, too: even though she's still there, I miss her. But I don't believe she's no longer a person, or that she's turned into somebody else. What's happened, maybe, is that she's no longer, or just barely, accessible to us now. Maybe even to herself. I think I would believe this if I didn't believe in an afterlife and the immortal soul, but maybe not. It's hard to say. And I know as she loses more and more of her faculties, it will seem more plausible that she's literally "no longer herself."

I want to end on a hopeful note, though, so here's some positive anecdotal evidence I can offer. My friend Wendy's grandmother had Alzheimer's. She was apparently a difficult and bitter person who'd had some awful experience in her youth which had made her that way. When she got dementia, in her mind, she went back to that youth: if you'd ask her how old she was, she'd give a younger and younger age each time. Eventually she got down to the age she was before the traumatizing event took place--and she lost all the bitterness. She became sweet and easy to get along with--the way she must have been before Wendy even knew her.

Something similar happened to my grandmother. She was a visiting nurse in Brooklyn for years and had an acute awareness of all the accidents and diseases that we oblivious grandchildren were risking at every turn. She was a worrier. But when she got Alzheimer's, that side of her personality vanished. She kept the affection and concern for everybody's wellbeing, but the worry somehow fell away.

Anyway, I've ordered Zeisel's book so I can read the rest of it, and if it's any good, I'll have more to say next time.

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The last few months have been odd ones for me. I am living in a kind of fog of discombobulation due to too much travel combined with an endless home renovation. Most of the time I feel too scatterbrained to do more than get through the day. Blogging has been impossible. Even so, I've had moments—literally just moments—when for the first time in years I feel drawn to and capable of serious reading and study.

What especially attracts my interest is research into the continuity of thought and themes among the post-conciliar Popes. Taking baby steps toward that end, I'm on chapter 1 of Joseph Ratzinger's classic, Introduction to Christianity

Almost every paragraph reminds me of Pope Francis, or rather throws light on Pope Francis' words and acts. Take this one:

Anyone who tries today to talk about the question of Christian faith in the presence of people who are not thoroughly at home with ecclesiastical language and thought (whether by vocation or by convention) soon comes to sense the alien—and alienating—nature of such an enterprise.

Immediately I think of Francis' rejection of proselytizing. I also think of my own experience. Across 30 years of zealous, adult Christianity, I have consistently—and confusedly—sensed that problem of religion being alien and alienating in our culture and society. We Christians too often come across more boors and scolds than bearers of good news. 

So, do we water down the faith, in order to make it more relevant and appealing to a secular world? No. Neither Pope thinks so. But we do have some adjusting to do. Not of the objective content of our faith, but our way of understanding it, living it, and sharing it. 

Anyway. I'm looking forward to lots more in the months ahead.

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Continued from Part One

While preparing to write about male/female friendship, I read several reviews of cross-sex friendships in history and literature. These friendships appear more frequently in the correspondence and literature of the 18th and 19th centuries than in prior eras.

I learned that Mark Twain and Helen Keller got along fantastically and she would read his lips by touching them when he talked, which is a great mental image considering the magnificence of his moustache! Thomas Jefferson's friendship with Abigail Adams was at least as significant, long-lasting, and free in spirit and correspondence as that with her husband, John.

As wonderful as these examples of male-female friendship are, they stand out primarily because they are unusual. For much of recorded human history, there would have been little opportunity for men and women to become friends of this sort. Segregation of roles and social mores limited socialization between the sexes. 

The sociologist Michael Kimmel, who writes extensively about masculinity, observes that younger people are less likely to find cross-sex friendships unusual or remarkable than older generations. He writes,

When I first began teaching, 25 or so years ago, I asked my students how many of them had a good friend of the opposite sex. About 10% said they did. The rest were from what I called the When Harry Met Sally generation. You’ll remember the scene, early in the film, when Harry asserts that women and men can’t be friends because “sex always gets in the way.”  Sally is sure he’s wrong. They fight about it. Then, thinking she has the clincher for her position, she says, confidently, “So that means that you can be friends with them if you’re not attracted to them!” 

“Ah,” says Harry, “you pretty much want to nail them too.” 

Young people today have utterly and completely repudiated this idea. These days, when I ask my students, I’ve had to revise the question: “Is there anyone here who does not have a friend of the opposite sex?” A few hands perhaps, in the more than 400 students in the class.

But let’s think, for a moment, about the “politics” of friendship. With whom do you make friends? With your peers. Not your supervisor or boss. Not your subordinate. Your equal.  More than romance, and surely more than workplace relationships, friendships are the relationships with the least amount of inequality. 

"Friendships are the relationships with the least amount of inequality," Mr. Kimmel says. And perhaps there lies the key to friendship between women and men, the same necessary ingredient to mature friendship between any two people.

I don't think equality of station or class is essential to friendship, but the lack of a power differential does ease what I think is the most important prerequisite to friendship: the recognition of the "I" of the other person, free from the utilitarian logic of use. 

I am reminded of a bit of dialogue from the novel The Surgeon's Mate, by Patrick O'Brien. The novel is set in the Napoleonic era. 

"I know very little of women, sir," [Jagiello] said. You cannot make friends with them: they are the Yews of the world."

"Yews, Mr Jagiello?" cried Jack. And to himself, chuckling much, he added, "It would be a damned odd thing if they proved rams, you know."

"Jews I mean," said Jagiello. "You cannot make friends with Jews. They have been beaten and spitted on so long they are the enemy, like the Laconical helots; and women have been domesticatal helots for oh so much longer. There is no friendship between enemies, even in a truce; they are always watching. And if you are not friends, where is the real knowledge?"

Later, Jagiello laments, 

"Ah, Dr. Maturin,...if I could find an Amazon, one of a tribe of women that never have been oppressed, one that I could be friends with, equal friends, oh how I should love her!"

Will cross-sex friendships ever be free from sexual tension? I don't think so, but I also don't think that tension is reason enough to eliminate half of humanity from the pool of potential friends. When we meet on a basis of mutual self-revelation, respect, and charity, we create the conditions where a moderate amount of unreciprocated attraction need not detract from the good of the friendship. The ebb and flow of friendship-as-good-in-itself has room for navigating these eddies and others.

A transactional friendship, where the goal in friendly behaviour is to achieve a desired outcome, cannot survive the denial of its ulterior ends because it is not a true friendship at all. There is little difference between the man who befriends you only because he "wants to convince you to open up the supply chain of a romantic relationship to him" and the childhood friend who only wanted to spend time with you if he could use your new NES game system.

You feel betrayed when you become conscious of being valued for what the other hopes to gain from you, rather than for your own sake. 

We've made a lot of progress toward creating a world where men and women can meet as friends rather than as " a truce." If we want to continue, we need to free friendship from the burden of being "for" something other than itself. We need to recognise that the "friend zone" is not a punishment or an exile, but a privileged space. 

Just as the good of the other calls us into friendship, the good of communion and unity with the other can sustain it--between two men, between two women—and, yes, between a man and a woman. 

Image credit: Helen Keller and Mark Twain, [CC BY 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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