The Personalist Project

Gratitude and human flourishing

In genuine gratitude toward God man becomes beautiful.  He emerges from immanence, from the confines of ego-relatedness and enters into the blissful giving of himself to God, the quintessence of all glory, into the realm of goodness and true kindness.  In gratitude, man becomes great and expansive.  Blessed and victorious freedom blooms in his soul.

Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Art of Living

It happened again this week. I heard a homily identifying love as self-giving and its opposite as selfishness. We in the congregation were piously exhorted to think of others, not ourselves, as if this were the central moral call of the Christian life—as if thinking of ourselves and our own wants and needs is sinful.

It didn't help that I happen to know that this priest is an ex-Legionaire. He was formed in a messed up travesty of an order founded by a twisted predator of a priest. He's obviously devout and sincere in his faith, but when I hear him preach, I can't help noticing and resenting the half-truths being propagated along with the gospel. I can't help worrying about him, and wishing once again that all former Legionaires and Regnum Christi members were required to go through a program of spiritual and psychological detoxing before they're allowed to preach or teach in the Church. 

But I digress. I had meant to make a point about love.

Love involves self-giving, of course. And selfishness is one of its opposites. But there's much more to the mystery, and unless the rest is at least implicitly recognized in our preaching and teaching, we're offering a distortion—the kind that leads to or exacerbates serious dysfunction.

Let me come at it from another angle. 

Selfish, egotistical people might benefit from a stress on self-giving, but for the large portion of any given congregation who incline rather toward co-dependency, it's poison. In fact I doubt that even selfish types really benefit. In my experience, they usually find that such homilies tend to validate their impression that others aren't serving them selflessly enough.

Picture an ante-bellum white southerner who has recently whipped a slave for insubordination hearing the passage "slaves, obey your masters."  Does he receive it as a rebuke or a confirmation? Picture a domineering husband reading Ephesians 5. Is he likely to interpret it as challenging him to defer to his wife, or as ratifying his conviction that his wife isn't submissive enough?

And what is his wife going to think of homilies on such passages stressing that love is all about humility and self-giving? I'll tell you. If she's mired in co-dependency, she's going to think that the problem in her marriage is that she's too selfish; she's going to feel guilty and ashamed of not giving more. If she's begun to break free of dysfunction, though, she's going to think that Christianity is sick, and if she wants to get healthy, she'd better get out of her marriage and her religion.

Who can blamer her? In practical fact, what she's experiencing is that the Church is making her husband feel righteous about abusing her, at the same time it's making her feel guilty about standing up for herself.

These are maybe extreme examples. Maybe. Personally, I have come across many instances (between parent and child, husband and wife, teacher and student, boss and employee, rich and poor, black and white, priest and laity) that measure up. (Watch the movie Hidden Figures for a timely example.) In any case, lesser versions of the same dynamic are ubiquitous. We find it at play in practically all our bad acts and omissions. It menaces all our relationships and interactions with self and others.

Love has many opposites: hatred, contempt, indifference, egotism, manipulation, arrogance, violence...The most comprehensive—the most complete antithesis of the love that is the divine essence and the central mystery of every human life—is the master/slave relation.

Love isn't only self-giving. It's also other-receiving. It doesn't only pour out; it also stands back. It doesn't only humble, it also exalts. It lifts up the lowly, and sets the captive free. It raises up those who were bowed down.

Love is a reciprocal union and communion of persons. And among the love-deficits that afflict our relations are slavishness and co-dependence. In such cases, the concrete moral call might very well be to better self-care and more self-standing, even some non-violent resistance to someone else's habit of dominating us, however discretely or unwittingly.

John Paul II taught (though the point is underdeveloped in the popular teaching surrounding his thought) that persons must learn to assert themselves as persons, as unique and unrepeatable centers of experience and moral agency, of freedom and responsibility—individuals with rights and needs as well as duties. (This was the spiritual impetus behind the Soldiarity movement in Poland that brought down the Soviet Union.) Otherwise, love is impossible. Only a person who has herself can give herself. And very often, in order to have yourself, you have to first fight for yourself.

