The Personalist Project

Discussing the conduct of life

It is no ordinary matter we are discussing, Glaucon, but the right conduct of life.

Socrates, The Republic

Here we are at the end of February. So…how are your New Year’s resolutions coming along?

Your memory of that seven-week-old fit of willpower might be hazy, or you might recall your sanguine hopes just fine but you prefer not to. But if you’re Catholic, the question need not depress you, right? Because just as New Year’s fervor starts to fade beyond recovery, Ash Wednesday appears on the doorstep. Another chance to start over! Just like a second New Year's Day!

Well, no.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for chances to start over, and one of the things this convert loves most about the Church is Her matchless generosity with second, third, and umpteenth chances.

But despite appearances, New Year’s resolutions and Lenten penances are actually just about opposites. One is all about self-improvement, and the other is all about the futility of self-improvement—all about “without Me you can do nothing.”   As Jacques Philippe points out in The Way of Trust and Love,it’s easy get things very much backwards:

The desire for perfection is a good thing in itself, but it can be ambiguous.  What do we really want?  We would like to be experienced, irreproachable, never make any mistakes, never fall, possess unfailing good judgment and unimpeachable virtue.  Which is to say we would like to have no more need of forgiveness or mercy, no more need of God and his help.  If at bottom our dream of perfection is to be able to manage without God, we are no longer on the path of the Gospel.

New Year’s resolutions are a more familiar, more American-friendly, more can-do kind of thing. Lenten penance is like a stranger who looks just like somebody you know, but as you get closer you realize your mistake.

Your New Year’s resolution and your Lenten penance might even be identical. They might both lead to, say, losing weight, or achieving a more productive lifestyle. Or not. There are all kinds of different approaches, with their respective “benefits and pitfalls,” as Simcha Fisher points out here. But here’s the difference: a New Year’s resolution is successful if you persist in doing (or not doing) whatever it is you’ve decided to attack.

A penance is successful if it brings you closer to a Person. If you keep your resolution flawlessly but your flawlessness turns you in on yourself (“I thank Thee, Lord, that I am not like other Catholics…”), then you've failed. St. Paul explains, in his letter to the Corinthians, and he doesn’t mince words:

If Ihave the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and ifIhave a faith that can move mountains, but do nothave love, I am nothing.

If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do nothavelove, I gain nothing.

This doesn't mean we ought to sneer at self-improvement techniques and fall into either despondent fatalism or complacent passivity. God gave us free will and “placed us in our own hands,” as we personalists like to say, for a reason. "Becoming who we are" is, you might say, the most ambitious self-improvement project anyone could ever embark on. And it won't happen without our taking the reins of our own freedom.

But there's more to it.

So before you declare your Lent a failure, make sure you know what counts as a success.

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Something about about the following anecdotes bothers me. They come from a well-known and highly-respected Catholic priest, in a post about the problem of self-righteousness—how we can't receive forgiveness if we don't acknowledge our need for it. I agree with him on that point. But the examples he chooses to illustrate it seem to me to illustrate something very different instead—something more like the way we easily substitute the reality of repentance and forgiveness with a formulaic program that protects us from actually having to engage in either. We eschew the real demands of Christianity in favor of much less-costly and easier-to-achieve "acts of will," while imagining ourselves to be behaving in an irreproachable way. Here are the anecdotes:

Some time ago I had a bust up with a colleague. He walked into my office and insulted me straight up. It was real ugly. He accused me of stuff of which I was innocent.

So I asked him to sit down. Although I was furious I said, “You have just insulted me very badly. You’ve said I am a bad priest and that I don’t care for my people. You’ve implied that I use parish money to fund my own lavish lifestyle. None of this is true. You have seriously offended me. You have hurt my feelings and wounded our relationship. Are you able to apologize?”

He said, “I have nothing to apologize for.”

“Let me correct you. You do indeed have something to apologize for. Even if you did not mean to offend, you did. You insulted and offended me openly. Are you able to apologize so that I can forgive you?”

“I have done nothing wrong.”

I asked a third time and was rebuffed.

