The Personalist Project

No one else can want for me

The incommunicable, the inalienable, in a person is intrinsic to that person’s inner self, to the power of self determination, free will.  No one else can want for me.  No one can substitute his act of will for mine.  It does sometimes happen that someone very much wants me to want what he wants.  This is the moment when the impassable frontier between him and me, which is drawn by free will, becomes most obvious.  I may not want that which he wants me to want—and in this precisely I am incommunicabilis.  I am, and I must be, independent in my actions.  All human relationships are posited on this fact.  All true conceptions about education and culture begin from and return to this point.

Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility

David Brooks is not a philosopher, but yesterday he made a good argument for personalism in his op-ed in the New York Times. 

Writes Brooks, 

Most actual human beings are filled with ambivalences. Most political activists I know love parts of their party and despise parts of their party. A whole lifetime of experience, joy and pain goes into that complexity, and it insults their lives to try to reduce them to a label that ignores that.

...This might be a perfect time for a revival of personalism.

Here, he echoes my own recent thoughts:

Where so many ideologies reduce people to roles or identity groups, Christian Personalism resists this flattening of human experience and interaction to insist on the importance of humility in the face of the incommunicable: there is in each person a depth of subjectivity that resists simple definitions and a freedom of will and mind that cannot be compelled. If you know one person intimately well---you know one person. 

What I found especially interesting is the way Brooks then encapsulated personalism as a set of "responsibilities"---challenges, really. 

The first responsibility, according to Brooks, is to "see each other person in his or her full depth." Here, he draws on Buber's distinction between two modes of relating, the "I-It" and "I-Thou." Here on this blog, we also often distinguish these as objectification vs. relating to the other as a subject. 

The second challenge of personalism is the call to self-gift.

The reason for life, Jacques Maritain wrote, is “self-mastery for the purpose of self-giving.” It’s to give yourself as a gift to people and causes you love and to receive such gifts for others. It is through this love that each person brings unity to his or her fragmented personality. Through this love, people touch the full personhood in others and purify the full personhood in themselves.

This is what one professor of mine used to call "taking hold of yourself so that you can give of yourself." An important distinction needs to be made between the challenge or responsibility of self-gift and the idea of owing or being owed a debt in a utilitarian, mercenary sense. Self-gift is called for as a value-response to the good of the other. "Value" in this sense refers not to monetary or trade value, but to intrinsic worth. This elevates charity beyond a sort of dutiful pity and challenges us to recognize and respond to the intrinsic good in each person we interact with. 

The third responsibility Brooks names is really a condition for the other two: "availability: to be open for this kind of giving and friendship." 

A little over ten years ago, Katie and Jules van Shaijik founded The Personalist Project as an organization to encourage discussion, sharing, and expansion upon philosophic questions outside of the limited boundaries of academia: 

An important aspect of our mission, then, is to help restore in practice the original sense of philosophy as a search for wisdom and as “care for the soul,” rather than exclusively a professional academic discipline. We want to reach ordinary thoughtful people, who would like to give some time and attention to “the permanent questions:” Who am I and why am I here? Why is there suffering in the world? Is there a God?—and who would like to do it through reading great books and in conversation with other living minds asking the same questions.

None of those of us writing for the Personalist Project blog have been social media experts. We use no fancy tricks to fool Google's search algorithm into giving the site a better ranking. We have a Facebook page, but don't create or post memes or viral material. We don't do Insta, we don't Tweet, we don't write listicles or limit our discussions to trending topics. We aren't great at writing clickbait. 

Still, we have chugged away, hosting thoughtful discussion, part of a quiet movement that Brooks calls "still something of a philosophic nub." 

Ten years is a long time for a quixotic project like this blog, and I am afraid it will wind down soon, though the archives and discussions should stay up for a long time to come. Those of us who have written here will almost certainly continue writing about personalism, wherever we write. Every action changes the actor first of all--writing for the Personalist Project has formed and shaped each of us over the years. 

But it cheers me to see personalism discussed in the pages of the New York Times, with the impressive reach of that publication. 

David Brooks is not a philosopher, and he has probably never visited The Personalist Project. But he does represent the spread of personalistic thought in a non-academic sphere, as Katie and Jules dreamed a decade ago. 

And he is right. 

This is the perfect time for a revival of personalism.  

NYT building image via Pixabay

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Do you know anyone who has seemingly transformed from a reasonable, moderate person to an impassioned ideologue? 