I might go so far as to say that for every person out there whose problem is selfishness is another whose problem is a too-weak sense of self—a person who has expended herself before she learned to gather herself, who has confused self-squandering with love. If you tell her she need to think of herself less and others more, you're adding to the problem.

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I snarked on Facebook earlier this week that everybody loves to talk about the shield of faith and the sword of the spirit, but we don't talk about the sandals of the gospel of peace. That's a shame, because it's the only item mentioned in that passage from Ephesians that has anything to do with active interactions with other people.

The entire passage is defensive in context--the breastplate, shield, helmet, etc. are protections meant, not to aid in conquering, but to help the Christian to "withstand" and "stand firm" against the evil one. But we are instructed to put on our feet "whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace." 

Truth. Righteousness. Faith. Salvation. The Spirit and the Word of God. And the shoes of whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.

Whatever makes you ready.

What will make us ready to proclaim the gospel of peace? We're not told, and perhaps that's because evangelization is always, as Cardinal Newman believed, a matter of heart speaking to heart. It is personal, and it requires you to be present to the person and the moment in a way that can't be scripted. 

So how do we prepare for this improvisation? We're told elsewhere: "in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience" (1 Peter 3:15). And the passage about the armour of God in Ephesians ends with the reminder to "Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints."

The world has never not been at war with itself, which means that martial imagery is not going to go away. It's rich ground for metaphor. But the metaphor of spiritual warfare stands the image of the battle between us and them on its head by placing both side of  the battle within the self.

I can't storm the enemy's front; I am the front. To fight the battle against evil within, I need truth, faith, the Word. All of these things so that I can stand firm. And when I walk among other people, I need to walk in whatever will make me ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either - but right through every human heart - and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us it oscillates with the years. And even within the hearts overwhelmed with evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an un-uprooted small corner of evil. Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions on the world. They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). 

—Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “The Gulag Archipelago”

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I've just come off one of the most harrowing and oddly rewarding weeks of my life, and I've discovered something surprising.

People are more important than truth.

In a certain sense, anyway.

My seven brothers and sisters and I have been taking turns helping my father care for my mother and her ever-worsening Alzheimer's. Personal contact with her has opened my eyes, but I've also been reading up on the disease. I was raised (by her) to believe that if you have a problem, then obviously you read--or possibly write--a book about it. I've devoured books on how to teach a child to swim, how to play the recorder, and plenty of other subjects to which a normal person would take a more hands-on approach. 

One piece of advice that struck me was this: If an Alzheimer's patient asks after someone who's died, you don't say, "He's dead." This author made an exception: if the person asks you straight out, "Is Uncle Joe dead?" you shouldn't lie. But evading the issue is OK. When my mother asked me the other day, "Should I go get my parents?" I just answered, "No, that's OK," and when she called out, "Dad?" I replied, with misleading accuracy, "He's not here right now."

Do I have qualms of conscience about these violations of truth? Not in the least.

There are other conversational techniques I've fallen into which are not exactly lies, but certainly don't correspond to reality the way words are normally supposed to. If my mother asks me, "Should I put the shibboleth on the counter?" I'll answer, "No, we don't need to right now." (I did make up that particular sentence, but it's very typical of my mother's remarks these days. She still has the vocabulary of an excellent writer.) When she laments, "I just need to find someplace to park my lizard," (this one is verbatim) I reply, "Maybe I can help you find a spot." 

On the other hand, sometimes she's disconcertingly literal. When my brother Joseph told her the other day, "I'm doing everything I can!", he says she replied, aghast, "Oh, not in here, I hope!"

So this is a pretty loose relationship with the truth for me, someone who's taken entire courses on epistemology, who's analyzed to death the correspondence theory and the consensus theory of truth, and all the rest. And who subscribes to a pretty literal reading of "Thou shalt not bear false witness." 

