The Personalist Project

Truth and terrorism

There exists an intimate link between the dethronement of truth and terrorism. As soon as man no longer refers to truth as the ultimate judge in all spheres of life, brutal force necessarily replaces right; oppression and mechanical, suggestive influence supercedes conviction; fear supplants trust.

Dietrich von Hildebrand, The New Tower of Babel

Every once in a while I catch a glimpse of what seems to be a sort of practical personalism, an example of what it looks like when someone implicitly places persons in a central position in their work or interactions. 

This morning, someone shared with me this video about the fashion designer Christian Siriano, who is being honored as one of TIME magazines Top 100 people of 2018. What caught my ear was this line: "When I love something...and I get a request to dress someone, I want to dress them, because I love what they're doing..." This is the line of thought that led Siriano to volunteer to dress Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones for her movie premiere when no other designer was willing to take the risk of designing for someone so far removed from the size 00 of the typical runway model or celebrity starlet. While other designers look at women and see bodies that might or might not serve the lines and aesthetic of their designs, Siriano talks about looking at women and seeing people he can serve with designs that suit their personalities and aesthetic.   

Siriano is widely known as the brash and camera-loving youngest winner of the Project Runway reality fashion design competition, but he is being honored now for a quieter, more thoughtful design philosophy that seems revolutionary in the skin-deep, appearances-first world of high fashion--a philosophy summed up in the self-designed t-shirt he wears in the TIME profile video, emblazoned with the phrase, "PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE." 

What does it mean to look at people and see people--or rather, to look at people and see persons?  “I grew up with a mom who is a size 16, and a sister who is a size 0, so I never thought that wasn’t normal – I just assumed you had to dress everybody,” Siriano said in an interview with The Guardian.  

It's possible Siriano's public inclusivity has more to do with hopping on the body positivity bandwagon than it does any sort of personalistic insight. From a distance, it is impossible to tell whether there's a genuine sincerity to this approach or merely savvy marketing seeing a way to stand out against the old guard of the fashion world. 

But still, I think the reason it appeals, the reason it stands out and the reason the video is being shared around between women on social media right now, is that we all hunger and thirst to be seen this way--as persons, unities of body and soul. As subjects and not objects. 

On a related note, my friend Rebecca Sachiko Burton recently described this vision:

At the end of my journey, I was shown myself. She sat in a courtroom where I remembered sitting long ago, in quiet terror and alone. She was wearing the the mark of every wound I’ve sustained in life, by another’s hand or my own. 

When I saw this self-portrait, I expected to draw back in disgust. So I drew back, but the disgust never came. Its opposite did instead. 

I know we’re all trained to feel horror at seeing anything but perfect skin on women, but that expectation was gone. The me I saw sat straight-backed and clear-eyed, and I felt for her and her marks what I’ve always felt when seeing the scars of war veterans—admiration, respect, gratitude. I was a mass of scars and I was beautiful, like cracks through a gold-heavy kintsugi vessel. 

This vision and reaction went against everything I’ve been trained to expect to feel about a woman’s appearance, expectations formed by pictures and mens’ comments and the rest of the cultural waters in which we all swim, that told me that nobody should show physical or emotional scars because nobody wants to see them. 

I have seen the ravages of trauma exacting a visible toll on people, and how often those who injure others come to reject the evidence of their behavior, and prefer to move on to another human, one fresh and unspoilt, sometimes as blithely as a child who searches for a patch of fresh snow in which to swim out another snow angel

The insight Rebecca gleaned from this was that we all walk around in this society obsessed with youth and beauty under the threat of rejection. 

This comes from the implicit (or sometimes explicit) message that should we fail to be beautiful and youthful, should our bodies reflect the injuries and markings of time and sin and human weakness, of age and illness and worry, of expressions of joy and horror and heartbreak and sleepless nights, that we will cease to be worthy of notice, or admiration, or love. Older women speak sometimes of the feeling of becoming invisible as they age out of desirability. It's a fear that weighs on all of us to varying degrees.

But, as Rebecca realized, the rejection is itself a kind of fear of what IS, a cowardly denial of the full impact and effects of the lives we live together.

