The Personalist Project

The need for anthropology

Whereas the exact, natural and human sciences have progressed prodigiously in the knowledge of man and his universe, there is a strong temptation to seek to isolate the identity of the human being and to enclose this identity in the knowledge that can derive from it. In order to avoid moving in this direction it is important to support anthropological, philosophical and theological research which allows the appearance and preservation in man of his own mystery, for no science can say who man is, where he comes from or where he is going. Anthropology thus becomes the most vital science of all.

Benedict XVI, Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Jan 28, 2008

Like many a sedentary fifty-something grand multipara, when I decided to get in shape I made my motives clear. I wanted more stamina to serve my family. I wanted to gain strength and flexibility. I intended to be a better steward of the God-given gift of health. 

By which I meant: I sure hoped I'd lose a whole bunch of weight.

Three weeks into an entirely out-of-character and very strenuous early-morning workout routine, here are some things I've learned:

1. When you find something that works for you, you want to start spreading the word. You manage to work your workouts into conversations about totally unrelated subjects. You want everyone to understand that you've finally discovered something that makes a difference!--a real life-changer!--and you want them to discover it too. 
And then you realize: Hmm, I should probably feel that way about the really important stuff, like, say, the Gospel, and the salvation of everybody's immortal soul.

2. The anti-vicious circle: If I was going to get up that early, I was going to have to go to bed earlier. If I went to bed earlier, I'd be eating fewer midnight-snack Oreos. If I ate fewer Oreos, I'd see results sooner. If I saw results sooner, I'd gain momentum and be less likely to crash and burn. If I didn't crash and burn, maybe I really would stick with it and keep getting up that early...

So the single (admittedly horrifying) decision to get up at 4:45 and spend one hour of the 24 working out with a group of friends has had more far-reaching effects than I was expecting.

3. I'm worth it (?) Every advertiser on the planet knows the value of "You're worth it!" It's used to coax insecure people into buying things we don't need (or even want) because we imagine that those things can somehow add to our intrinsic value. Or it encourages people with an inflated self-image to inflate it even more. It's a message that makes for more trouble than happiness. On the other hand...

4. I've wasted many years unaccountably assuming that doing things the hard way is ipso facto more virtuous. Virtue requires effort, but not everything that requires effort is virtuous. What I've noticed since beginning WorkoutAgony® is that I'd been walking around in a fog but didn't realize it. I was expending the same amount of energy to lift my body off the couch as it now takes me to bike to the store or go on a short hike. This is no way to live, and I wasn't doing myself or my family any favors by prolonging it.

5. Speaking of "the wisdom to know the difference" between the things I can change and the things I cannot (as we were in last week's post), I surprised myself. I would have thought the inability to get up this early and do anything this strenuous was clearly among the things I could not change. But I was wrong. Put it down to grace, or put it down to vanity finally outstripping sloth, but I was very, very wrong.

6. As long as I'm not obnoxious about my "evangelizing," my perseverance in WorkoutAgony® might help other people, too. I aspire to be that lady about whom people say, "Wow, if SHE can do it, maybe I can, too."  I myself was inspired by the witness of sedentary friends and relatives (including my sister Simcha Fisher and her success with Couch to 5K). I was inspired, too, by the efforts of a guy in the class whom I mistakenly assumed was a fellow beginner because of his size. Then I found out his size was due to muscle, he'd been working out two hours a day, had already lost 50 pounds, and could easily leave me in the dust during a jog around the parking lot.

7. Finally, there's the "mindfulness" angle. Self-knowledge, however painful, is a good and necessary thing. Now that I note every bite in my food journal, I have a new and alarming awareness of how much mindless eating I'd been doing. Only when my phone's battery runs out do I realize how automatically I usually turn to it. Only when my credit card is maxed out do I notice how reflexively I try to solve problems by throwing money at them. This new experience is a good kind of mindfulness, because it's accompanied by supportive people and hopeful signs that the workouts are working. Self-knowledge without hope would be another story. 

So bere I am, heading into Week Four. Imagine, in just five short decades, I've managed to jettison the excuses that were holding me back. I bet you can, too!

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Some over-familiar words that deserve a closer look:

God grant me the wisdom to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

It's part of the Serenity Prayer, popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous. Like many cliches, it's well known for a reason. But about that "wisdom to know the difference" part--here's something I hadn't thought of before. 

The things we think we cannot change--they tend to be things about ourselves. And the things we imagine we can? Those are mostly things about other people. It's hard to say which is more frustrating: laboring under the illusion that you could change somebody else if you could just pinpoint the right technique--or staying mired in hopelessness because you imagine you're powerless to change yourself.

In fact, we've got it backwards: we can't change other people (not directly, not deeply). And we can change ourselves--certainly not in every way, or without the "Higher Power" that AA also acknowledges--but still, our ability to change ourselves is a whole lot greater than we tend to give it credit for.