This mirrored an incident I had with someone else a few years ago. I had insulted him. I did it inadvertently, but it was a serious offense. When he called me on it I said, “You’re right. I was wrong. I apologize. Please forgive me.”

He was silent.

I apologized twice more and he made no response. I finally said, “I’m having a problem here. I have offended you and I’m sorry. I apologized sincerely, but you have refused to offer forgiveness. Can this  be so?”

His reply was, “I do not feel that you have shown sufficient remorse.”

Hmmm.

I will go so far as to say I think both stories, as told, display the marks of the master/slave dynamic cleverly disguised as Christian rectitude.

Let me hasten to add that I am aware I could be wrong. Having suffered a lot in similar scenarios, I have become extremely sensitive to this dynamic—perhaps too sensitive. Very possibly the good priest here conveys things he didn't mean, and/or fails to convey vital nuances that were really present in the concrete interactions he describes, so that these anecdotes are no just accounts of what really took place. And possibly I'm reading things into them that aren't really there. 

Still, I'm going to try to show what comes across to me in these stories, with the aim of helping uncover a bad habit-of-approach among staunch Catholics today. (It's intimately linked to the general problem of closed-heartedness on "the religious right" that Pope Francis has been urgently pressing on our attention for two years now.) I'm going to do it by pretending that the "I" in the anecdotes is me. (This is easy to do, since I have myself so often thought and felt and spoken the way this priest does in them.)

First: The Christian mystery of repentance and forgiveness is all about vulnerability; it's about opening our hearts—exposing our selves—putting ourselves at the disposal of another human being who might hurt us. It's about transcending our ego and letting go of control—allowing the protective crust around our hearts be "pierced", for the sake of love and communion. It isn't achieved by a formula of words or a disembodied "act of will." It can't be had without pain. It's usually a work of time and grace.

Human beings (especially those on the "master" side of relationships in our fallen condition) don't like being vulnerable. We don't like humbling ourselves. We shrink from suffering. We dread letting go of control—over our emotions, our situations, and the people we're dealing with. We want to stay in charge.

So, a clear, practical program for dealing with "repentance and forgiveness issues" comes in very handy for us. We know our duty; we know the other person's duty. All that remains is to implement the program, which we do willingly (even though it's not always easy), because we're committed Christians, who understand that our sins won't be forgiven unless we forgive others' sins against us.

So I asked him to sit down. Although I was furious I said, “You have just insulted me very badly. You’ve said I am a bad [mother] and that I don’t care for my [children]. You’ve implied that I [spend recklessly on myself.] None of this is true. You have seriously offended me. You have hurt my feelings and wounded our relationship. Are you able to apologize?”

I imagine I've acquitted myself very well in this extremely unpleasant encounter: I haven't lost control. Instead of insulting him back or punching his lights out, I asked him to sit down, calmly pointed out his offenses, and invited him to engage with me in the repentance and forgiveness program called for in the Gospels. I've done all that can be expected of the offended party.

In reality, though, I've thrown up a protective shield around my heart and my ego; I have declined to be receptive toward him; I have even, in fact, tried to control him. To see it, notice, first, what I didn't do.

1) I didn't take any time to feel my real feelings and let them teach me what they can about myself and my accuser. 

2) I didn't take any time to absorb and consider his charges; I dismissed them out of hand. 

3) I made no effort at all to get to the bottom of his offensiveness—to find out why he thought what he thought and said what he said. Did he have reasons or was he lashing out over something else hidden? Could there be any truth in his accusations? Was there a misunderstanding that I might clear up? Or was there a wound in him crying out for attention? I never asked him any questions. I was too sure that he was out of line and I am innocent of his charges.

Now notice what I did do.

1) I hid my real feelings from him.

2) I corrected him.

3) I made myself his instructor and superior, telling him what to do.

4) I pretended that there was nothing further I could do to restore friendly relations between us unless and until he acted appropriately toward me first.

In short, I expressed no vulnerability; I displayed, on the contrary, a pronounced unwillingness to be vulnerable. I "mastered" myself, the situation, and him. The opportunity for genuine communion between us provided by this occasion was lost, not through his refusal to repent, but through my refusal to open myself to him.