And so as our scars become harder to hide, we become invisible. And it hurts, because I think on a deep level, we all want to be seen and cherished. Not loved despite all the things we think of as bodily flaws and failures, but loved in all our complexity, all that we are and all that we have learned in and through and as our embodied selves. 

Whether you are dressing others or merely dressing yourself, looking at another or looking in the mirror, the body you see before you is not a collection of attributes or measurements. The body is not a mannequin shaped to hold something else or an obstacle to being known for who we really are.

The body is the expression, the visible portion of the person we really are. Every body is a person, inextricably, as much as is that person's mind and soul. Each person is unique, and uniquely precious. A person is a person. 

And all people are people. 

Don't you forget it.  

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It comes up over and over and over. Justice or mercy? Judgement or compassion? Sometimes things get really confused, and we start talking about "objectivism" vs. "subjectivism," or even about "truth" vs. "love."

Edith Stein had the best comeback for that one: "Do not accept anything as truth that lacks love," she said, "and do not accept anything as love that lacks truth. One without the other is a destructive lie."

It's been explained over and over and over. Real justice and real mercy don't contradict each other. We so evidently get nowhere by endlessly pitting a caricature of "judgmental" against a caricature of "pastoral." 

But the other day I was reading Salt and Light, a Q & A with Benedict XVI--whose birthday was yesterday--when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger. His approach to what you might call an apologetics of judgment was different from all the rest. It appeals in a unique way to those who are concerned with this-worldly justice--without, of course, going squishy or Truth and Goodness. 

Here's what he says about the Day of Judgment:

There must...somewhere, somehow, be a settling of injustices, the victory of justice; that is what we are awaiting, at least. Nor are Christ and His judgment a victory for evil. No, He is a victory of the good, and, in this sense, the fact that God is righteous and is the judge is profoundly good news.

There's a caveat, it's true. The news may be good, but it won't necessarily be pleasant to put into action. He concedes:

Naturally, this good news puts me under an obligation.

And then comes my favorite sentence:

But when I conceive of the good news only as self-affirmation, in the final analysis it is meaningless; there is an anesthetization going on somewhere.

And then, in a masterful conclusion, he ties together the concerns of "traditionalists" and "social justice warriors" alike:

For this reason we must become familiar again with the dimension of judgment precisely with a view to those who suffer and those who have received no justice but who have a right to it--and then also agree to put ourselves under this standard and to try not to belong to the doers of injustice.

We all need to sustain a lively concern for "those who suffer and those who have received no justice but who have a right to it"--and we all have to uphold the standards of objective truth and falsity, good and evil--and here's the tricky part--without giving ourselves a pass. I'm going to quote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn here--not for the first time--because he says it so well.

If only it were all so simple! 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? 

The trick is to affirm real, unchanging standards of justice and injustice and "to try not to belong to the doers of injustice." It's so much easier to just define ourselves as the just ones because of the side we're on. Then, too, we have to resist the lure of that "anesthetization"--the kind that makes us numb to our own evil, and the kind that makes us numb to the sufferings of "those who have received no justice but who have a right to it." (Pope Francis also has a lot to say about "anesthesia.")

Getting beyond the silly headlines and pulling out of the anesthesia can both be laborious. But in the end, the Day of Judgment is good news.

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Today, in the spirit of the new apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et exsultate--"Rejoice and be glad"--I want to put in a plug for joy, and show that all the arguments against it we manage to muster don't hold much water. Here are a few misunderstandings that deserve to be squashed, the sooner the better:

1. Easter joy is for people who have Done Lent Right. 

Nope. Nothing against doing Lent right, as long as you can manage it without self-righteousness and contempt for slackers. But I call to witness St. John Chrysostom: 

You rich and you poor, dance together; you sober and you weaklings, celebrate the day; you who have kept the fast and you who have not, rejoice today!...

He has despoiled Hades by going down into its kingdom, He has angered it by allowing it to taste of his flesh...

2. But harder is better! The more pleasures you deprive yourself of, the more holiness you will produce.

Not necessarily. I call to witness Dorothy Day:

For many years...she had been a heavy smoker.  Her day began with lighting up a cigarette.  Her big sacrifice every Lent was giving up smoking, but having to get by without a cigarette made her increasingly irritable as the days passed, until the rest of the community was praying she would light up a smoke. 