A few months ago, there was a small furor in my circles when a former pro-life activist was revealed to be a white nationalist. She hadn't always held these opinions—in fact, when she was young, she'd started out on the liberal side of the political/social spectrum before shedding those beliefs to become moderately right-wing. Her political and ideological "conversion" gave her a platform and perspective that made her popular among social conservatives.

Somewhere along the line, though, without many people noticing, her ideas had shifted further and further into an extreme that now horrified many of her former admirers. 

This isn't the first time someone—a convert to a cause, a religion, or a political ideology— has journeyed from one extreme end of the spectrum all the way through moderation and conversion towards the opposite extreme. What does it mean? How do you make sense of it when someone you identified with turns and rejects values you'd once shared in common?

The easy way out is to conclude that the virtue or commonality that seems to have been lost was never really there to begin with. We were deceived as to the true nature of this friend-turned-foe. They succumbed to a hidden darkness or hatefulness, or they've sold out for something selfishly satisfying like attention or monetary gain. 

But when we assign the basest of motivations—or even worse, simply relegate those who hold objectionable views to an inexplicable "other"—when we explain away different ideologies as sympathetic only to the very stupid or very evil, we lose sight of the common humanity of our ideological opponents. They may differ in opinions and agendas, but the human motivations and desires that drive ideological extremism are common to many of us.

There is a common set of human emotional responses which drive a deep compulsion towards the safety of belonging to an ever-more-exclusive community. Community, of whatever kind, both requires and engenders trust, and that trust predisposes us to listen and be open to persuasion. 

Our "enemies" may not be that different from ourselves. They may have merely stumbled into a different place to belong.

There but for the grace of God go I.

This came up in discussion with a friend a while back, and she agreed:

Who you are around absolutely impacts your views! I was on the brink of anarcho-libertarianism while hanging out with a group in which a man with a strong personality was preaching that. I saw the light when another young man came to me and some other mods in a message board asking for help because he was being abused. And while the response from CPS was weak, in anarcho-libertarian land, there would not have been a response at all. [Other friend] stayed there a whole lot longer, and was still anti-police and skewing MRA after I left. 

The research bears this out. It isn't intelligence, knowledge, education, or analytical skills that determine which sources of information we trust. It's about who we trust. 

An examination and comparison of Italian online conspiracy and science-based groups showed that both groups showed similar patterns of in-group polarisation and emotionally-based engagement with outside information and topics. In both the groups dedicated to scientific ideals and the groups that united over conspiracy theorising, frequency of activity within the online community was found to correlate with more negative emotional responses. 

The more deeply invested in belonging to the community a user was, the more they displayed fear, anger, and distrust of  information and ideas originating from outside the group—regardless of the actual substance, veracity, or soundness of the information.

When someone helps you when you are down, supports you when you are ill or in trouble, encourages you when you are discouraged, and affirms your strength, goodness, and independence when you feel uncomfortable with mainstream ideas or norms, you are going to tend to care about that person’s opinions, trust their motivations, and let them influence and guide you.

So what’s the lesson here? Merely to be careful not to associate with the wrong people?

I don’t think that’s enough. The same group movement towards extreme opinions can happen even among people initially united by positive ideals.

Individuals more extreme than average in the group-favored direction—the direction favored by most individuals before discussion—are more admired. They are seen as more devoted to the group, more able—in sum, as better people. This extra status translates into more influence and less change during group discussion, whereas individuals less extreme than average in the group-favored direction have less influence and change more. No one wants to be below-average in support of the group-favored opinion, and the result is that the average opinion becomes more extreme in the group-favored direction. [Emphasis mine]

In contrast, in people who have a fairly broad set of relationships with different foundations, the movement from relationship to trust to empathy and identification can be a fairly healthy, important force in promoting moderation and true tolerance—not relativism, but respect for the good will and ideals of those with different perspectives and beliefs.

For many of us, the greatest diversity in our relationships comes precisely from those people we bonded with over shared experiences and hobbies: the friends we made in high school, the coffee-shop Scrabble opponent, the gym buddy, the choir friend, the pickup game opponent, the fellow volunteer, the co-worker, the good neighbour. When we have close friends, family, or spouses with differing beliefs, we tend to become more moderate with time, rather than more extreme. 