I would have been being much more real, more human, more honest with him and myself, if I had burst into tears or lost my temper. Or, I could have said something like, "Those are horrible, ugly things you're accusing me of! I'm too upset right now to talk about it. Please leave, before I say or do things I'll regret."

Then I could have gone to the chapel and poured out my pain and indignation to God. I could have asked Him to search my heart and show me if there was any truth in what I had just heard; I could have asked Him to teach me how to deal with my gall (which was putting me in mind of what Jesus' must have had to endure); I could have renounced my urge to get even; I could have repented my defensive reaction and begged Him to purify me by His grace; I could have offered the agitation I was suffering for the consolation of the Sacred Heart, or for the good of my accuser, or both. And I could have cried bitter, cleansing tears.

Any and all of these things would have served to soften and open my heart, preparing it for the possibility of genuine reconciliation later, if the opportunity arose.

Meanwhile, my accuser, having leveled his accusations and having experienced my honest reaction—having seen that I am wounded and angry, and having heard that I deny his charges—now has a chance to reflect on what he's said and done. If he cares about me and our relationship, he will ask himself whether he's done well, whether he's been just. Maybe, once he's calmed down and re-centered himself, he'll realize that he hasn't been, and he'll come back to me with sincere contrition. He'll apologize because he's truly sorry, and he'll find me ready to listen and forgive. We'll be closer than we were before.

If he doesn't care about me or about the truth of the matter, though; if he only wanted to hurt me or boost his ego or discharge his own inner tension, there can be no reconciliation between us, at least for the time being. Reconciliation takes two hearts that are genuinely open to each other.

But I can do my part regardless of whether he does his. It may take time (especially if he persists in his falsehoods and denial), but, with the help of grace, I can come to forgive him from my heart and sincerely desire his good. I can even come to believe that he has done me a genuine service, by helping me shed certain illusions and become more humble and self-aware, say. I can sincerely pity the condition he's in (perhaps through no fault of his own) and hope for his recovery—even pray and make sacrifices for his full restoration. I can treat him kindly when we meet, and hope he'll eventually come around. Either way—whether he opens his heart to me or not—my own heart is more open now for genuine love and communion with God and others.

If, on the other hand, we had followed the program I had laid out for us, wherein (without allowing any time, absorption or reflection) he says, "I apologize," and I say, "I forgive you," none of that would have happened. We might have accomplished the appearance of reconciliation, but It would have been a case of rending our garments, not our hearts. 

Now let's turn to the second scene.

I had insulted [a friend]. I did it inadvertently, but it was a serious offense. When he called me on it I said, “You’re right. I was wrong. I apologize. Please forgive me.”

He was silent.

I apologized twice more and he made no response. I finally said, “I’m having a problem here. I have offended you and I’m sorry. I apologized sincerely, but you have refused to offer forgiveness. Can this  be so?”

His reply was, “I do not feel that you have shown sufficient remorse.”

Once again I think I am doing the correct thing, the appropriate thing for a committed Christian.

But, in fact, I am failing to do the genuine, human thing—the "one thing necessary" in a situation like this. I am failing to open my heart to my friend, neglecting to attend to the wound I've caused. I've declined to put myself at his disposal as a human being who has done wrong and owes recompense. Implicitly, I'm instead demanding that he be at my disposal; that he get with my program. "I've done my part, now you do yours or I will be fully justified in judging you guilty of shocking sin." (I might even use you as an example in a column on the "unforgivable sin" of refusing to forgive.)

Notice that I never really considered the possibility that he is right—that I'm not showing him due remorse. I never asked what I might do to persuade him of my sincerity and my desire to repair the damage I've done. Instead, I've taken it for granted that, having said the correct words sincerely, I'm entitled to be forgiven. When he hesitates, I'm appalled. I immediately shift the moral attention in the conversation from me and my wrongdoing to him and his failure to forgive. 

Once again, I have "mastered" him and the situation. The missed chance for true communion is down to my lack of receptivity, not to his unforgiveness.

