The Personalist Project

Difficulty of realizing the personhood of others

Nothing is more difficult than to realize that every man has a distinct soul, that every one of all the millions who live or have lived, is as whole and independent a being in himself, as if there were no one else in the whole world but he.

John Henry Newman, The Individuality of the Soul

"Torres residence, what now?"

That's how I was tempted to answer my phone--for years on end!--when all my kids were little, and life was just one incomprehensible crisis after another.
Here I was, trying to follow all the rules, and the universe refused to cooperate. What was I doing wrong? 

Maybe that's what the Magi and the Holy Family felt like sometimes. (Yes, this post has been sitting in my Drafts folder for longer than I'd like to admit, and it's now out of sync with the season. Let's just congratulate me for getting back on track at all and consider it very, very early for 2018, shall we?)

At the Mass for the Feast of the Epiphany the other day, the choir started off with an intricately discordant piece--very beautiful, if you listened carefully, but disquieting, even so. It seemed a strange choice for such a joyful feast. But then I thought about it a little more.

The nativity scene in our church is a beauty, but it makes clear how un-luxurious the Baby's surroundings are, too. The King of the Universe naps in a feeding trough. Joseph must feel like such a failure as a provider! The Magi finally get there, but they have to go home by another route. Maybe they're frustrated that with all their purported wisdom they hadn't realized what a dangerous thing they'd done in alerting Herod to the Baby's whereabouts. And then the flight to Egypt, of all places--the very land the Chosen People had to flee when the Old Testament Herod, the Pharaoh who knew not Joseph, was killing all those other little Jewish boys way back when.

And then when Jesus was (almost) a teenager (an episode that makes many mothers secretly feel a little less inadequate), his parents lose track of him in Jerusalem and head off without him. With everything that was riding on their childrearing, you'd think God could have prevented that. 

Maybe it's an American thing. When things are going smoothly, we imagine we're on the right track. When they get muddled, we wonder where we went wrong. And when we do indisputably fail at something--like finding a decent cradle for the Son of God, or keeping track of Him during a family road trip--we tend to assume that there must be some mistake, and that the Almighty picked the wrong person to put His trust in. 

We underestimate His tolerance for chaos, you could say. We doubt His ability to orchestrate the discord and produce a beautiful, haunting melody.

I'm not saying all chaos is desirable. Sometimes it's more like a toddler banging on the piano than the artistry of some subtle musician. But sometimes the melody is there; it's just that we don't have ears to hear it. 

Photo credit: Healthnewsline

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I had a playlist going in the background this morning, and a song by one of my favorite groups came on. The song has a catchy beat, a fantastic hook, and a…well, a very human theme. 

“I wanna be 
consequence free
I wanna be
where nothing needs to matter…”

It’s easy enough to see the appeal of this plea. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to do the things that feel good in the short-term, but maybe not so much in the long term?  To be able to eat whatever you like and not gain weight or get heartburn. To be able to stay up late without being tired. To be able to drink without risk of a hangover. 

By William Hogarth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

And there are entire markets and products and social changes based on this wish. Consequences are the enemy, and stimulants, hangover remedies, weight loss pills and “diet” junk foods, contraceptives, abortion…these things are all promises that we can avoid consequences, that we can break the chain between cause and effect, separate the pleasurable present from the burdensome result. 

“I could really use 
to lose my Catholic conscience
'cause I’m getting sick
of feeling guilty all the time.
I won’t abuse it
Yeah, I’ve got the best intentions
for a little bit of anarchy, 
but not the hurting kind…”

In this world, conscience is the enemy, the nagging busybody that won’t let us just enjoy ourselves but insists that there are always consequences—even when we stick to “not the hurting kind” of anarchy. Ultimately, all the promises are hollow. The morning comes with the dreaded hangover, the successful diet requires self-denial and exercise, the casual lover breaks your heart, and the unwanted child haunts your dreams and changes you whether you wanted the change or not. The singer admits,

“I’d like to leave it all behind
but you know it’s not that easy…”

I’ve listened to this song dozens of times, but this time, the chorus struck me in a different way than usual. It’s easy to see why the “consequence-free” life the singer dreams of isn’t actually “that easy.” A bit of observation of the world around us shows that every attempt to escape the consequences of our choices only creates new effects, new consequences, and new dilemmas. 

But if it was possible to escape consequences, would that be good for us? Would that really make for happiness? 

“I want to be 
consequence free.
I want to be 
where nothing needs to matter.”

