The Personalist Project

On a duty to express our emotion

But you should not for that reason hold back your words anymore than you should hide visible emotion if it is genuine, because this can be the unloving committing of a wrong, just like withholding from someone what you owe him. Your friend, your beloved, your child, or whoever is the object of your love has a claim upon an expression of it also in words if it actually moves you inwardly. The emotion is not your possession but belongs to the other; the expression is your debt to him, since in the emotion you indeed belong to him who moves you and you become aware that you belong to him.

Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love

On last week's feast day of the conversion of St. Paul, I noticed something odd--or not so odd. He's blinded by a sudden light, and he hears a mysterious Voice from heaven. And the Voice says, "Thou shalt stop persecuting me."

Or so we might have expected. But no: it says,"Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"

In other words, even in the most spectacular of conversion experiences, God doesn't use force, doesn't order people around. He, the Creator and Lawgiver, has that "right," but He chooses not to exercise it.

Of course, the "Thou shalt not's" are also straight from His mouth, written by His own hand on the stone tablets: Good is good and evil is evil. A commandment is a commandment. The guideposts are clear. 

But the invitation to conversion is just that--an invitation. Even when it's intense and unmistakeable, it all starts with an invitation to Saul to explain his own conduct. Why have you performed this action? Why have you freely chosen to do this?

And also: Why are you acting this way towards me? Not only is it a chance to face his own decisions, it's placed in the context of an interpersonal relationship with the Speaker. Saul is called by name, and twice, and asked (without orders or threats, just asked) to render an account of his treatment of another Person.

But doesn't this emphasis on invitations seem to water down God's authority? Isn't it a mealy-mouthed attempt to avoid straight talk about good and evil? Well, if you've ever been on the receiving end of an invitation like this--a chance to freely explain your own choices and deeds--you'll see that the prospect is plenty alarming.

In fact, it's no less alarming than a command, a direct order. If somebody arbitrarily forces you to do something, you can rail against it; you can let it be known that you're doing it against your will. You bear no responsibility, since the decision has been taken out of your hands. If someone tries to blame you, you might get mad, but you have reason and justice on your side. You can retort: "Hey, it wasn't my idea!" 

But when you're forced to face your own self, and your own deeds, you're on the spot.

So maybe commandments are Old-Covenant-style governance and invitations New-Covenant-style? No, that doesn't fly: we see the Invitation way back in the Garden of Eden. God invites Adam, then Eve, to explain themselves: "What is this you have done?" This is so alarming that they, who dared to disobey an all-powerful Creator in the first place, can't muster enough courage to give Him a straight answer. They're not only shifting blame--initiating a now-familiar pattern for husband-wife communication--they're also avoiding the question. As Katie put it three years ago, "Our decisions belong to us."  Adam, Eve, and Saul were free to make their decisions, free to defend them, and of course free to suffer their consequences. And free to accept the invitation of help, or to reject it.

And we're all alarmingly free to do the same.

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Five things to love about this inspiring video promoting a renewal of Catholic manhood put out recently by the diocese of Phoenix (besides the slate of admirable men of faith it features):

1) The focus on sacrifice and self-giving

2) The focus on fatherhood

3) The focus on self-control

4) The focus on prayer and sacraments

5) The focus on friendship and mutual support among men

These emphases make it stand well above most of the "renewing Christian manhood" materials I've come across in recent years.

But still, as a woman and a personalist, I have a couple of quibbles. 

1) Even fleeting mention of the need for men to understand their "role" makes me break out in hives. It's too reminiscent of the disastrous, de-personalizing, externalist and functionalist teachings on marriage that have done so much damage in the Christian counter-culture of the last half century. Masculinity isn't a role; it isn't an office; it's a mode of personal existence. And personal existence is mainly about interiority, agency, and individuality, not function. (Focus on identity is much better than role, as long as care is taken not to conflate the two.)

2) The refrain that men are called to be "leaders" is problematic, too, in light of the personalist developments of our day. It tends to suggest (how could it not?) that women are meant to be followers. We're not. As I read post-conciliar teaching on marriage, the Church has deliberately assimilated some key feminist truth (i.e. recognized it as implicitly given in her changeless doctrines): men are not being called to lead their wives, but to love and honor them. The relationship between husband and wife is, according to the Church, in all its aspects, complementary, not hierarchical.

I know you can't say everything in a short promotional video. But, especially when it comes to communicating deep moral and religious truth, it's really important that what is said is free of bad tendencies. 

Here's a short list of personalist items I wish everyone who approaches this deep and delicate set of issues would keep well in mind:

1. Feminism is not all bad. It developed in response to real injustices; it has achieved real goods. (See John Paul II's Letter to Women.) Those goods should be consciously appropriated and carefully cherished.

2. Any talk about the crisis of masculinity being due to the "feminization" of culture is horribly insulting to women. (Thankfully, there was no such talk in this video.) True femininity, like true masculinity, is an unmixed good. And John Paul II was explicit in calling for women to have more, not less, influence in culture and society, correcting a long-standing imbalance. He is explicit in saying that while great progress has been made, the real work of feminism is not yet complete.