Imagine if instead, on his first refusal to accept my apology, I had paused, said a quick, silent prayer ("God come to my assistance!"), and consciously opened myself further to the distressed person in front of me—accepting to receive back some of the pain I had caused him. Suppose I softened my voice and said something like. "I must have hurt you more than I realized." Or, "Help me. Show me what I can do to make things right between us. I really care about you and I feel terrible about what I did."  

Such vulnerability might have won him over. Even if it hadn't, it still would have been right and good. It would have tenderized my heart. It would have served to make me more genuinely humble and contrite, more conscious of the damage I to do others through my thoughtlessness. If I had gone to God with my perplexity over the situation, maybe He would have inspired me with creative ideas for making amends. The stage would have been set the stage for our eventual reconciliation...

There's much more to say on this subject, but this is already long. Just three quick points in conclusion:

1) It takes time to get over an injury, especially a serious injury. The deepest and greatest achievements of the soul are usually slow growth events. That process, whether in ourselves or another, deserves respect and patience. It's inhumane, interfering, and impertinent to demand that someone arrive at a far-off destination without spending any time on a journey. 

2) The fact that someone else won't get with our program doesn't mean he isn't repenting or forgiving. It may mean that he senses that we're not really open to him, and he's unwilling to participate in a sham. He's holding out for the real thing. 

3) About vulnerability: I am not entirely sure about this, but I think there are times when it's called for and times when it isn't. We may have honestly done all we can to open ourselves in a given situation or relationship, and find that, for whatever reason, the other person's heart is not open to us or to the truth of the wrong standing between us. In such a case, there is nothing for us to do but commend him to God and "move on," hoping for a breakthrough "in the fullness of time." To be vulnerable in such a case would be to invite fresh offenses—like a battered wife who keeps going back—adding to our injuries and his guilt. [For more on what I mean by "moving on", see here.]  

What we can do, though, is be sad about the breach, and hope it will be healed one day. And we can keep practicing vulnerability with those who are open to us, steadily increasing our capacity for love and communion.

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The other day I shared a message urging people not to watch the ISIS video of the beheading of the Christian Copts—so as not to play into the hands of the terrorists—but instead to share the martyrs’ names and pray for them and their families.

As I expected, nobody objected to the names and the praying, but my friend Lisa’s response took me aback. Lisa is one of the most generous and thoughtful people I know. She has a lot of credibility with me. Here’s what she said:

While I personally don't have the courage nor the heart to watch this I can't help but remember the Germans of WWII who refused to look and refused to see. I believe the Holocaust happened, on the scale it did, in part, because the people looked away. I believe there is a resurgence of Nazism because people have forgotten what we should never forget. Although it is heartbreaking and soul sickening we must never forget that evil is real as we love the Christ who looked over the city and wept and had compassion on them because "the people were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd."

She added:

My heart and mind go back to those old WWII liberation of the concentration camps films where the liberators force the German people to tour the camps for the 1st time. …One of the most striking things about these films is how the Germans initially approach the camps laughing and talking "just as if they were on a picnic", the narrator intones. But that all changes when they are forced to see what they have looked away from in their own backyards. You see, when only the military had to be involved and aware of their doings, nothing changed. But when the German people could not look away any longer, were forced to open their eyes, they came face to face with what their blissful ignorance had purchased.

 

So now I wonder whether those videos should be dismissed as “death porn.” ISIS differs from the Nazis in some respects, of course, but in others, not at all. I’m still thinking it out, but here are some aspects I’m considering:

  • We might turn away out of squeamishness, yes—a selfish insistence on remaining in blissful ignorance. Who wants to be faced with such things? But then again, we might turn away out of respect for the martyrs. We might choose not to spread the images so as to avoid using the persons in them as a tool for obtaining a certain military or political response. Even if it’s a desirable response, is it right to use their images as a means to it?
  • Some would say, yes, sharing the images does precisely that: it honors them. Similarly painful questions have been confronted by pro-life people who object to graphic photos of aborted babies, or to indiscriminate dissemination of them.
  • I certainly don’t accuse anyone I know of this, but it is possible to share such images to generate clicks and publicity for oneself. This is horrible to think about, but maybe one could blind oneself to the horror by focusing on what a good cause it serves.

