The Personalist Project

Our own deepest secret

In a true community, each of us is able to keep our own deepest secret which must not be handed over to others nor even shared. Each of us should be able to deepen our own personal conscience and mystical life. It is precisely here that the weakness and strength of the community lie. There is weakness because the ways of God for an individual are not always those of the people at the head of the community or what human reason and experience establish. But the strength is in putting people first. There is nothing stronger than a heart which loves and is freely given.

Jean Vanier, Community and Growth

How do you age gracefully?

The short answer is: I have no idea; I was hoping you'd tell me.

Our Year of Four Moves has finally got my hair turning white, and that's what brought the subject to mind. But it's not just the cosmetic aspect I want to talk about. Most articles on this topic are about just that: how to pass for 25,  how to do battle with wrinkles, extra chins and other horrors. And everybody understands the appeal of that. 

But there's more at stake in aging gracefully, or failing to, than you might think. When we of the older generation are at peace with the age we are now, we can spread that peace, comfort, and wisdom to the next generation. Someone who's comfortable in her own skin makes a better shoulder to cry on, a better mentor in times of confusion, than someone who's pretending to be an age she isn't anymore, or pining after the days when she herself was more shallow and more confused.

Someone who's uneasy, not at peace, jealous of the younger generation, is disquieting to be around. Someone still chasing after the phantom self she used to be, or imagines she still could be with the right zumba routine or cosmetic procedure, diffuses not comfort but its opposite.

Something else that should come with age, but doesn't automatically, is a larger perspective. Things that used to seem like disasters don't anymore, and, in the best case, this leads to a good kind of self-forgetfulness. You can more easily forego your favorite tastes or ways of arranging things, and this, too, brings peace and pleasure to the people in your care.

I remember hearing about a Spanish woman whose chilldren were all convinced that "Mama likes the bony part of the fish best of all." She had gained the abillity to see it wasn't the end of the world if she didn't get to eat the part she really liked best, and she had progressed to being the kind of mother who got more pleasure out of giving her kids the best than by getting away with having it all to herself.

I say a "good kind of self-forgetfulness," because I don't mean anybody should be a doormat. Being taken for granted isn't consistent with anybody's human dignity, and taking others for granted leads to that entitilement mentality that gives parents and teachers so much grief these days.  Insisting on eating the bony parts of the fish out of a sickly self-contempt is no victory, but it can be a very good thing if it's inspired by the free choice to care about things that matters more, plus the free desire to give pleasure to another.

If the older generation is less able to exude peace and achieve indifference to external appearance, I think we have plenty of reason. We've been hounded for so long to value ourselves on our looks, youth, sex appeal--all qualities with an expiration date. Of course we're uneasy. We've also been subject to deeply confused messages about the importance of being somehow pampered and driven at the same time. This doesn't make for peace, either.

Our hair is getting white, and we thought by now we'd be competent at aging gracefully, but it's turning out to be trickier than expected.

Or so it seems to me. What do you think?

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Pride is a stubborn insistence of being what we are not and never were intended to be. Pride is a deep, insatiable need for unreality, an exorbitant demand that others believe the lie we have made ourselves believe about ourselves.

–Thomas Merton, "The New Man"

The Merton quote above struck me as corresponding well with my personal definition of humility as desiring to know yourself and be known as nothing more than what you simply and truly are. It’s a definition that rejects posturing, fault-finding, and preoccupation with status. 

It's a tricky task, though, predicated as it is on true self-knowledge. Where does self-knowledge come from? I think it is natural for us to look to those around us to tell us who we are and what we are worth, and maybe the hurts we receive from putting our value so completely in others’ hands is what eventually drives us to build these false narratives around ourselves, to cushion our sense of self and sense of worth from the harshness of the world’s judgment. We all know, after all, that the world is harsh. The harshness of the world’s judgement is on display every day—in the way we respond to others’ sins and to others’ mistakes, in the ways we label and set people aside based on clothing or mannerisms or other externals things that we take as representative of internal reality, the way we so quickly believe ourselves to have seen to the heart of another when we still lack knowledge of even our own hearts. 

This harshness, it seems to me, is one of the things that drives us to the kind of pride Merton mentions. Rather than believe the caricature of the self that the world displays to us, we armor ourselves with a new lie, a new story which places the self at the center. 

“Every man is a hero of his own tale. Surely, Dr. Maturin, every man must look on himself as wiser and more intelligent and more virtuous than the rest, so how could he see himself as the villain, or even a minor character?”