We cannot have or maintain these friendships if we divide the world into "us" and "them." The best of these friendships are based on interacting with persons as subjects.  Our friends are people with intrinsic value who have their own understandings, their own histories, their own journeys.

These person-based friendships challenge us to find compassion and humility even in the midst of disagreement. 

Images via Pixabay and Flickr

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That advice, which I'm trying to live by, comes from St. Josemaría Escrivá, "the saint of ordinary life." He meant it as encouragement to avoid pessimism and discouragement about what's wrong with the world, or how revolting other people's sins are. Instead, you try to do all the good that's in your hands to do  You avoid defeatism and passivity in one fell swoop. 

But it has another application. Never mind what's wrong with the world: let's talk about what's wrong with me. What about when I want to overcome some vice, break free from some bad habit, but it's just too unpleasant to keep saying no to myself? Here's an everyday example from my own very everyday life.

After years of an all-devouring Facebook addiction, I've decided to try to limit myself to half an hour or so a day. It's an idea that has occurred to me before--with shocking regularity, actually--but I never tried it because I didn't think I could do it, and furthermore, I really, really, really didn't want to. So there.

Eventually, though, it became clear that the addiction had to go. I was lavishing more attention on people I'd never met than on those I'd sworn fidelity to, or given birth to. I'd sit hunched over my phone, oblivious to my kids' childhoods speeding past, trying to set straight some virtual friend of a virtual friend who believed something that didn't sit right with me. 

Just then, I got some good advice.  Someone helped me to see that while I had no desire to white-knuckle it through the day saying no to social media every ten minutes, I did want to reclaim all those hours by saying yes to other things. 

Obvious enough, but still just theoretical. So I made a list of things to do instead--from reading War and Peace to myself and The Hobbit to the kids, to setting up a home office, to writing a book, to getting out my oil pastels, to planting blackberries, to baseball in the park, to painting a family tree on the garage wall.

These particular things may or may not spark excitement in other people's hearts. But they're good, positive things.

And I took some common-sense measures to help myself. I deleted my Facebook app, and I got some podcasts ready to help me not feel too deprived as I went about my business.

It's been weeks now, and It hasn't been a white-knuckle experience at all. 

And when it comes to more obviously spiritual things than pursuing your hobbies and catching up on your housework, here's something from Pope St. John Paul II that's helped me. I'm pretty sure it's in Veritatis splendor. Here it is in layman's language:

The Thou Shalt Not's give us a lower limit--they tell us: You don't want to go below this line--trust me, you'll end up unhappy. But there is no upper limit. This means:

  • You can't steal, but there's no limit to how generous you can be.
  • You can't commit adultery, but there's no limit to how good you can be to your husband or wife.
  • You can't covet, but there's no limit to how grateful you can be for what you do have.
  • You can't take the name of the Lord in vain, but you can praise Him all you like, with all the prayers and poetry and songs and artwork you can dream up.

The Thou Shalt Not's are real. They're there for a reason. it won't go well with you if you ignore them on the plea that they're too negative or judgmental.

But we go wrong when we imagine that the whole point is to excise sins and vices (and even innocuous time-wasters) without putting anything in their place, as if the only choice were between indulging in evil and remaining passive. 

That would be giving evil way too much credit.

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In an interview with Crux News, a Vatican expert on the problem of clerical sex abuse says about the horrible situation in Chile:

What we’ve seen in the Karadima case especially is a very moralistic approach, which bizarrely, is then combined with an absolutely immoral approach to people,” he said. “Some of those who purport to defend the Church and her doctrine behave in a blatantly contradictory way, thereby destroying the credibility of the Church.

I know exactly what he means. I've seen a lot of it: Religious leaders displaying a moralistic and pietistic rigidity in demanding adherence to the letter of the law combined with a habit of treating the actual, concrete persons in front of them horribly. I'm afraid it's what unbelievers see too. I'm afraid it accounts not only for the loss of credibility on the part of the Church, but for the loss of faith in countless souls. They're so scandalized by the contrast between preaching and practice among the religious elite that they begin to wonder whether the whole thing is a giant scam—a means of keeping elites in power and others in thrall. People are sick of being taken in. 

Fr. Hans Zollner, S.J. puts his finger on another part of the pattern I've seen in religious institutions I've been affiliated with, regarding all manner of abuses, not only sexual misconduct:

... the ability and willingness to act on allegations was limited, or very much hampered. The willingness to own the issue was very limited, and the tendency to cover up was very strong.