  • There could be a place for these videos and images, but maybe it’s not on my Facebook feed. I have some very young “friends,” for one thing, but even if I didn’t, each of my 479 “friends” could share the images with others who are total strangers to me. Different viewers will react in different ways, and especially in the case of complete strangers, how can I possibly judge whether I’m doing good or harm?
  • One reason that sharing images of horrible evil could seem not only justified but praiseworthy: most of the media are bent on avoiding certain truths like the plague. The administration refuses to call the victims “Christians” or “Jews.” They opt for vague phrases like “Egyptian citizens” (though the monsters who killed them more candidly said “the people of the Cross”). The President speaks of a “random bunch of folks”—“folks” who happened to be at a Jewish delicatessen. If the Chief Executive and the communications media won’t communicate, somebody has to—and probably soon, before the “gatekeepers” of the internet descend in earnest to prevent it.

  • Another question to ask: will seeing these images, and especially watching these videos, impel us to prayer and action, or just harden us? Or maybe both? I remember an army recruiter remarking that in pre-video-game days, the military had to overcome a certain natural resistance in new soldiers to pulling a trigger and killing a human being. But they've found that resistance has disappeared. Kids accustomed to virtual killing found that real killing didn't faze them. Of course I don’t mean that all soldiers, or all gamers, are heartless. But this was an empirically verified difference one man had noticed.
  • I think I may be more hardened now than the first time a bodiless head appeared, unasked for, on my news feed. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” says T. S. Elliot. I know I can’t. Let’s make sure we really are praying for the victims, and for the perpetrators, if we can bring ourselves to, rather than being content with having the right convictions and watching in fascinated horror.

  • On the other hand, blissful ignorance is a dangerously appealing state--especially for us Americans who have grown up soft in unprecedented comfort and prosperity,

immersed in a culture of therapeutic relativism. Even if we believe in absolute good and evil, there’s no growing up unscathed in a culture that denies the truth in a million ways with a million mouthpieces. And the therapeutic aspect teaches us that there’s no such thing as evil, just diagnosable disorders. Besides, you owe it to yourself to feel good. Watching unpleasant and horrific realities don’t make you feel good. Ergo…

So, I still won't watch or spread the images arbitrarily. But my conclusion is not very rousing or very certain. It comes down to “There’s a lot more to this than I thought.”

Maybe we can all agree to pray, though. Here are their names as recorded by the meme that started this train of though:

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Mad at Mass

You have probably had this experience as well: attending a mass said in such a way that one’s hair stands on end. Not just that it is turned into the kind of social event I would never dream of attending if it were not mass, but that there is no piety, the sense of the supernatural having gone out of the window a long time ago, and the priest’s sermon and interjections are wishy washy at best and heretical at worst. Add some pop music and one’s misery is complete. It is easy to get upset and angry, and it often feels right to do so. After all, God is being offended. In those situations, we like to remind ourselves of Christ’s holy anger. He chased the vendors out of the temple. The emotions we experience, therefore, feel right. Yet anger is most often destructive, unfruitful, and yes, of the devil. I think we should be wary of calling our anger holy.

Anger has a way of eating us up from the inside and of radiating, making the people around us miserable. Sitting next to somebody who is mad and ready to burst, is an awful experience, especially during mass. One can feel his waves of anger, and that, I find, is almost worse than sitting through the priest’s inane sermon. The ranting after mass at how terrible it was ruins the Sunday as well as family peace, even if all agree. Anger may feel right and freeing to the person who is experiencing it, but it is poison to those around, as well as to the individual in question, whether he is aware of it or not.

When I allow myself to get mad at the priest, I am no longer directing my attention at God nor am I in a prayerful attitude. The priest, one might object, has already made this impossible. But can I really blame it all on him? What are my options? Instead of anger, I could, for example, be deeply saddened. I could mourn the fact that Christ is not treated with the reverence He deserves and that the congregation is led astray rather than edified. I actually have a choice, at least to some extent. Anger is not the only option. Others don’t react that way, and not necessarily for lack of judgment.