Luckily, she wasn't too stubborn to resist some good advice:

One year, as Lent approached, the priest who ordinarily heard her confessions urged her not to give up cigarettes that year, but instead to pray daily, "Dear God, help me stop smoking." She used that prayer for several years without it having any impact on her addiction.  Then one morning she woke up, reached for a cigarette, and realized she didn't want it and never smoked another.

Along the same lines, St. Josemaría Escrivá offers this eminently sensible piece of advice:

Choose mortifications that don't mortify others.

I now feel completely vindicated in never giving up coffee for Lent. I couldn't do it to my husband and kids.

3. But what if you're a better person than I am? What if you can deprive yourself inconspicuously without making life unbearable for the people who have to live with you? In that case, deprivation is always better, right?

Wrong. I call to witness Fr. Jacques Philippe:

Sometimes we tend to forbid ourselves some wholesome aspiration, some accomplishment, or legitimate happiness. A subconscious psychological mechanism makes us deny ourselves happiness out of a sense of guilt, or it may come from a false idea of God's will, as if we ought to deprive ourselves systematically of everything good in life.

He continues:

In either case, it has nothing to do with genuine spiritual realism and acceptance of our own limitations. God  sometimes calls us to make sacrifices, but he also sets us free from fears and a false sense of imprisoning guilt. He restores to us the freedom to welcome whatever good and pleasant things he wants to give us in order to encourage us and show us his tenderness.

4. OK, then. Maybe we don't have to seek out sacrifice continually. But surely dancing and feasting are for worldlings and slackers?

No again.

I call to witness St. Teresa of Avila:

She scandalized people when they came upon her teaching the nuns in her convent to dance. When they received a donation of pheasant on a fast day, she instantly cooked them up for all to feast upon. "Let them think what they like," she said. "There is a time for penance, and there is a time for pheasant."

Lent lasts 40 days, but Easter lasts 50. "Gaudete" and "exsultate" are in the imperative mood. They're commands. Like it or not, it's time to rejoice.

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I've been struggling with writer's block lately. Thoughts flit across the landscape of my mind--brief tantalizing glimpses of larger ideas--and then slip away before I can get a grip on them, clothe them with words, pin them onto my screen. One moment, some insight is dazzlingly clear in conversation--but by the time I grab paper or keyboard, it's faded into murky obscurity. 

Times like this challenge not only inspiration and income, but they can challenge identity. We live in a culture, here in North America, where it is routine to start conversations with new aquaintances by asking, "and what do you DO?"--meaning what is your career, your occupation, your daily grind? 

Even vocation and avocation can be reduced to the same terms of careers and usefulness. The artist needs to be creating to be an artist; the priest must be baptizing and burying and saying Mass to be a priest. We are all busily doing, often with an eye to what others see or think of us. 

I think of myself, somewhat timidly, as a writer. But can I be "a writer" if writing is a drag and a slog? Am I still "a writer" when I have dry days, weeks, or months where nothing substantive leaves my desk to wing its way to the world? And if I am not "a writer"--who am I?

If we are tempted to define ourselves by our careers or our productivity, this is probably because there is a seed of truth in this understanding of identity. Who we are and what we do are inextricable from one another because who we are and how we act, what we will, are inextricable.

"The just man justices," Father Hopkins tells us.

"What good is it, my brothers," asks James in his letter, "if someone says he has faith but does not have works?"

Our acting--our doing--stems from and shapes our selves, our being--we are faithful or not, just or not, truthful or not, loving or not, according to whether we strive with our choices to manifest our best, most actualized selves. 

But whether or not I write, in general, has less to do with that sort of identity than does why I write, and what is expressed in my writing. If I think on "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right"---if I set my mind on those things that come from God, in other words--I will write quite differently than if I am full of pettiness, anger, jealousy, or bitterness. 

And if I do not write? Well then, I am not "Kate writing"--but I am still Kate. And whatever it is that Kate is will be expressed in the things I am doing--whether the quotidian tasks of housekeeping and laundry or the pursuit of different expressions of beauty, decorating pysanky or singing with others. I can be "Kate cleaning up vomit" and "Kate walking the dog" and "Kate editing someone else's writing" and "Kate taking a nap," and through it all, I am myself. 