A lot of the covering up is done in the name of shielding a good work from vicious detractors and enemies of the Church. A lot is done in the name of "mercy" toward the perpetrators. "Forgiveness" gets preached in place of calls for justice. It's revolting, in more ways than one.

A heartfelt amen to this point too:

It’s in the best interests of the Church as an institution, a system, that we are transparent as possible. That will help us to be more credible. Paradoxically, admitting your mistakes makes you more authentic and credible than when you try to hide them. This is a logic that works in the era of social media even more than before, and it’s something we haven’t yet understood.

Another Crux article brings in other, related elements: [my bold] 

As Pope Francis comes to terms with the magnitude of the abuse crisis in Chile, which pivots not only on widespread sexual abuse but also abuses of conscience and power, he has repeatedly called on the Chilean Church to recover its “prophetic” identity - which, presumably, means it had that identity once and, somewhere along the way, lost it.

I have two points in response:

1) I'm really glad that "abuses of conscience and power" are also being named and addressed. 

2) I think the Pope is exactly right to say that the Church needs to recover its "prophetic identity", which I take to mean its role of channelling divine grace and power into human affairs. It's the opposite of the "maintenance Church" the Pope has repeatedly denounced.

3) None of this will happen unless and until we put an end to clericalism, by which I mean a habit of thinking of the Church as an institution run by bishops with priests as their administrative deputies, supported financially by the compliant laity. 

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“I would argue that there is no fixed normal,” says clinical psychologist and senior author Avram Holmes of Yale University. “There’s a level of variability in every one of our behaviors.” 

- When it Comes to Our Brains, There's No Such Thing As Normal, Neuroscience News, Feb. 2018

I think part of my inherent attraction to personalism is that it leads to an incredibly contextualized set of ethical guidelines. What matters most is the person in front of you, in their subjectivity. As a fairly awkward person, I appreciate that even if I get all the social "rules" wrong, I can still respond to the person actually in front of me with openness and charity, and might still be able to meet that person in a real way despite my ignorance or ineptitude with societal formulae. Where so many ideologies reduce people to roles or identity groups, Christian Personalism resists this flattening of human experience and interaction to insist on the importance of humility in the face of the incommunicable: there is in each person a depth of subjectivity that resists simple definitions and a freedom of will and mind that cannot be compelled. If you know one person intimately well---you know one person. 

As the Neuroscience News headline says, there's no such thing as "normal."

This doesn't mean that we can't talk in broad categories about external or observable traits and behaviours. What it means is that we can't say everything there is to be said by assigning these categories to a man, woman, or child. We have to look more closely at the individual. 

There's an increasing interest in neurology circles in researching clusters of symptoms rather than diagnoses. There's so much overlap between diagnoses like ADHD, ASD, ODD, SPD, OCD, tic disorders, Tourette's and the like, and so much variability within each of these diagnoses, that a multi-variant approach is just more useful. No collection of labels and diagnoses can tell us who someone is.

As this Quartz article sums the matter up,

In other words, trying to define people one way from a psychiatric perspective is a failure of imagination and opportunity, which hobbles people rather than empowering them to inhabit their full selves.

Sometimes we feel the inadequacy of labels very keenly--we want more

[Image: my son, many years ago, labelling his little brother as part of a reading lesson. His brother did not seem to appreciate it.]

I have a few labels myself, and they can be useful, in the way language itself is useful--and limited, in the way language itself is limited. My younger son has seen a number of specialists to try to sift through some difficulties he's had, and wound up with a few labels of his own.

The labels are a kind of pass-code to getting help with the challenges he already has, but can't actually tell us anything about who he is. I still need to let him tell me who he is and what he struggles with. Then it is my job, as his parent, to figure out how to make the various labels, services, and structures meet his individual needs.

I don't want to rid the world of labels. Categories can help us find people who share our experiences and find validation and connection through those commonalities. But just as I don't want my son to feel restricted to one specific way of understanding himself or limited to empathizing with only a small subset of human experiences in common with his, I think there are dangers in defining ourselves or others too narrowly by our group identifications. I think people can lose touch with their own experiences when a label becomes really central to their sense of their own identity. 

We simply are what we are, and the labels and generalizations, categories and coping mechanisms, social codes and strategies are all merely aids in figuring out how to make "what we are" interact with "the world we have to live in" in functional ways. 

Your labels can't tell me who you are. 

I have to let you show me. 

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