Instead of settling into my anger, I could feel shattered at the thought that the priest who is there in persona Christi is offending him, and I could start praying for him. Not just intending to, but really, from the bottom of my heart, ask God to touch him. I have no idea how his education, background and the culture have brought him to this point. The instruction he received at home, at school and in seminary might have been such that he carries no responsibility in God’s eyes, or very little. But even if he does, I should greatly desire his conversion, and my prayers during mass for him could contribute to that. There too we need to be wary, however, because self-righteousness can enter the picture so easily, and we can find ourselves thanking God that we are not like this priest.

The problem, as I mentioned, is that my anger feels right, for anger always does. The choleric is convinced that he is justified to blow up. Only in hindsight does he (perhaps) realize that he was in the wrong. Anger is tremendously destructive. It is violent in its own right, even if I do not hurt people physically. It acts like a punch in the other’s center, reducing her to whatever I see in her that makes me angry. My anger says that “you are nothing but obtuse, irreverent, annoying” and I condemn this with a kind of inner energy that sends shockwaves through the other, sizing him down to what he has done or failed to do.

It is very difficult for us to be angry merely at a state of affairs and not at the person(s) involved. But while the first is all right, the second, it seems to me, is not. For we do not know the responsibility of the other, his inner state, while Christ does. He could throw the vendors out of his Father’s house, for He has that authority as the Son of God. Christ seems harsh, when He calls the Pharisees whitewashed tombs; but He can do so because He knows that they were precisely that and this was His call to conversion. They withstood His call to Love; and those who reject Love itself cannot be saved. Then God’s anger can be the last pedagogic means at His service.  

Since we are sinners, does this mean we cannot speak forcefully about wrongdoings? Yes, of course, for the point is not to emasculate oneself nor live in a dream world out of which I shut everything that happens to be wrong, unjust and unpleasant, just in order to be positive. One needs to live in the truth, which includes the truth about the wrongdoings of others as well as my own; but that also comprises the truth that I cannot read the other’s heart and therefore cannot assess his responsibility. Condemning a situation or action is different from condemning the other. But very quickly this anger has a way of turning against the people involved, and that’s where the danger lies.

What then should I do when I get angry during mass? It seems utterly out of my power to stop doing so. The first step is to realize that anger is not a good thing. I tend to get so fixated on what the priest does wrong, that I don’t see what I’m doing wrong myself. Then I might grasp that both the priest and I need grace to be transformed. Now is the time to pray humbly for him and for me. If I put my whole heart and mind into it, I might be surprised at how quickly I get out of my anger. I can’t shake it off myself, I cannot pull myself out of it by my own bootstraps, nor should I merely repress it, for then it will hide behind resentment, sarcasm and passive aggressiveness. But I can do something to undermine it, namely pray. The point is to make this situation into something spiritually fruitful rather than my own moral undoing. God is not asking me to change something I can’t, namely convert the priest, or free myself by my own means from my anger, but He does expect me to take responsibility for my own attitudes and heart, and pray for myself and the priest rather than judge him. 

Of course, I should try to avoid this situation in the first place, if possible. But in some countries and areas it is very difficult to find a mass that is said with reverence. Being in Germany myself at the moment, I know what I am talking about. The distance one would need to cover can simply be too great given one’s circumstances, and one therefore has to make do with the masses offered close-by. Other options than driving could be putting earplugs in, as a friend of mine does during the sermon, which allows her to pray.

When asked what needs to change in the Church, Mother Teresa said “you and I”. We always need to start with ourselves. We cannot replace the priests, bishops and the congregation. We can only begin with our own transformation. Saints have a way of leavening through others and have an impact on the Church as a whole. If we become saints, then this will bear fruit for the whole Church, even if it is not noticeable to us in our parish. We know that a single man, St Francis of Assisi, reformed the Church through his radical obedience to God’s call.  If we try to follow in his footsteps, then we will do more to help the Church than any amount of anger ever will. For anger corrodes, while love builds up.