–from “The Surgeon’s Mate” by Patrick O’Brien

So where is self-knowledge to be found, if not in the self mirrored to us, however imperfectly, by others? In part, I think humility must begin in inner silence. We need to set aside the narrative lenses and the projections and the interpretations we’ve so long defended and justified ourselves with, and be quiet within. 

As a navel-gazing introvert, though, I know from experience that we can’t stop there, gazing inward. Which brings us to Gaudium et Spes 24: 

"Man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself."

So the Church, through Gaudium et Spes, tells us that self-knowledge is the fruit of self-gift. We will find ourselves if we focus on others, not looking towards ourselves, not even looking towards the reflection of ourselves in the other (self-gift isn’t a transaction or a loan; it’s not a payment for a returning ego-boost). 

We cannot observe a thing without changing it. When we look on ourselves overmuch, even at our reflections (cf. Narcissus) we wrap ourselves around with narrative and justifications and build up the story of a world in which we stand at the center of everything, and others have meaning and value only insofar as they relate back to our own self and self-image. 

As subject, as the medium through which I see and act, I cannot completely shed my awareness of self. The I-It and the I-Thou still require an “I.” So what does it mean to die to self?

A friend asked me, “Well. When you have to help someone who is drowning where is your focus?”

“On them, obviously, although you need awareness (peripheral, as it were) of your own body, your position and strength and capabilities, the surrounding conditions, and so on. So I guess there's the balance? Self-awareness, not self-focus?”

“Yup. You are always in the room to help the drowning man.”

Self-awareness is necessary to retain agency of act and moral choice, but it doesn’t require egoism. Occasionally, I may be the drowning man; occasionally, my entire being might be taken up in the struggle to keep head above water. But even then, I’m better off if I can raise my head up and look outwards to see you putting a hand out to me, so that as you pull me out of my distress, I am pulled also out of my egoism by gratitude. 

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We are reading Guardini's The End of the Modern World. In one place—as an example of the tendency of moderns to identify nature with the divine—he quotes a passage from Goethe. It includes a line I think captures well the mixed individual and corporate reality of human existence.

Each of her children is unique in being; alone in meaning yet together they form but one....

It reminded me right away of the mystery of personal life articulated at Vatican II—that each is "made for his own sake" and yet only fulfills himself by making a sincere gift of himself to others. Every individual is (in Newman's phrase) "an abyss of personal existence", a whole, an end-in-herself, never to be used as a mere means, and yet, in another sense, we are radically partial, incomplete, and dependent on one another—designed to form a communion.

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Pope Francis suggested on Thursday that most marriages today are invalid. He didn't say it from the Chair of Peter, and the official transcript has replaced "a great majority" with "some," (though it's not clear whose idea that was). But still!

Did he really say it? It seems he did. Was it a good idea to say it now, in the context of "impromptu remarks"? A moot point, and people can disagree. Does it open a giant new can of worms? I think we can all concur on that one.

Here's a small sampling of those worms, in the form of reflections that have been popping into my head since I read about it:


But! But! Won't this throw everything into chaos? People are befuddled enough as it is about the difference between a declaration of nullity and a decree of divorce. Plenty already think nullity is just divorce in Catholic-speak, and plenty more are convinced that annulments are handed out like candy to the rich and famous and callously denied to the hoi polloi. Not to mention rampant misconceptions about separation of bed and board in cases of abuse, about civil divorce allowed by the Church for legal purposes, who is and isn't barred from Communion, the legitimacy of the children...the list goes on. Why make things even worse?


But if it's true--if many or most of us believe we're entering into marriage, but really aren't--isn't it better to live in the truth than to remain deluded? Isn't that always better? Should we trade in the truth for false peace and stability?

That can't be right. On the other hand, there's more than one way to lead people to the truth. There's no One Weird Trick to get people from Point A ("as long as we both shall love") to Point B (a full and conscious awareness of what-all you're getting yourself into when you say "I do"). And there's a difference between having a grasp of marriage sufficient to enter into a valid one and the kind of deep theoretical or experiential understanding gained by a canon lawyer or a 50-years-married couple. Not every valid marriage is a happy embodiment of the divine plan for spousal communion. That doesn't mean it's no marriage at all.                        


It's interesting that Pope Francis has fixed on the impediment of lacking a proper understanding of permanence and commitment. It's easy enough to understand some impediments: that a marriage can be declared null if one party is concealing a crazy wife in the attic (like Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre), or was defrauded by the mail-order-bride company into marrying a different woman than the one he had in mind (like the Patriarch Jacob, whose father-in-law substituted his intended bride's sister on the wedding night). Something is clearly off from the beginning: what appeared to be a marriage is not.


