The Personalist Project

Experience as the sole source of knowledge

This work is open to every echo of experience, from whatever quarter is comes, and it is at the same time a standing appeal to all to let experience, their own experience, make itself heard, to its full extent: in all its breadth, and all its depth.  When we speak here of depth we have in mind all those things which do not always show themselves directly as part of the content of experience, but are none the less a component, a hidden dimension of it, so much so that it is impossible to omit them, if we want to identify fully the contents of experience.  If we do omit them, we shall be detracting from and impoverishing experience, and so robbing it of validity, though it is the sole source of information and the basis of all reliable knowledge on whatever subject… Experience does not have to be afraid of experience.  Truth can only gain from such a confrontation.

Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility

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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The other day I ran across a very useful trick--almost a litmus test--for evaluating how your home life is coming along. I hesitated to write about it, because it seems so obvious--once you see it. But I finally decided that if I find it so enlightening, maybe others will, too. Let me know what you think.

I've been helping to prepare a series of discussion groups, and we're trying to put our finger on what exactly makes a home a home. We're avoiding extremes. Some would insist that nothing counts as a home unless it contains a married couple and their own biological children. Others would rather throw caution--and distinctions--to the winds, and call "home" anything that feels homey--the less traditional and nuclear-family-oriented, the better. 

We're still working on a concise definition, but here comes the litmus test. The following is from the notes of my friend, Ann Brach. She distinguishes between two aspects of formation that any home should offer:

1.    Inward or individual orientation of the home: formation in support of the whole person, which corresponds to the dignity of the person and takes into account the individual needs of each one [...]
2.    Outward or social orientation of the home: the individual formation is aimed at the individual being able to form part of larger society, to work and contribute.

The two aspects are accomplished within the family, which

cannot be reduced to just personalized attention nor a protective environment nor merely a production plant for citizens.

Periodic reflection on how you're doing with each of these is useful. It's so easy to go off the rails in one direction or the other. There are families that aim to function like efficient factories, producing a certain number of approved members of society who can be relied upon to be presentable and acceptable in public. They're highly likely to live a "productive" life; they won't disgrace the family name. The bringing-up time is a period of formation that aims to fit the person neatly into the requisite mold before setting him or her loose. 

Other families suffer from the opposite malady. They nurture, they affirm, they're safe, they're homey, they're cozy, they don't get carried away with imposing standards--and they can produce people unequipped to venture into society, to contribute to its institutions. Sometimes they produce people who lack even the desire to try. 

There's a natural remedy to this in many cases: one day a child brings home a son- or daughter-in-law, giving the family an opportunity to catch itself in the act of moving too far in the direction of cozy inwardness.

And the remedy for the production-line tendency? I'm not sure, but I think catching oneself in the act would go a long way. I think many people who are raising their children in this impersonal, generic kind of way don't mean to, but have a misguided understanding of what it means to have high standards. They underestimate how different people can be--even children of the same parents, raised under the same conditions. Or they see the differences all right, but as obstacles instead of promising raw material. If they come to see that high standards are compatible with treatment that respects and nurtures the given--all the givens--then they're on the right track.

So there it is: your one weird trick for making sure your home offers everything its inhabitants need to flourish. Simple and obvious. Now to try to put it into practice.

I'll let you know how it works out.

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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."


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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