 

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Advocates of gay marriage had one more obstacle to overcome. They were making steady, even dramatic, strides, having happened upon some winning sound bites (“Love is love!” “Marriage equality!”). They had pointed out that only a bigot would object to a black man marrying a white woman. 

That was once deemed unthinkable and scandalous. And now look! Look how we all agree what an embarrassing remnant of the bad old days that attitude is. Love has conquered all. Oh, it takes a while sometimes, but society eventually comes around to embracing what used to be taboo. It’s the same with gay marriage.

Or so the story goes.

Lots of people accepted this narrative wholeheartedly. Others didn’t, but it hardly mattered, because they weren’t about to say so in public. Some were scared to sound like fundamentalists or prudes. Others, more pragmatic, just feared for their careers.

But a few still weren’t buying it, or even pretending to. This small but stubborn segment of the population kept insisting that whether you’re a man or a woman is central to marriage in a way that race is not. The holdouts weren’t all fundamentalists, either. Some couldn’t get past the sheer biology of the thing. Others persisted in their belief that intentionally depriving children of a mother or a father was a bad idea.

Suddenly, though, we’re in a new stage of the conversation.

We’ve gone from “Why can't a man marry a man?” and “Why can't a woman marry a woman?” to “Who’s to say who counts as a man or a woman anyhow?” and “Isn’t all this excessively ‘binary’ discourse missing the point?” 

The argument used to be that the distinction between males and females was irrelevant, because it was less important than the love between (presumably) two people. But now it’s not about males and females anymore. It’s about gender identity.

The thing about gender identity, though, is that it’s practically unknowable. It’s fluid, tricky to pin down. Your may have the physical appearance, the genetics, and the psychological identity of a woman.  That’s one possibility on the spectrum. Or you may have just one or two characteristics that "match." You can’t make assumptions based on somebody’s appearance, genetics, or behavior. You might identify as any one of 51 genders, according to Facebook (although there’s a lot of redundancy: I looked up their definitions, and they seems to boil down to male, female, sort-of-neither, sort-of-both, and formerly-one-but-now-the-other).

It would be hard to exaggerate this mainstreaming of gender confusion. The view that the difference between men and women, as the saying goes, consists of a few anatomical details “that only matter on special occasions”--that's old-fashioned. Our children, along with the rest of us, are being earnestly assured that being a man or a woman is something that can be altered with surgery, hormones, and voice training. That those extremely rare cases of people with ambiguous anatomy, or ambiguous chromosomes, are kind of unusual, maybe, but just one more place to be on the gender spectrum. And cases of gender dysphoria—a man feeling trapped in a woman’s body, or vice versa (also very rare)—can be solved by “transitioning.” That gender is a mystery, to be puzzled out by weighing genetics, appearance, desire, perceived identity, and so on.

I'm all for avoiding reductionism, labeling, and false dichotomies. Sometimes it feels like that's all I write about. And I'm all for listening to people's own accounts of who they experience themselves to be. It's way too easy to assume you know them better than they know themselves, to label them as enemy or ally--or to exploit them by treating them as Exhibit A in some point you're trying to make. It's not open conversation that's the problem. 

What I'm talking about is the propaganda, the slow-building impression that maybe very few of us are simply men or women, and that calling someone "he" or "she" makes it so.

Just in the last few days, I’ve run across this story of a woman who’s genetically “mostly male” but gave birth to twins through IVF and this story about a man living as a woman married to a woman living as a man and how they plan to tell their children that “sometimes men have babies”; and of course every trip to the supermarket checkout line brings me face to face with Bruce Jenner, who’s “transitioning” from his “assigned” gender to a new one. Yesterday, logging into my email, I saw a story about a little nine-year-old girl whose parents, on the advice of their doctor, were preparing her for gender reassignment and pleading for understanding and support in a video they’d made. 

I can't think of a better description of all this than what Rabbi Guilles Bernheim calls "the irreversible scrambling of sexual identity." You can read my posts on his very perceptive work here and here, and you can read his own words in full here

There's a good case to be make for "male and female He created them." But not until we get past a lot of manufactured perplexity.

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