But Truth, it turns out, is not just about factual accuracy, and my departure from that accuracy, even my total disregard for it, is not in the service of evading the truth. Instead, it's about striving to connect, somehow, even the tiniest bit, with the truth of my mother. I've always thought "walking in the truth" meant performing good and honest actions--not just talking the talk--but maybe it means this, too. Words don't work as vehicles anymore, but they can serve as clues. And even when they can't, the truth about who my mother is something I can connect with despite the uselessness of words.

The only reason I can ever make some sense of the things my mother says these days is because I've known HER so long and so well. This means not merely that I can use her words to piece together what she's really trying to say--sometimes I can't--but that I can make contact with, be present to, the reality of my mother as a person, with or without the help (or hinderance) of words. It's not a question of factual accuracy at all, but of something deeper--that is, something personal.

The person really is a deeper reality than the correspondence of words with things. Concern for accuracy divorced from personal subjects who walk in the truth is a superficial, abstract, and even insignificant thing. And whatever it means, exactly, that God "is" Truth, it means something deeper than word-thing correspondence--unless, maybe, we also take "Word" in its full, mysterious, Biblical meaning.

Does this make any sense? As the uneasily aging daughter and granddaughter of women who've succumbed to this awful sickness, I don't always trust my own brain these days. Still, when my mother handed me a napkin yesterday and said, "Here, maybe you can look at it and get some wisdom," I answered without hesitation: "OK, I'll try!"

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An interesting note on the punctuation of "Mother's Day" caught my eye this week while reading about the founding of the holiday. The founder of Mother's Day, Anna Jarvis, was apparently very particular about the apostrophe coming before the s, making a singular possessive rather than a plural. The story I read attributed this to Jarvis's desire that this be a day "for each family to honour their [own] mother, not a plural possessive commemorating all mothers in the world." 

This is more than merely a grammatical note--though I am happy to have it settled in my mind which is the correct punctuation! Reading more about Jarvis, it's rapidly clear that the founding of Mother's Day was very much about one daughter's devotion to her mother, and her desire that others should honour their own mothers, both living and deceased. 

Jarvis declared the white carnation the official flower of Mother’s Day, and she urged sons and daughters to visit their mothers or, at the very least, to write home on Mother’s Day. “Live this day as your mother would have you live it,” Jarvis instructed in her letters. Her vision for the day was domestic — focusing on a mother’s role within the home — and highly sentimental. It was to be celebrated “in honor of the best mother who ever lived — your own.”

Jarvis herself grew increasingly agitated over the commercialization of "her" holiday. Undoubtably there was pride mixed up in this as the idea outgrew its founder and took on a life of its own. Jarvis developed a reputation for peevishness and eccentricity, and at one point had multiple lawsuits pending to defend the name and emblems of "Mother's Day" from things she thought of as abuses: sales, fundraisers, even charity causes.

 Antolini says Jarvis didn’t trust charities’ allocation of funds, but she especially hated the notion that charitable causes were transforming Mother’s Day into an occasion where mothers were to be pitied more than honored. “You honor them regardless of how rich or how poor or what color or creed,” Antolini says. “That, to me, makes sense. She has some valid complaints about how her day was being used.”

Anna Jarvis was never able to put the genie of Mother's Day back in the bottle. This weekend, mothers everywhere will get store-bought cards and flowers, bought on sale or as fundraisers. There will be encomiums delivered at pulpits and from stages about the ideal of motherhood and what it means to us. Whether or not the apostrophe lands in front of the s, the day itself has become plural: a day when journalists and commentators sit at their keyboards to talk about motherhood in general and what it means today.

But I still think there is something for each of us to take away from the story of Anna Jarvis and her insistence on the singular possessive form of "Mother's Day." Love gains in strength and becomes concrete, becomes realized, when it is personal. We can love motherhood in general--smile benevolently at it, talk about how it is good and how it needs to be cherished and valued. But we can only cherish and value mothers individually, as the people they are. 