But this is something more subtle. In fact, there's a whole host of more subtle impediments, spelled out by canon law (here's a startlingly extensive list of them). If this list is accurate, it seems very plausible that most marriages don't rise to the level of validity. (And the list predated this papacy.) The Church adheres to a very lofty, very personalist standard of consent. The degree of knowledge, will and freedom required is surprisingly high. The absence of all sorts of pressure, deception, and manipulation is also demanded. According to this, not only would the marriages of Jacob and Leah, and Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre, have been invalid, but so would all shotgun weddings, all arranged marriages, and all marriages of convenience. So would all marriages in which even one of the parties was primarily seeking citizenship or to legitimize a child. Or those in which consent was conditional upon some past, present, or future quality or circumstance, or if one party had lied about an arrest record or a debt. Or if one, even implicitly, was intending to exclude fidelity, permanence, or procreation. 


It's curious that now, just when people find "adulting" harder than ever, the standard should be so high. In an age when grown men spend hours a day playing video games and young adults subsist on ramen well into their twenties, what sense does it make to hold us to such a lofty standard? But in a way it makes perfect sense. As you can read in the "What we mean by Personalism?" section of this website, a new understanding of the person really is characteristic of our age. Parents no longer choose the spouse or the profession of their children; people no longer live in unthinking and automatic solidarity with their ethnic or religious community. Each of us is alive to the need to "act in our own name," and even if, in practice, we're as susceptible to peer pressure and mob mentality as ever, we do have a new understanding of the unrepeatability and inviolability of the person.


A papal remark like this can have terrible consequences. Won't people latch onto it as an excuse for divorce, infidelity, and abandonment? Won't we get the idea that the standard of validity is so high that practically nobody attains it anyway--so why try? And the part about faithful but unwed couples having the grace of marriage--what can that do but sow confusion where there's already a surplus?


On the other hand, wouldn't it be great if it led to more serious marriage preparation? I know places where this is happening, but in most parishes that I've ever heard of, marriage prep consists of a very few sessions, imparted by well-meaning non-experts, timed so that even if any suspicion of an impediment were to turn up, there would be enormous pressure to just plow ahead anyway, because the flowers were already ordered, the reception venue reserved, the tux tailored. The Pope has a point when he brings up the example of the groom who chose a church on the basis of whether it complemented his bride's dress and was close to a particular restaurant. Or the man who wanted to be a priest, but only for ten years. Do most of us have any idea what we're doing?

Addressing the problem of our "culture of the provisional" is much harder than closing our eyes to the obliviousness of prospective brides and grooms, so as not to rock the boat.

But what's the alternative?

What do you think?

        *     *     *     

To join the linkup, hosted by Kelly at This Ain't the Lyceum, write a post and link it back to This Ain't the Lyceum, here (following the directions at the bottom of her page).

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Paragraphs 77 - 79 fill me with fresh admiration for the Church. So much deep truth offered with such clarity and simplicity, nuance and delicacy! I don't quite understand how it is that the super-human character of her teaching isn't obvious to all. I sympathize less and less with the anxiety so many Catholics have about this Pope. 

Therefore, while clearly stating the Church’s teaching, pastors are to avoid judgements that do not take into account the complexity of various situations, and they are to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience and endure distress because of their condition.

Amen. The liberal and the conservative temptations both vanquished in a single line.

Paragraphs 80-82, on "the transmission of life" are likewise rich and profound, telling of  the nature and dignity of a child as coming from the heart of a mutually self-giving love. Much food for personalist thought here.

In 83 comes a forceful denunciation of the "horrendous contradiction" of abortion and (by extension) all rejection and mistreatment of persons that occur within the family, designed by God to be a source and sanctuary for human life. In the same paragraph, the Pope declares that the Church "firmly rejects" the death penalty, confirming the development begun (I think) under John Paul II in the Gospel of Life. I don't read him as drawing a moral equivalence between abortion and death penalty. But he does show that the evil of both has everything to do with the dignity and preciousness of each and every human life.

Numbers 84 - 85 focus on the role of parents as the primary educators of their children, noting the tension that obtains currently, because of aggressiveness of mass media and the tendency of the state to usurp the parents' role. To myself I'm thinking that part of the problem is down to longstanding habits of paternalism and clericalism in the Church. Someday I want to write more about this.

The feeling increases as I read the subsequent paragraphs. I know it's true, but can't say I really experience the Church as "a family of families." I don't really experience the reciprocity between family and Church that these paragraphs extol—at least not in anything like the fulness that seems called for. I think we are still far too much in a clericalist mode: priests govern, laity comply. 

Up next: Chapter four, on love in marriage.

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