The Personalist Project

Our small hungry shivering self

It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self — never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.

George Eliot, Middlemarch

"It's hard for me to judge," I said to my spiritual director, "whether I'm being too hard on myself or too easy on myself." (I'm pretty sure I was being sincere.)

She didn't hesitate, not even a split second. 

"Too hard on yourself in theory, too easy on yourself in practice."

Bingo. She knows me well.

It's so easy to overthink these things. We can tie ourselves in knots, trying to build up an image of ourselves as people of high standards, people who approve all the right things and disapprove all the wrong ones. The worse we do at living up to our false little image, the more miserable we get--but it's not the kind of misery that leads a person to pull herself together and live up to higher standards. It's a much more sterile kind of suffering.

My old pastor, Fr. Ed Fride, used to talk about "one of the Snake's oldest tricks": while you're in the throes of indecision, the Tempter is the first to tell you, "Aw, c'mon, t's no big deal. Don't be such a perfectionist. You're only human." Then, once you've caved, there he is, the Accuser, horrified and disgusted. "I can't believe you would do such a thing!" he gasps. "Why would you expect to be forgiven after doing that?"

And this fits right in with what another priest friend once told me in confession: "Don't be twisting back on yourself and thinking, 'What an awful person I must be to have done that.' That's not the point. Don't be all preoccupied with yourself. Look outwards, towards God, towards goodness. It's not just about you."

And one more related piece of wisdom: before she got Alzheimer's, my mother was talking to someone who feared he was losing his faith. She was trying to express the same kind of thing, I think. She told him: "You don't look inside yourself and try to locate this thing called 'faith.' That's not how it works. You look outward at the One you have faith in. You're not examining your own spiritual innards and trying to dig out this thing that you think is supposed to be there. You get out and look at the reality outside yourself." (This is, of course, paraphrased from memory.)

It's tricky, what I'm trying to say here, because of course self-knowledge is a good thing. But twisting back on yourself is not the way to get there. Morbid introspection is not the same thing as fearless contemplation of your own inner reality. The wrong kind of self-contempt is just as easy to fall into as the wrong kind of self-love.

It's not that the personal self is unreal or unimportant. It's not that what goes on inside the personal subject--the whole realm of interior acts--is less significant than objective facts about other sorts of beings. We at The Personalist Project has expended lots of virtual ink trying to demolish that error.

Maybe the problem arises when we try to theorize too hard about what's going on inside of us. Some realities, even though they're unfolding within us, are opaque to us. When we do that, we we distance ourselves from our own experience. 

I'll wrap up--if you could call it that--with a thought from another of my favorite sources of wisdom, Jacques Philippe. "God is realistic," he says. He doesn't want to shower His grace on the person we're supposed to be, or the person we would have liked to have been. He  addresses Himself to the person we are. Once we accept our real selves--it's then that He can get somewhere with us. As long as we insist on fiddling around with our little collection of fake selves, mistaking that for self-knowledge, His hands, you could say, are tied.

Or so it seems to me. Does it make sense to you? Does it ring true? What do you think?

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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.

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Some things you know in theory, but they only become real at a particular moment.

This happened to me once in Liechtenstein when I briefly took a job as a temp worker at a plastic factory. I went to the employment office to find something a philosophy student in search of cash for a quick trip was qualified to do. A plastic factory in Switzerland, it turned out, needed somebody to lay squares of plastic down on a mold, heat the mold so that they collapsed onto it, spray them with cool water so they'd hold their shape, and then lay them down in a second pile.

I could do that.

And I did it for twelve hours a day, which sounds demanding until you realize that it was only for two weeks. The most alienated of workers, I didn't even know what the plastic slabs were for. I was a cog in a machine. I'm sure my job is no longer done by a non-mechanical cog.

But one thing stuck in my mind. At the bus stop at 4:30 am each day, I'd see a crowd of people. Guest workers on THEIR way to work. But they kept it up for months, years or decades. They'd been entirely invisible to me, and they would have stayed that way, too, if I hadn't decided I needed spare cash for my trip.

The other day, something similar happened. I was taking a Greyhound from DC to Boston, and at 2am we stopped at Port Authority in New York for a couple hours. There, too, I saw a crowd of (formerly) invisible (to me) people. There was an old lady with a walker piled high with blankets. She sat down next to me, muttered something about prices these days, and slumped down on the bench. It was freezing, but she fell asleep at once.

A girl across the hall sat on the grimy flooring, deep in conversation on her phone. "If you're not gonna love me, what the f--- am I here for?" she demanded tearfully. And on and on. A couple sat on the cement in the corridor beside a toddler in a dilapidated stroller. The woman, frustrated but patient, was trying to coax the little girl to sit still, but the man just kept hissing "Stop," at intervals, in a monotone, through clenched teeth.

The toddler dropped her sippy cup, which gave me a chance to pick it up, hand it back, and launch into a well-intended mini-speech.  I remember when mine were that age. It's so hard, isn't it? It does get easier. Want me to rock the stroller for a minute? I wasn't sure, though, whether what they needed was an encouraging word or for me to alert one of the roving policemen so he could confiscate that baby and give her a stable home somewhere else.

As departure time neared, I moved towards my gate and saw people lining up to leave. As bedraggled and miserable as THEY looked, they were a definite step up from the others, who, I realized belatedly, weren't waiting to get out of there. They were hoping not to get KICKED out of there. They LIVED there. 

How oblivious could I get?