3. The relation between the sexes should never be treated as a competition or a zero sum game, as if increasing the influence of women entails decreasing due appreciation for men. We may have to abandon outmoded ideas of what masculinity and femininity mean, but that's something different. True femininity enhances masculinity; to be pro-woman is to be pro-man, and vice versa.

4. When it comes to love, other-receiving is as essential as self-giving. (If we don't realize this, we will tend, consciously or not, to de-value femininity, and to mis-conceive love.)

5. Individuals are never reducible to social roles, and neither are sexes. (For example, I have personally witnessed Christian teachers explaining that fathers should not change diapers, because it will create "role confusion" in the household. In many places in the Christian counter-culture, couples are taught that women shouldn't work outside the home, and that husbands (not wives) should handle the family finances. I know stories of husbands being instructed not to listen to their wives, because their wives were being "rebellious." I could point to Catholic men teaching even today that wives are responsible to obey their husbands "on pain of sin." This kind of teaching is false and deeply damaging to men and women both.

Part of reason for the sexual confusion we are dealing with today is positive. I mean, when "new" truth emerges, it tends to be accompanied by social and cultural disruption. (Think of Socrates in Athens or Christianity in Ancient Rome. Think of a baby born into a once orderly household.) That disruption isn't remedied by a rejection of the new truth. Rather, it is remedied by gradual assimilation and adjustment—by an ever-deepening appreciation of the good of what's new, and a willingness to sacrifice for it.

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Long time readers know that my thinking on modesty has changed over the years. (See here and here for instance.) In short, I have come to associate most "modesty talk" in Christian circles with a counter-productive tendency toward externalism, judgmentalism and control. It's not that I've stopped caring about modesty; it's that I've stopped thinking we can get to it by focusing on clothing. 

Today, pressing on with my electronic de-cluttering resolution, I found an unfinished post on the subject from 2009. The post isn't worth saving, but it included some great quotes from Mounier's Personalism.

We know that the personal life is related by its nature to something secret. Some people are wholly extraverted, thoroughly exhibited; they have no secret, no contents, no background. They are like open books, and quickly read. Having no experience of any depth, they have no ‘respect for privacy’, their own or anyone else’s. They have an unrefined taste for talking and for making others talk, for gossip and curious enquiry. Now, discretion and reserve are the homage that the person renders to the sense of an infinite life within.

Mounier goes on to link the point to modesty:

Physical modesty signifies, not that the body is impure, but that I am immeasurably more than a body that can be seen or touched…The opposite of modesty is vulgarity, allowing myself to be merely what I am in immediate appearance, in the glare of the public eye.

Stricter rules for body coverage can't supply the real defect in our culture or in our selves, just as pretty wrapping paper can't make a true gift out of an empty box.

What's wanted is "experience of depth," value and interior plenitude.

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News photographers know we have trouble seeing the humanity in victims of violence. It is all too easy to dehumanize the people we live alongside, let alone the dead we have never known. This is why we have the old trick of putting a child's shoe or a teddy bear in the foreground of a picture of a war zone or scene of natural disaster. If there's a corpse, they are photographed being held or mourned over by loved ones. Or a single, humanizing detail is photographed—a bracelet on an outflung arm, a fringe of scarf across a face. These details help us to see ourselves or our loved ones in the pictured victim. We, who wear clothing, who tuck our children in at night with their own favorite stuffed toys, who love our favorite baubles, see first ourselves before we know how to see the other. It is our knowledge of our own subjectivity that reminds us that the other is also a subject, rather than merely an object.

There's a mercy and a ruthlessness in contextualizing the victims of violence or disaster in this way. The mercy is in sparing the already-traumatized the grotesqueness of the manner of death. In any large audience there will be those who have lost loved ones to violence, and who will see in any graphic depiction only their own loved one’s pain and the cruelty of the world that drives some to despair.

The ruthlessness is in not allowing the rest of us to gain the distance of disgust, insisting instead on drawing us to see our common humanity through symbols and contexts we can relate to. As fans of horror movies know, the more graphic and over-the-top the gore, the easier it is for an audience to detach from it, to view it not as something touching on themselves, but as something unreal with no emotional resonance. Those surrounded by scenes of real violence often detach in a very similar way in order to function in those environments.

As the March for Life approaches, debate has reignited over the use of graphic abortion photos at the March and in other public contexts. The arguments against are varied, but include arguments against exposing the vulnerable—children, abortion survivors, women who have lost infants—to these traumatic images, and arguments that such pictures are disrespectful to the dignity of the deceased children whose bodies are so displayed.

The loudest argument in favor is utilitarian—it comes down to a belief that these pictures are effective, and that we cannot afford to lose any effective tool in the fight against the evil of abortion. Some also argue that the best tribute to the victims of abortion possible is to use their images to show the humanity of the unborn and the reality of abortion, in hope that the truth might lead to other children being spared.