The things I cannot change are the ones that depend on other people's free will (leaving aside, of course, the laws governing matter, logic, metaphysics and such.) The things I do have hope of changing are located in my own subjectivity.

(The more I write, the more I realize that the subject requires more distinctions than I can articulate here--so I mean it as a springboard to further discussion, not a stand-alone claim.)

Maneuvering between hope for change and acceptance that "it is what it is" is a balancing act. On the one hand, it takes some doing even to arrive at the conviction that no amount of brilliant phrasing, powers of persuasion, manipulation, or coercion is going to change other people's character, or wiring, or inner self (though an influential person can change someone's self-perception, confidence level, or manner--via anything from intimidation to inspiration.).

On the other hand,  the futility of trying to change others isn't the whole story. We ourselves are far more "fixable" than we imagine. (Again, this is not something we can accomplish single-handed. As the wise Flannery O'Connor puts it, "God rescues us from ourselves if we want Him to.") 

One thing He can rescue us from is what Jacques Philippe calls "limiting beliefs." We all lug some of these around with us--from a wound in childhood, or some refrain that was drummed into our head so persistently that we never thought to question it. Just psychologically speaking--apart from the possibility of supernatural aid--we place all kinds of unnecessary limits on ourselves--things we're convinced we're not good at or would be overwhelmed by. The longer we let such beliefs sit there, the more plausible they start to seem. 

On the other hand, people do have their limits. We're wired a certain way. No amount of tinkering will turn my tone-deaf son into the next Brahms, and no amount of nagging will transform my sanguine daughter into a phlegmatic. Even raw material plus practice plus experience plus grace doesn't equal "infinitely malleable."

What do you think? Do you have a story to tell? How have you acquired the wisdom to know the difference?

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There's a Solzhenitsyn quote which I love, and quote frequently--I quoted a related passage here only a month ago. The quote goes like this:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? – Alexander Solzhenitsyn 

The trouble with making a division between "good people" and "bad people," as Solzhenitsyn says, is that a focus on “them” out there distracts from the true battleground within. And the Enemy is more than happy to tunnel in behind to find those vulnerable, weak and secret hollow spots inside each of our souls.

I’ve seen and heard of more of this than I’d like—wonderful, well-meaning people with a war mentality, who are so set on defending against the visible "enemy" that they fail to notice the rot within until it eats away so much that even the facade begins to crumble. The tragedy is only compounded if there was help freely available, but rejected because it came from “them”—the world, the other side, the enemy, whoever—and so, in the end, we fall. Because we believed ourselves already sanctified, instead of in need of salvation along with the rest of the world.

I thought of this passage today while reading Simcha Fisher's fantastic post about Everyday Martyrdom. In it, Simcha concludes that,

Life in Christ is a life of a thousand, million little deaths: deaths to old ways of thinking, death to false security, death to complacency, death to trivial comforts. Any time you inquire about your Faith, you are whispering to Christ, however reluctantly, that you are open to killing off some part of yourself that does not deserve to live.

All of that is a way of saying that the hardest evil to destroy is the evil within our own hearts, the sins we hold so close that it is an act of courage to even imagine life without them. To destroy these would truly mean dying with Christ, and as much as we Christians like the idea of “putting on the new man” and “rising with Christ,” that dying bit is a bit hard to swallow.

And it does feel like dying, to ruthlessly root out the selfishness, pride, wilful blindness, anger, spite, jealousy, covetousness, and indolence rooted in your own heart. It feels like killing the most inward impulses, the things we do and say on autopilot, the motivations that we act on without even fully understanding them, clothing them afterwards in loftier language and assigning them a higher purpose because we don't fully understand even ourselves.

It will feel like throwing your own heart on the fire, when you do it, when you destroy that bit of your heart, when you embrace the small martyrdom of opening a part of your life to God's will and excising what is contrary to life with Him.

It will seem like the world must be forever artificial, colourless, dull, unfair. And then, like turning off a flickering fluorescent light and opening a window shade, all of creation will come crowding in, carrying Christ like a crowdsurfing Messiah, to set the husk of your heart to rights and fill it with living, green, sprouting vitality.

Image: Saint Peter Repentant by Francisco José de Goya (1746 - 1828), Public Domain 

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"Snowflake" has become the insult of choice for certain people: like the Ivy League students who scamper away to safe spaces to scribble in university-provided coloring books after an upsetting election. Or the ones who get away with excluding unapproved thoughts from the marketplace of ideas, even if they haven't read the book those thoughts were expressed in.  This whole generation, the one that can't manage to "adult" like everybody else, Minecraft-ing away in their parents' basements and declining to form families of their own. "What is it with these special snowflakes?" people my age wonder. "When will they figure out that there's nothing special about them, that they have to play by the same rules as everybody else?"