Sometimes we hear words like "marginalized" and "periphery" and dismiss them as bleeding-heart buzzwords. But sometimes their meaning hits us over the head. 

Then we get away from Port Authority, or the village bus stop at dawn, or the bad neighborhood, and out of sight becomes out of mind. But they don't fade into non-existence because a passing stranger has caught her bus and gotten on with her life. They're no less there than I am. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, a person's a person, no matter how invisible.

Image credits: Pexels

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Should we raise our children in a bubble of wishful thinking, or should we opt for reckless endangerment? Should we be producing children too naive to fend for themselves, easy prey for abusers, and congratulate ourselves on our purity? Or should we aim to be so naive ourselves that we toss them into mainstream hookup-land, hoping for the best, and congratulate ourselves that at least we're not acting like overprotective fundamentalists?

Put that baldly, it's clear that these are the wrong questions to be asking.

It's not just parents who are in this predicament, either. One way or another, everybody needs to confront the same kind of dilemma: Is "the world" good or bad? Is human freedom a gift or a danger? Some of us know the answer, theoretically speaking, but I propose that even if so, we'd do well to check in on ourselves, over and over, to see whether we're keeping it in mind and acting like we know it--or veering from timidity to recklessness and back again.

I've found a book that addresses the question: Changing the World: The timeliness of Opus Dei, by Fr. Martin Rhonheimer. It's crystal clear and brilliantly nuanced--but honestly, I think I'm going to contact him and suggest that he change the subtitle, because this book addresses a far broader array of questions than that suggests. Do read the whole thing, or at least the first half.

Here's what Rhonheimer affirms: Neither creation--"the world"--nor human freedom are to be feared, shied away from, or even warily and reluctantly brought into our calculus of how to please God in this world and be happy with Him forever in the next. But also: corruption is real.

The world---all of creation--is "plainly and simply good"--having issued from the hands of God Himself. It's only evil, and only constitutes an obstacle, to the extent that human sin has damaged it, So we don't need to quake with suspicion of it. But more than that: it's precisely our calling to get in there and do something about the corruption and evil. And THAT'S precisely because its original goodness has not been blotted out entirely--because there's something worth saving, something worth restoring.

We're meant, in fact, to roll up our sleeves and, with the "glorious freedom of the children of God" take the initiative, loving the world without fear of getting our hands dirty. We recognize that there's evil that needs to be remedied, AND that the good outweighs the evil. 

A lot of confusion on this point has persisted over the centuries--as if embracing the goodness of creation and human freedom were "worldly." In some quarters the assumption has been that the good things of this world ought to be held at arm's length and considered only instrumentally--as if their goodness isn't real, or shouldn't be dwelt on. Beauty and pleasure and fun can be warily affirmed, maybe, if and only if we can produce hard evidence that they're leading us towards holiness. Even then, they can never really be embraced, just tolerated. And best to stick to overtly religious music, art and hobbies, for fear of "worldly" contamination. 

Believe me, as a mother of eight, I understand the temptation! I'm not advocating a careless embrace of conventional pop wisdom, or losing your eternal soul for the sake of a passing illusion. 

But as we protect ourselves and those in our charge from the genuine corruption of a fallen world, we need to do it without falsifying that world, falling prey to a sad reductionism that cuts us off from reality in an attempt to cut us off from sin. As if evil were real and goodness only theoretical.

Maybe this all seems obvious.I feel like I'm repeating myself, month after month. But if I find I have to call myself back, over and over, to appreciate the goodness of freedom and the freedom to embrace goodness, maybe it's not just me. 

Wholeheartedly acknowledging the good and fleeing the evil, and teaching our children to do the same, is tricky. It would be a lot simpler to just plain embrace OR just plain flee. 

But that would be a cop-out. 

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The propensity of some to confuse vocation and occupation and spiritualize particular kinds of domestic productivity just increases the angst women carry about work and motherhood. 

Motherhood is a vocation, but it is a personal vocation. It is a vocation to love and educate the individual, real, distinct children in your home. Marriage is a vocation to union with a particular, real, individual, incommunicable person. 

Both "homemaking" and economic work ideally support our vocation and serve the families we have. Because we are all different people with unique skills and weaknesses, needs and strengths, there are almost endless variations in what this might look like in individual families. 

It's a mistake to act as though only one person in a family makes the home a home. Your house is a home by virtue of the life you live in it, and every family member contributes to that. A mother isn't more or less a mother because of the role she plays in or out of the home. Her motherhood comes from her relationship with those God has given into her care. A father isn't more or less a father because of the role he plays in or out of the home. His fatherhood comes from his relationship with those God has given into his care. 

We don't need to "defend" motherhood or fatherhood by assigning distinct tasks to each. Motherhood and fatherhood are already distinct because we are embodied persons. Everything I do is done in and through and as a female body, including my motherhood. 

So a man who is primary caregiver? Hes not "Mr Mom." He's a father.

And a woman with children who works outside the home isn't usurping a father's role. She's a mother, loving the children she has and making a home for them according to her skills and their needs.

Can we fail as mothers and fathers? Make bad choices? Let ego or desire for recognition push us to neglect the good of our spouses and children?

Of course. 

We can lose ourselves and our families to our insecurities and need for outside validation of our work--or of our homes--and our choices. 

Or we can seek to love the families we have with the gifts God gives us.

And we can rejoice that, like snowflakes, God delights in making each person--and each family--a unique reflection of His love. 

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