The Personalist Project

Round table discussions

We need round-table discussions to keep trained minds from becoming academic. We need round-table discussions to keep untrained minds from becoming superficial. We need round-table discussions to learn from scholars how things would be, if they were as they should be. We need round-table discussions to learn from scholars how a path can be made from things as they are to things as they should be.

Peter Maurin, unknown

Not long ago I caught a clip of a famous atheist on some talk show. The host asked him, "So, you die and find out there actually is a God, what do you say?" He responded with something like, "Mass starvation? Child abuse?..."

I was half appalled, half bemused. Atheists are so unreal. I thought, "You've just found you've been utterly wrong; you're standing in front of Most High, whom you have spent your life offending and rejecting, and you imagine that the thing you'll do in that moment is demand that He justify himself to you?" 

Then I forgot all about it, till yesterday, when I read (hat tip Robert Moynihan Letters) some lines from Pope Emeritus Benedict's latest interview with the journalist Peter Seewald (soon to be published in English under the title, Last Testament).

Peter Seewald: When you find yourself before the Almighty, what will you say to Him?

Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI: I will ask Him to be indulgent with my wretchedness.

 

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No, that's not me.

My son got me a fitbit for my birthday, and I'm trying to make friends with it. The other night when I was half asleep, it started vibrating and sent me into a panic. I realized eventually that it just wanted to congratulate me for meeting my daily step goal. It didn't mean any harm. 

But I can't shake the sense that it's too nosy, too insistent about eavesdropping on my every morsel and movement. I'd rather go about my business carefree, the way I used to, ingesting jelly donuts because they taste good, not because I can afford the carbs today, or burning calories as an unnoticed side effect of tickling my toddlers.

And it makes me wonder: How exactly are we supposed to approach this bizarre reality, the body, at once a lump of meat and a Temple of the Holy Spirit?

In German, they have two words for body: Leib and Körper. Leib means lived body: the body as experienced by the one who "inhabits" it. The Leib is mysteriously but undeniably connected to your soul, your psyche, your subjectivity. It's unlike any other material object. 

Körper means body, too, but as in "body of water" or "celestial body." It's a quantity of matter, a lump of flesh, subject to the laws of physics like any other piece of material stuff. In this sense, we're literally made out of meat.

We can get bodies wrong in two ways roughly parallel to these two terms.

First, we can see only the Leib. We can focus on its link to our subjectivity and disregard the "made out of meat" part. Especially online, as my ever-perceptive Facebook friend Deirdre Mundy points out,

[O]ne of the alluring things about [Facebook] is that it allows us to play at being disembodied spirits, interacting in the ether, and that is not who we are made to be.

So we can over-spiritualize the body, or we can deem it irrelevant. Or we can imagine it's under our control in a way it's not. To take a trivial example, we can deceive people by posting only edited, filtered pictures of ourselves, or even pass off somebody else as ourselves. Or we can fabricate an elaborate fictional identity and perpetrate a prolonged deception, as Chase Padusniak described a few days ago in The Catfishing of the Catholic Community.  Short of that, we can engage in a truncated kind of communication that excludes touch and hearing.

The more dependent we are on the screen, the more our bodies drop out of the picture. We come disconcertingly close to the kind of world I described in a recent post about

harrowing sci-fi story called “Spectator Sport” by John D.MacDonald [...] in which everyone's highest aspiration is to spend the rest of his days in an underground cubicle (in a disused subway tunnel) surgically attached to a machine that provides you with the sense perceptions of the protagonist of various movies. The working class gets to experience this intermittently; the privileged few become "perms," and don't ever have to stop. 

They might as well not have bodies at all. Virtual reality has no use for them.

The second and opposite mistake is to see the body only as a lump of flesh, and to focus all our energies on making it a cooperative one. We can become obsessed with manipulating it to our own specifications. We eat x grams of carbs, burn x calories, time our ingestion of y to coincide with our ingestion of z. We become incapable of feasting for sheer celebration, running for sheer exhilaration.

Then again, we imagine we can mix and match pieces, "transitioning" from male to female or vice versa, with the help of chemicals and the surgeon's knife. No wonder we're confused. 

My fitbit isn't really out to get me. There's no reason I can't track my steps without deforming my understanding of the mind-soul-spirit-Leib-Körper problem. People do it all the time.

As long as we remember that we're meat. But also more than meat.

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A rare and wonderful thing happened yesterday. The deacon who gave the homily at a Mass featuring the story of the prodigal son actually preached about repentance!

I can't say how many times I've heard homilies on that passage that focus entirely on "the merciful father," who ran out to meet his son "while he was still a long way off." The homilist typically stresses that God's mercy is available even before we repent, and then goes on to urge his listeners to realize that we are called to imitate the father by forgiving those who offend us, even when they haven't repented.

It's a favorite passage of those who preach and teach what I have called dysfunctional or unprincipled forgiveness.

But our good deacon took a different tack. He pointed out that the son's realization of his condition and his decision to turn back toward home were prerequisite to his receiving the grace of forgiveness. God's mercy is ever-ready and super-abundant, but it won't avail unless we recognize that we need it, and then act by moving toward it.

The Father's waiting on our choice and action has nothing to do with bitterness or crabbedness or revenge; it has everything to do with his respect for our personal dignity and freedom.

I say the same goes in human relations.

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One of the many good ideas I never really got around to implementing was to celebrate Mother Teresa's canonization by doing something for the poor.