On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, a contemptuous "Nothing so special about you" is not the best message for a generation in the throes of epidemic anxiety, depression and suicide.

I understand the point. As the father in The Incredibles puts it: "If everybody's special, nobody's special." If we praise people to the skies just for showing up, handing out participation trophies like candy, we're not doing anybody any favors. Or we end up like the mother of a new college freshman overheard asking the orientation staff, "Is this a peanut-free campus?"--encouraging the children to imagine themselves entitled to a customized environment wherever they may roam.

Still, I hate to see "snowflake" turned into an insult. There  are billions and billions of snowflakes, and they all look alike at first glance. Just like people. Yet each one, it turns out, really is absolutely unique. The assumption that they were as interchangeable as they looked collapsed as soon as decent magnifying glasses were invented.

Maybe rather than, "Hey, buddy, you're no more special than anybody else," a better message would affirm that although everyone's special, no one's exempt.  Everybody is a unique and unrepeatable subject, created directly, for his or her own sake, by Almighty God, out of sheer love--but everybody is bound by certain realities. Unrepeatable subjectivity is real, and so is human nature. Unique is unique, but true is true, false is false, biology is biology, and moral law is moral law. 

In fact, we're all both more one-of-a-kind and also more deeply bound by realities we never chose than we could possibly imagine. We're both wretched and noble. We possess inalienable dignity and unbelievable stupidity and incompetence. We're both self-governing subjects, capable of making free choices with eternal consequences, and creatures about which God can very truthfully remark, "Without Me, you can do nothing."

So what we need, I submit, is to get beyond sneering, "Nothing so special about you" and murmuring, "You're so special that heaven and earth need to be modified continually for your convenience." 

Neither is helpful. But both come from somewhere.

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Listening to an audio book while I was trying to sleep the other day—soon after conversation with a friend about the problem of clericalism in the Church—I happened to catch a passage that illustrates exactly the kind of thing I am trying to express when I speak of the need to develop a “slave side" theology and morality.

It’s from Emily of New Moon, by L.M. Montgomery, author of the Anne of Green Gables books, among many others. Her reputation is as a writer of sweet and sentimental books for children. But she hated that reputation.

I’ve just finished reading a biography of her, which is heartbreaking. She was acutely sensitive to the common problem in the Victorian era she grew up in of adults dominating, even tyrannizing over children. Her mother died when she was two; her father abandoned her to the care of her maternal grandparents. The grandmother, while a good and virtuous woman generally, was unsympathetic to her highly sensitive and imaginative nature; the grandfather was irascible and domineering.

Montgomery’s adult life, despite her enormous success as a writer, was plagued by depression, insecurity, insomnia, headaches and miseries of various kinds, all very familiar to anyone who frequents “recovery rooms” for adult children of dysfunctional families.  One of her sons was a kind of psychopath. She seems to have died from Bromide poisoning that led to suicide.

Anyway. “Emily” is a young girl who has been orphaned and sent to live with two spinster aunts, one who is kind and one who isn’t. Aunt Elizabeth plainly resents and envies the girl, though she is in denial about those feelings in herself. She imagines it’s her duty to discipline and curtail what she judges to be Emily's excessive spirits. One day she decides to do it by cutting off her niece’s hair. It was too abundant. It was sapping her strength.

'You don't mean that are going to cut off my hair, Aunt Elizabeth,' she exclaimed...

'Yes, I mean exactly that,' said Aunt Elizabeth firmly. 'You have entirely too much hair...Now, I don't want any crying.'....

Emily was distraught. She was at her aunt’s mercy; there was no one to intervene on her behalf. She felt completely helpless.

The morality of the day would have called for her meek and uncomplaining submission to her aunt’s authority. But something unexpected happens.

Aunt Elizabeth returned with the scissors; they clicked suggestively as she opened them; that click, as if by magic, seemed to loosen something—some strange formidable power in Emily's soul. She turned deliberately around and faced her aunt. She felt her brows drawing together in an unaccustomed way—she felt an uprush as from unknown depths of some irresistisble surge of energy.

'Aunt Elizabeth,' she said, looking straight at the lady with the scissors, 'my hair is not going to be cut off. Let me hear no more of this.'

An amazing thing happened to Aunt Elizabeth. She turned pale—she laid the scissors down—...and then for the first time in her life Elizabeth Murray turned tail and fled.

What the rest of the passage tells is that the aunt had been spooked because she had seen the image of her father (Emily’s grandfather, whom she had never known) in the girl’s transformed face; she had heard his voice in the phrase (highly characteristic of him) “Let me hear no more of this."

What I think the Church urgently needs today is a “loosening of the formidable power” from “unknown depths" given to laity in our nature and dignity as persons redeemed in baptism—our Father’s face and voice—the power to stand up forcefully against all forms of domination, including from the clergy.

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