And there’s the word that caught me. Consequences are what make our choices matter. They give our lives substance, weight. A consequence free life could be pleasurable, but it couldn’t be meaningful. 

Emmeline Pankhurst arrested. Photo in public domain.

Personalists can spend a fair bit of time talking about volition or will, about free action. This isn’t because we think that only conscious action makes for a person—we are persons when we are infants, when we are sleeping, when we are comatose. There’s more to personhood than decision-making. Yet…when we act from the core of ourselves, moving ourselves towards a freely chosen end, we show ourselves clearly as subjects, as selves. There’s a weight and a meaning in the movement that opens us to choose, not only our next step, but the direction in which it moves us and the choices and consequences we might face beyond. 

It might be human to wish to be consequence free. But perhaps it is better for our humanity that this is one wish that won’t ever be granted.

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If you were God, and you wanted to rescue the human race from sin and death, how would you go about it?

If you saw murder and lies and blame-mongering springing up and snowballing from the very beginnings of history, would you bide your time for thousands of years, gradually revealing yourself and your teachings, and then arrange an incarnation? When the time finally came, would you start out as a two-celled organism and spend nine more long months quietly bonding with your Mama, while things on the outside got worse and worse?

Would you bother being born into a particular culture, speaking a certain language with a certain accent?

Once you'd finally gotten started, would you devote thirty years to inconspicuous manual labor, never letting on who you were, content to be known as "the carpenter's son"? Would you choose an era when most people were illiterate--no printing press, no telephone, no satellite communications, no Twitter? Would you plan the Sermon on the Mount without publicizing it as a Facebook Event first? Would you neglect to even write a single book?

And would you then befriend twelve unpromising-looking guys and begin making your way--on foot!--around a tiny sliver of land, only to walk open-eyed into mortal danger and cut it all short three years later? Would you coordinate your plan with the free will of every well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning klutz you met along the way?

How inefficient can you get?

Take it all in all, God clearly doesn't look on these things the way we do. What, then, was the tradeoff? For the sake of what, exactly, did He reject a more professional approach to advertising the salvation product and maximizing His market share by expert branding and promotion?

It comes down--surprise, surprise!--to His insistence on treating persons like persons. His name shall be called Emmanuel, it says: God with us. He became a human person, He didn't disguise Himself as one. He was conceived, if not in the usual way, in a way that set Him on a trajectory to live a life like ours from the very beginning, so that we would truly have "something in common." He depended on His mother's body and his foster-father's good will for nine months and beyond, developing His personality (if that makes theological sense) in the midst of everyday life with His people. He fostered real friendships with his disciples, too: even though He had a particular mission for them, He didn't think of them as employees in His marketing department.

And think of this: if He hadn't taken so long, billions fewer of us would have had the chance to come into existence. He could, as He said, have raised up children of Abraham or anyone else out of the stones, but instead allowed us to grow into an enormous family over the course of millennia.

Not the way it would have occurred to us to arrange things.

Then again, it's a good thing it wasn't up to us.

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It’s the season for resolutions, as Devra has reminded us, a time for making changes, small or large.

Other writers will assure you that it’s also OK to make no resolutions at all. The calendar may say that 2017 is a new year, but that arbitrary turn of the calendar isn’t going to make you a different person with different circumstances or different capabilities, so (the argument goes), it’s OK to have mercy on yourself and put off making resolutions until a more natural time of transition, like the changing of the seasons with spring and summer, or the start of a new school year in the autumn. 

From that perspective, winter is a strange time to talk about making changes. It’s a strange time for a New Year, really. The cold weather has only just set in, and we are looking at another two to four months of hunkering down and enduring the snow, if you live anywhere northerly.   

Blow, Blow, Thy Winter Wind, by John Everett Millais

There’s nothing in our natural environment that says “Time for new things!” The snow turns to slush, which is frozen into ice, which melts into slush, which freezes again into dirtier, bumpier ice, and so on, until March begins to cut the occasional channel of frigid, dirty water to run through the lumps of ice and slush. 

This isn’t a time of planting, growing, or reaping. Both animals and plants alike are doing their best to sleep through this season until something better comes along.

It’s a counter-intuitive time for resolutions and new beginnings. The dark, the cold, the sameness and dinginess of being shut inside against the snow all seem to conspire against any successful changes in routine or habit. 

So I fall in the “no New Year’s resolutions” camp, right?

Well…not exactly. 