Personal relationships are messier than are general ideals. They require repentance and forgiveness, forbearance and boundary-setting. They can be wounded or broken. We don't know very much about the relationship Anna Jarvis had with her mother during her mother's life. Mother's Day came from Jarvis's grief, from the empty space left by the loss of her mother. 

But the only way we can love anything or anyone at all is in the messiness of what is real in them and in us. 

Perhaps, this weekend, we can take the time to see the reality of the women who have birthed, raised, nurtured, or mentored us. The mothers, biological or otherwise, in each of our lives. And in the messiness, perhaps we can take Anna Jarvis's advice and find a few words of love or acknowledgement to write that come, not from a Hallmark card, but from the particular realities of the people we are to one another. 

This year, I want to celebrate Mother's Day in the singular possessive.

Image: a picture of my mother, taken last summer.

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There's a scene in the Netflix show Dear White People that approaches the question of the political and the personal from two different directions. One of the main characters, a black student, brings his friends to a party hosted by a white classmate with whom he's struck up a friendship. The classmate appreciates the character's intelligence and wits, and the party goes smoothly--until someone puts on some music and the character hears his white friend singing along with a song that contains a particular racial slur.

"You can't say that word," he tells his friend. The friend protests that he's just singing along with the song, and it's "not like that."

Their discussion gets more and more attention from the other students around them until it has turned into a party-wide emotionally-pitched argument over race and vocabulary, all because this one young black man's discomfort with a racially loaded word was interpreted as making the personal political--bringing the context of centuries of racial injustice into a moment's personal interaction.

"Why does it always come back to slavery?" one (white) student complains. 

A fight breaks out and a police officer makes his way into the room to break the party up. He quickly zeroes in on the two individuals at the centre of the conflict, and turns to the black character to ask what he is doing there and where he's from.

His friends try to explain that he's a student, but the officer demands to see his student ID and eventually pulls a gun on him. The entire room freezes, watching what now looks like a headline in the making--and it is suddenly self-evident that the public and political is also personal. Trembling, the student produces his ID and retreats to his dorm to shake and cry.

This is a scene from a fictional show. But there is nothing fictional, unfortunately, about the shooting of Jordan Edwards last weekend. The 15-year-old was with friends leaving a party when police officers arrived in response to gunfire reports in the area. Camera footage shows that an officer shot into the teens' moving vehicle as it drove away from the party, even though there was no evidence that the truck or individuals inside posed a danger to anybody.

The Black Lives Matter movement is undoubtedly political. But it begins in the personal stories of young black men affected by the context in which they live--a context that puts them at greater risk of being injured or killed by police, a context which can't help but be both political and personal. 

Sometimes it takes witnessing the effects of our public imagination--an imagination within which young black men are portrayed as "thugs"--to see that what is personal is also public. 

In the party scene from Dear White People, the black character asks his white friend, "How would you like it if I sang along with words like 'honky' and 'cracker'?"

 The friend says, "I wouldn't care!"

"Exactly. That's the difference. You don't care. But I do. Do you get it?"

The white character is offended because, to him, it seems like his friend is making something purely personal and incidental into something political. How could he be racist? He doesn't mean any offence. The personal experience he is concerned with is his own--and he doesn't care about the words he's using, so he doesn't see why anyone else should.  

But the black character does care. He can't escape the larger context of the words.

My friends with disabled children care about words in a similar way. They are protecting the way that other people perceive their children's personhood when they take a deep breath and speak up against the casual use of words like "retard," or push to have accessibility laws enforced in schools and public places.

The political is personal. 

As Katie reflected in her post yesterday, we speak and respond out of our subjectivity. Clear communication—clear apprehension of another person’s character, intentions, and meaning—requires that we seek to understand the context that informs each person’s subjective experience, whatever it is. 

We have to listen. Even if it seems "political."


[Photo by The All-Nite Images from NY, NY, USA (Black Lives Matter Black Friday) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons]

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