Writing is a good thing (and I need to fulfill my commitments as a writer) but it isn't who I am, even if it is an expression of this particular person in this particular time. We don't lose our selves when we change our occupations; we aren't lessened in essence by the loss of skills or abilities through injury, illness, changing circumstances, or age, any more than my son was less perfectly himself as a baby learning to walk than he is now as a fledgling teenager learning to program and write plays. 

(I mentioned vocation earlier. We Catholics believe that a priest is a priest forever--the priesthood marks a soul in an eternal way. The priest who leaves the ministry and is laicized does not act as a priest, but he is not "un-ordained." The aging priest retains his priesthood even if he is no longer capable of administering the sacraments or acting as a pastor in a ministerial role.)

Personalists sometimes talk about incommunicability--a long word with a simple meaning. It means that none of us is ever able to be completely and perfectly known to another. Our expressions of our selves--our words, our actions, our creations--all fall short of communicating the fullness of our subjectivity. What we do--what we choose to foster and grow through habit and practice--are important, and they do all, taken together, truly reflect something of who we uniquely are. But we are always, always more than what we do on the outside. 

So here I am, writing about what it means that I cannot write. The irony does not escape me!

And as I write, I am "Kate, writing." But when I am called home at the end of my life, whenever that might be, I will not be called before the throne by my occupation, by my accolades or by my accomplishments.

I will be called by name by the One who knows me better than I know myself, the One before whom nothing is incommunicable and in whom no deed offered in love can be lost. 

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The habit of praising and thanking God before asking Him for something used to trouble me. It smacked of insincerity, hypocrisy, and (attempted) manipulation. As if we believed in a Deity who demanded to be placated before deigning to grant us a boon.

Especially in certain denominations, too, there's a time-honored tradition of praying with some very particular linguistic patterns. It's been pointed out that f we talked that way to each other, it would sound something like this:

Mom, I just wanna praise you and thank you for your goodness, for all you do. You're so good to me, I just wanna thank you and praise you, and mom, if you could find it in your heart, mom, to give me twenty dollars to go to the mall with my friend, mom, I would be deeply grateful. Praise you, Mom!

And so on.

The template for prayer, in some circles, seems to be: step one--extravagant, over-emotional flattery; step two--more flattery; step three--once you've softened the Deity up sufficiently--get to the point.

Fundamentalist verbal patterns and buzzwords are easy to make fun of, but what about something more traditional--like the Hail Mary?

Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee (flattery). Blessed art thou amongst women (more flattery), and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus (MORE flattery). Holy Mary, Mother of God (still laying it on thick), pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death (Gimme)

I'm not saying this is the true nature of the Ave Maria! Just that there's a certain superficial similarity there.

You could see the Our Father the same way:

Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven (flattery)

Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses (now we get to the point)

As we forgive those who trespass against us (this sounds good, but maybe it's just pro forma, to soften up the Giver?)

...and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (more gimme)

It may sound silly, but I suspect I'm not the only one who used to labor under this misconception. There are at least a couple of answers to this false dilemma:

  • First of all, asking for something is not necessarily selfish. We're literally commanded to ask for what we need. Petition may be the lowest form of prayer (running fourth behind adoration, contrition and thanksgiving), but it's still prayer. Reluctance to really believe this could be a symptom of a God-as-Boss-Man mentality: imagining that He doesn't take a personal interest in our happiness and needs to be placated or tricked into serving our interests. Asking is an expression of trust, in both the Giver's power to do something about our problems and His desire to do so.
  • Secondly, praising and thanking can, after all, be sincere! It need not be a silly attempt to flatter the Almighty, who would inevitably see through it anyhow. Praising and thanking could even be construed as "selfish"--if that's the word--in the sense that it can strengthen our faith to fix our attention on the way God really is as glorious and powerful as we're making Him out to be. It can help us make our requests with confidence.

But I think the whole problem really stems from a radical misunderstanding of relations among persons. If we see our dealings with God as a transaction instead of a meeting, a communion, among persons--I give Him Quantity X of flattery and he reciprocates with Desired Result Y--then we're missing the point more thoroughly than any hypocrite. It's a competitive, zero-sum way of looking at the whole thing which will never get us to any kind of loving union with God.

Or with anybody else we treat that way, either.


Image credit: Pixabay

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