I don’t want to disparage the men and women who hold this position honestly and sincerely, but I question the assumptions behind the arguments in favor of the use of graphic abortion images. They assume that looking at pictures of corpses, of victims of violence, will cause men and women who do not presently value the unborn to see the humanity of these tiny victims. They believe that the humanity, the personhood, the subjectivity of the fetus is self-evident from his or her body alone, even—perhaps especially—when it is bloody and torn.

I question whether this is true, whether it is not putting cart before the horse.

In my opening, I discussed the strategies photographers use to emphasize the humanity of victims. Unfortunately, pictures of corpses seem only to touch the hearts of people who already believe that those pictures depict people. The use of pictures to humanize the abused depends on the viewer seeing something they can relate to and empathize with in the picture, and news photographers go to great pains to frame their pictures to offer the viewer the context and detail necessary for that kind of identification of the self with the pictured victim, identifying the victim as “another self” or subject.

But how can we do this with the unborn? Especially in the early stages when the resemblance to fully-developed persons is not immediately strongly obvious, what is it in these images that the viewer can immediately see and use to recognize another self? Those of us who believe already that the fetus is a person with dignity—a subject, and not an object to be disposed of—need no further contextualization, so perhaps we are slow to see the omission. But whether it is what we intend or not, the presentation of graphic images on posters, billboards, trucks, or signs might almost be ideally designed for the opposite of their intended purpose—they remove context when it is most needed. Just as pornography and other exploitative uses of the human body show too little rather than too much, so graphic images of the unborn—small body parts, torn and shredded, burned and broken, reduced by violence to meat and cartilage—show the viewer far too little of the human person, the life and growth and selfhood so violated.

Should we hide away the evidence of the violence of abortion then? Not necessarily. These images have their place in books and websites that seek to document the truth for those moved to seek it out. I also strongly believe that there are private contexts where such images may be appropriately or effectively shared, within the context of their humanity, giving the details of the origins of the pictures and the histories of the people depicted so far as they can be known. Who was this person? Where were they found? How was the picture taken? What became of their remains? Was he or she given a name? What effect have they had on others, in life or death? Anything that gives the person depicted the dignity of their own particularity, however slim the information available, is helpful in restoring the dignity obscured by violence.

The best reason to strive to help others see the humanity, the personhood, of the unborn lost to abortion is not, in the end, to win an argument. The best reason to avoid dehumanizing usage of the graphic images is not that they are ineffective as arguments for many people, or that they are traumatizing for others. The best reason is because the unborn are our brothers and sisters. They are persons. And in our striving to end the evil of abortion, we should not fall into the trap of treating the victims of abortion as generalities and objects in an argument, rather than as “other selves” of equal individual worth and dignity.  

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At the risk of commandeering this blog for Stories about My Relatives, today I have one about Nana, my maternal grandmother. (You can read more about her here.)

Nana was generous and hardworking, to an almost superhuman degree. As a daughter of immigrants in early 20th-century Brooklyn, she laboriously earned her RN and became a visiting nurse. She married my grandfather, Lenny, on the original Pearl Harbor Day, and he was promptly sent off to war. Pregnant with my mother, her firstborn, she'd get on the bus to work, get off to take a morning-sickness break, get on the next one, work a full day, and come back home. Lenny didn't get back from the war until my mother was two.

When we were little, she and Lenny used to take my sister and me for a week every summer, a whirlwind of ocean bathing, concerts, plays, museums, Chinese restaurants, and bagels. And clothes shopping. A few times a year she'd come visit us in New England--bearing coolers full of chicken cutlets and spaghetti with sausages and entire pork chops in the sauce, which, she'd claim with a straight face, just happened to be sitting around in her freezer. Would we do her a favor and take them off her hands? 

When we became Evangelicals and then Catholics, they were gracious about it. They made it clear that they were too old to change their religion and weren't interested in being "witnessed to" (though, to everybody's surprise, they were both baptized in their old age). But they were happy we were happy.

 Nana and Lenny helped pay their grandchildren's college tuition. They drove up from New Jersey to take care of me and my household after my first baby was born, and again after a miscarriage.

For years I assumed everybody's grandmother was like Nana, and just took the never-ending stream of special treats as my due. I cringe to relate that once I even went on a rant about how I wished she'd take us to a higher-class department store for the wardrobe purchases. But eventually I realized that Nana and Lenny were unusual and once asked how I could ever repay them. Nana replied, "Just do the same for your own grandchildren."

I don't have any yet, but it was an illuminating answer.

In a similar vein, I once went to confession and recounted how I had seriously wronged somebody. I suggested that maybe I ought to do some kind of extraordinary penance to make up for it. A little bemused, the priest countered that maybe instead I could try to be extraordinarily good to that person. That somehow hadn't occurred to me.

And just the other morning, I ran into this passage in St. Paul's Letter to the Romans.

 But if you ... boast of your relation to God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—you then who teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?

These might seem like laughably obvious mistakes to avoid, but you'd be surprised! It's easier than you'd think to get so fixated on your idea of yourself that, rather than aiming to do good, you end up aiming to identify yourself as morally superior. Not the same thing at all.

"Approving what is excellent" is a big improvement on approving what is evil or silly.

But don't forget to imitate Nana, too.

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