Sure, it’s hard to keep resolutions made in a season that cries out for more small physical comforts rather than fewer, which urges our animal bodies to eat more and sleep more and presents a hostile environment for things like exercise and outdoor play. 

Sure, it can be hard and depressing to make resolutions, big or small, only to fail. And it is hard to change yourself when nothing around you is changing to support your resolutions. 

But then again, making a resolution isn’t about doing what comes naturally or easily. “Resolving” is an act of the will, one which provides motivation for further acts. Change can come fairly easily in seasons of change. You don’t need a resolution to be more active in the spring—your whole being warms to the idea of being outside walking, swimming, and playing. It’s not hard to embrace more family time in the summer, with vacation days before you. You don’t need a resolution to revamp routines in the fall, if you have children off to fresh beginnings in a new year of school or are in school yourself. 

Here, in the winter, the excitement and indulgence of Christmas slipping away and the dreary sameness of dark days stretching out ahead, the act of making a resolution and attempting to see it through is an affirmation of our capacity for some measure of self-determination. We are not merely objects shaped by the world and the circumstances around us, we proclaim with our diets and schedules and plans. We are persons who act on ourselves and our world. 

Picture of weights and fruit, Creative Commons

And if we fail? 

A few years ago, I was diagnosed with ADHD, inattentive type. It took several meetings with a psychologist to reach this diagnosis, and during one of those meetings, I complained about my inability to stay organized. “I just can’t keep up any kind of routine,” I sighed. “Sometimes something will stick for a few months, but it always falls apart and I wind up starting over from scratch. It’s just one failure after another.”

“That doesn’t sound like failure to me,” said the psychologist. “It sounds to me like you need the fresh start to keep things fresh and engaging. There’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s what keeps you functional and moving towards your goals.” 

I think that some of the backlash against making resolutions comes from wanting to spare ourselves and others the sting of self-condemnation that comes with failure—with being unable to maintain our new habits over the long term. I don’t know if it is possible to ever entirely escape that sting. But perhaps we can lessen it by accepting that every season of our lives will call for new beginnings, new strategies, and new resolutions—winter, spring, summer, and fall. 

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You won't find a bigger fan of baby steps than me. Want to lose 50 pounds? Start with two! Want to become a saint? Squelch that slightly snarky remark right now! Want to conquer chaos in general? Lay out tomorrow's clothes tonight! This is not lowering your standards; it's raising your chances of getting anywhere at all. It's more authentic evidence of high standards than endless failed attempts to go from zero to sixty.

On the other hand...

Sometimes what's needed is an overhaul. Sometimes you have to take a good, hard, ruthless look at the way you've been eating, or praying, or running your life and admit that you need a brand new beginning, not an adjustment.

For example, my daughter, who has type 1 diabetes, was having a growth spurt, and her glucose levels were out of control. All right, we told ourselves: stay calm; make an adjustment or two, add a half a unit of insulin here and there, and let's see how it goes. Then we went to the endocrinologist, and she advised increasing basal insulin, changing every single carb ratio, and lowering both the target and the constant by which we divide at every single dose. The result was a ton more insulin and a dramatic improvement in control. That was what the situation called for, it turned out. A revolution, not a tweak.

Or the other day I realized I was hardly ever getting around to any afternoon prayer. Should I pick a different time, I wondered? Or cut the length by five minutes for a while? Or set an alarm on my phone? Actually, my spiritual director suggested, why don't you try getting to it in the very early afternoon, smack in the middle of your regular schedule, at an inconvenient time, right after a constant and predictable part of your day? I kicked and screamed a little, but agreed to try it--and it worked.

Don't get me wrong: attempts at dramatic resolutions can lead to burnout and despair when they don't work. Even worse, they can feed pride and self-righteousness when they do. Besides, we're not very good judges of what we need to be working on right now. Sometimes we need to stop assuming we're the expert and ask somebody who is: the endo, the spiritual director, or the dietician, as the case may be.

Another game-changer is reminding yourself that it's OK to keep on reassessing whatever it is you're trying. This holds true whether the change is dramatic or miniscule. When I try tweaking my kids' homeschool routine, for example, I give it six weeks to see whether the tweak is working, and I plan to reassess it then. Inertia is a powerful force, and so is the sloth that keeps people from even establishing a new habit firmly enough to let inertia set in. 

So the moral of the story is--what, exactly? How about: Be realistic, but not "too" realistic. Human persons are just not amenable to a one-size-fits-all kind of self-realization, much as it would simplify life if we were. So Happy New Year, anybody who's still reading! I'm off to lose 50 pounds.

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