The Personalist Project

Smile vs. grimace

The voluntary smile is not a smile at all, but a kind of grimace which, while it may have its own species of sincerity—as in the smile of Royalty, which as it were pays lip-service to good nature—is not esteemed as an expression of the soul.  On the contrary, it is perceived as a mask, which conceals the ‘real being’ of the person who wears it. Smiling must be understood as a response to another person, to a thought or perception of his presence, and it has its own kind of intentionality. … The smile of love is a kind of intimate recognition and acceptance of the other’s presence—an involuntary acknowledgement that his presence gives you pleasure.

Roger Scruton, Sexual Desire

The entire bodily autonomy argument is predicated on the understanding that the adult woman is, regardless of circumstances or law, always autonomous in will, and always retains choices--even if some of those choices are unethical or desperate. She may not be able to simply will her body into rejecting the child within her--she doesn't actually have that kind of control or governance over her body, any more than she was able to prevent conception by willing herself not to ovulate. But she has the ability to take actions directed at her own body, and she has the power to take actions directed at the child within her, who is utterly vulnerable to her.

When a woman is pregnant, neither she nor her child are autonomous of one another. The cost of freeing the woman from the bodily costs of pregnancy is the utter violation of the body of the unborn child. 

It is a calculus that ultimately comes down to the strong taking precedence over the weak, and it undermines the very basis of the ethical calculus that women depend upon to safeguard our own lives and bodies from violation and violence.

Her child is in a dependent position. Traditionally, western ethics has favoured protecting those we recognise as dependent on the goodwill of the strong of society. This ethical insight has driven the development of child protection services, animal welfare societies, elder's rights groups, disability rights activism, and, for that matter, feminism.

Pro-choice activism undermines the foundational philosophical origins of feminism, which is predicated upon the ethical tenet that weakness of body or lack of political/social power does not invalidate a claim to equal human rights.

Foremost of which is a right to protection from acts of intentional violence. 

Making room for the human rights of others always requires sacrifice. It always requires that we (the privileged) accept risks we would otherwise be insulated from and accept that we are interdependent.

The good of others requires more from me than simply not acting in a directly hostile manner myself. It might, at times, require that I intervene to defend the weak or victimized even if that means a business collapses, a family that is profiting from injustice is harmed, people die because a medical advance takes more time (just think how much could be accomplished if we didn't have so many restrictions on human studies!), and so on.

There are few things as intersectional as the meeting place between the rights of children, including unborn children, and the rights of women. The relative privilege lottery in that intersection falls solidly on the side of adult women. We may have other battles and other disadvantages, but we are still not as vulnerable as the developing child, who has none of our visibility, voice, or freedom of action.

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In my last post, I observed that, "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." 

Although the idea of a "right" to bodily autonomy is most compelling applied to imposed violations like rape or torture, it seems to be most often invoked in defence of abortion.

Which raises the question: Is an unborn child an aggressor, and can bodily autonomy be retained or reclaimed at the expense of those who are weaker? 

Or perhaps the question is whether bodily autonomy is achievable at all?

Are any of us fully autonomous? Set aside the "physical" aspect for a moment. Do any of us rely only on our own efforts for food, shelter, clothing, health care, etc? Buying these things is not a fully independent and autonomous act, since it is dependent on the social contracts that cause money to be honoured and contracts to be enforced. We are not economically or socially autonomous. 

If I cease to be autonomous, do those I become dependent on thus acquire the right to exploit or neglect me to reduce the burden of care for me? How does this argument not justify elder abuse?

This is where someone tells me that I'm obfuscating by mixing other forms of independence with the idea of bodily self-governance. The body, I will be told, is more integral than anything in these other examples, and while culture, law, self-interest, and morality can compel us to interdependence with others on financial and social levels, none of these justify compelling us to bodily interdependence. By this argument, bodily dependence on another justifies violence or neglect from them to a degree other kinds of dependence do not.

But there's still a presumption here that true bodily autonomy is both achievable and defensible, and I'm not convinced. Autonomous means "self-governing." I'm not sure this is an adjective that applies fully to the human body as we find it here, in this world.

As I wrote elsewhere five years ago:

Do impotent men or infertile women govern their bodies? Does a teenage boy ‘govern’ the body that embarrasses him with spontaneous displays of arousal, or a menopausal woman ‘govern’ the body that wakes her in the night steaming and sweating?

Does an unborn child have a right to bodily autonomy that is violated by his mother’s ability to affect his nutrition, his environment, the sounds he hears? Is the newborn violated by her lack of choice of family, culture, home, education?

Are you violating the people around you when you shed your germs in their environment, assault their eyes with your clothing choices, release your scent into the air they breathe?

We are autonomous in will. No one else can will for us, though they can certainly limit our options by the choices they make – which is all the more evidence that we are communal creatures, as our choices limit their options as well. Our autonomy of will is a right in the ‘inalienable’ sense of the word – nothing done to us or by us can possibly separate us from our free will, or from our responsibility for the decisions we make. 

And here's where I get to the crux of the matter. 

To be continued....

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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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