Which poor? I didn't know. I guess I had in mind the faraway poor--certainly something more glamorous and unique than leaving canned goods in the basket in the lobby of St. Mark's, around the corner. If I had gotten around to it, I'm afraid I would have announced it on Facebook, too. I wouldn't put it past me. I would have felt funny about doing that--because surely if your right hand is not supposed to know what your left hand is doing, you can extrapolate to "and don't blab it all over Facebook, either." But I probably would have told myself I was publicizing it to encourage others to do the same. I probably would have believed me, too. 

But it really doesn't matter, because I didn't get around to it.

Now compare this tangled mess of utterly fruitless mental gyrations to the true Mother Teresa approach. People would come up to her and ask, "Mother, what can I do?" and she'd say, "Go home and love your family."

Oops.

We should help the faraway poor. Of course we should. We shouldn't use family as an excuse to neglect distant people in awful, desperate situations, especially brother and sister Christians being persecuted and exiled and tortured. But we don't help them instead of attending to obligations nearer at hand. Otherwise a lot of us well-meaning people could end up like Mrs. Jellyby, a Dickens character famous for devoting her life to unfortunates in Africa while her own children wallowed in avoidable squalor.

Dickens, of course, says it better:

Mrs. Jellyby, sitting in quite a nest of waste paper, drank coffee all the evening and dictated at intervals to her eldest daughter. She also held a discussion with Mr. Quale, of which the subject seemed to be--if I understood it--the brotherhood of humanity, and gave utterance to some beautiful sentiments. I was not so attentive an auditor as I might have wished to be, however, for Peepy and the other children came flocking about Ada and me in a corner of the drawing-room to ask for another story; so we sat down among them and told them in whispers "Puss in Boots" and I don't know what else until Mrs. Jellyby, accidentally remembering them, sent them to bed.

Go home and love your family. Come on. You'd think a world-famous Nobel Peace Prize winner could come up with something more original than that, something on a little bit of a grander scale. You'd think she'd know how to talk about "building rapport with targeted population segments,"  or "targeting resources to appropriate communities,"  instead of falling back on corny, amateurish jargon like "children" and "home" and "family." 

But where does this weird illusion come from, that makes me imagine that what goes on in my own house, my own family, doesn't "count"? It's not that I object to loving my own family--who would argue with that? Maybe it's that I've tried to love my own family--and I do! Don't get me wrong!--but I've also failed, over and over, to love them effectively. Something in me would really prefer to try something a little different, something that, just maybe, I can succeed at for a change, Something that sounds a little more impressive. 

But if the world is full of people like me, we'll never get anywhere. 

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This post is not about how to spend less time online, escape pornography, control your children's virtual actions, or embrace the life of a luddite. It may overlap with these, but I want to talk about how to use technology to foster, not hinder, real personal contact. As anyone who lives with me can tell you, I'm no expert. But here are seven ideas that have helped me. Even if they seem obvious, you may find that actually trying them changes your life. (If so, please let me know!) Also: Did I forget something? Please tell me what. It's a bigger-than-a-blogpost subject.

                                                                         1. 

Each day, give a different person the honor of serving as your home screen image. Train yourself to say a quick prayer for that person whenever your home screen pops up. Or let it jog your memory: Did you promise to call her? Would he like to catch up over coffee? Maybe you could ask how that biopsy turned out or how that exam went? The worse your addiction, the more chances you'll have.

                                                                         2.

Get an app that staves off mindless, passive phone use. Here's a quick rundown of six possibilities. Mildly addicted patients can benefit from the gentle kinds that just tell you how you're doing. Hard cases are advised to choose something that actually blocks them from their favorite time-wasters. These are simple ways to move yourself in the direction of taking action instead of settling for being an easy, passive target of manipulation and victim of your own sloth.

                                                                         3.

Stop "liking" things on Facebook; try commenting instead. Force upon yourself the habit of communicating a thought rather than resorting to a prefab response.  This seems to result in a better Facebook experience--less generic, less replete with throwaway platitudes, more authentically personal.

                                                                         4.

Use your children's tech addiction to your advantage. Message them and text them not just to nag them, but to keep in genuine touch with them. Practice biting your virtual tongue so you won't come across as an endless font of unasked-for advice. When I backpacked around Europe for a month as a teenager, I talked to my parents once in Dublin and once in Rome. My kids can effortlessly contact me anytime from anywhere. This could foster over-dependence, but it doesn't have to. It could foster friendship.

                                                                       5.

Be ruthless about minimizing impersonal, meaningless, manipulative communication . Set up one email for contact with the human beings whom you care about, and who need you, and another for marketers for whom you're just prey. Then unsubscribe to (at least most of) those. Use the ability to unblock and unfriend to your advantage, too. It's true that these options can wreak havoc, fostering self-referential people who only interact with their fellows when and if and to the extent they feel like doing so. But they have their uses.

Well-meaning people are specially promising fodder for manipulators. Some people feel guilty for unsubscribing to anything religious, or anything prolife. But if they take you away from those who have a prior claim on your attention, they're fair game.

                                                                         6.

Use social media to set up meetings in real life. Encourage your kids to do the same. Call people sometimes, instead of texting or messaging. I'm a writer, not a speaker, but even so, hearing someone's voice is irreplaceable.

                                                                                 7.

Try narrating what you're doing on your phone. In her insightful article, "Motherhood, Screened Off," Susan Dominus puts her finger on part of the problem. When you're intent on your phone, ignoring the people around you, they have no idea why. You might be shopping for a surprise birthday present for them or watching s dopey video. You could be writing a note of condolence to a bereaved friend or paying the water bill. They won't know unless you tell them.                                                                                      

 

 That's all I've got. What would you add?

                                                        *      *      *      *      *

Thanks to Kelly Mantoan for hosting! If you have a blogpost you'd like to link up, you can find instructions for doing so at the end of this post at her blog, This Ain't the Lyceum.

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