The Personalist Project

The will

The most evident feature in an act of will is the efficacy of the personal self.  This efficacy is immediately given: it is reflected in the awareness of the acting person as an act of the will.

John Paul II, Person and Community

Four years ago (have I been writing here that long? Hooray!) I reflected on whether we're meant to be self-centered or other-centered, and concluded: "Well--both!"

We're meant to shift back and forth, it turns out--you can tell, because the Bible is full of admonitions like "Love your neighbor as yourself," and "With what measure you measure, it will be measured unto you," and "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you."

You see? We're supposed to keep moving from self to others--neither just plain self-centered nor just plain altruistic. Because our true good is compatible with everybody else's? Yes, but it's not just that. As I tried to explain it then:

There’s a common thread here: [these principles] keep on drawing you not simply towards others, but back and forth from your own desires, obligations and actions to everybody else’s.  They keep reminding you to acknowledge the personhood, the interiority, the subjectivity, of both the other and the self.

There’s room for both self-realization and the generosity of altruism. We're not supposed to exclude others and their good from consideration; nor are we supposed to be other-centered in a way that neglects legitimate self-realization--the kind of thing St. John Paul was talking about when he kept urging us to "become who you are!" As I put it then:

What I’m trying to put my finger on is [...] the way the commandments require us to shift back and forth between ourselves and others. 

Consider what happens when I ask myself:

Do unto him what I’d want done unto me?  What would that be, exactly?  The measure I’m measuring with?  Is it a generous measure, or miserly, or too harsh?  Is it cynical, or merciful?  What if someone made the same assumptions about me that I’m making about that guy?  How would I react if someone treated me with such grudging, marginal justice?  Or with overflowing generosity?  Do I really know what makes that lady tick?  What if she assumed she knew what makes me tick?  What does make me tick?

I’m forced to consider both the other as subject and myself as object—or, at least, myself from the point of view of someone who doesn’t happen to be me.

Where am I going with this? Well, it occurs to me that there's a counterfeit version of it--something that mimics it closely enough to deceive us into thinking we're on the right track when we're wandering further and further into the no man's land of what Pope Francis calls the "self-referential."

This wrongheaded approach to the self and all those other selves out there is what drove Jesus crazy (so to speak) about the Pharisees: their incessant twisting around to check out other people's failures to keep the Law. And also their curling in upon themselves to admire how they measure up, compared to all those sorry specimens. All this was a twisting of that back-and-forth balance enjoined by the Gospel. The Pharisees weren't just being selfish--they were, in their way, more "other-centered" than most.

But of course they were misguided. Yes, they were concerned with other people's souls--wanting to examine and micromanage them--and maybe they told themselves they were doing that for the others' good, or at least because truth and goodness are so important. But it was a counterfeit concern: they were using the prostitutes and tax collectors as a foil for their own superior virtue--as accessories to set off their own central Self.

You can err by indifference to others' interiority. You can also go wrong by an unhealthy interest in it. Casting critical, suspicious, sidelong glances at the competition is not at all the same thing as looking into the eyes of a fellow thou. 

But it's not always so obvious when you're the one doing the glancing.

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In 1986, I took a summer course with Alice von Hildebrand on the Confessions of St. Augustine, so that his thought and mode were bound up with my philosophical awakening.

A few years ago, when Jules and I were in Rome, we learned that someone we love was undergoing a terrible crisis. In an agony of pain for her, I practically ran to St. Augustine's Basilica—where he and his mother are buried, and which happened to be right around the corner from our apartment—to pour out my grief and beg for their help and intercession. 

Ever since, they have felt like personal friends.

Just now, I saw that Mike Potemra links an article about these two great saints of antiquity (whose feasts we celebrate today and tomorrow), which makes me love them even more. The author, an English Catholic priest, begins by showing that Augustine was the original personalist:

Augustine was not the first to write about himself, but he is the first to develop an authorial voice that is personal. Julius Caesar wrote about his achievements in the Gallic War, but throughout refers to himself in the third person. For Caesar, the interesting events are those he witnessed; but with Augustine, the interesting events are those that took place not in his field of vision, but within his heart.

The second paragraph is even better:

This is one of the reasons why we owe so much to Augustine: he illustrates for us, articulating the discovery of those before him, that religion is a matter of the heart. Roman religion, by and large, was a state cult. It was something you did, a series of hoops through which you jumped, a sequence of sacrifices of propitiation that you made; but with Augustine it is clear that religion is now faith, a personal adherence, an act of love: not action but passion.

A little later, he deepens the point:

In fact the “self” is the great Christian invention. 

St. Augustine didn't invent the self: its centrality is given in the mysteries of our Faith. But he was the first great thinker to articulate it, and to philosophize and theologize from from its standpoint. Which reminds me of a favorite passage from Ratzinger's memoir, Milestones:

We then found the philosophy of personalism reiterated with renewed conviction in the great Jewish thinker Martin Buber. This encounter with personalism was for me a spiritual experience that left an essential mark, especially since I spontaneously associated such personalism with the thought of Saint Augustine, who in his Confessions had struck me with the power of all his human passion and depth. By contrast, I had difficulties in penetrating the thought of Thomas Aquinas, whose crystal-clear logic seemed to me to be too closed in on itself, too impersonal and ready-made.

The author of the article also describes Monica as an alcoholic and the patron saint of alcoholics—another reason, in this age of addiction, to thank God for her help and example.

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"Truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from hence to yonder place,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you."

Matt. 17:20

Wait, what? What is this thing, faith, that comes in such concentrated doses, and how do I get ahold of some?

If you were raised on Disney movies, or you've fallen under the sway of spiritual-but-not-religious types, you might believe that faith means trying really, really hard to believe that Event X is going to happen. As in:

I believe I'll win the lottery! I believe I'll ace the interview! I believe the biopsy will come back negative!

Strangely enough, there's something to this (not much, but something. More on that in a minute.).

But a theological virtue isn't a magic trick. Faith is something more personal, something more closely entangled with trust and loyalty. (The connection is clearer in some languages than it is in English, but you can hear it in expressions like "keep faith with me" or "fiduciary duty."

How is it personal? Well, first of all, I need to believe that God has the power to do something about any request of mine. That's simply a judgment, based on evidence, not a personal interaction--but even so, it's trust in the power of a Person, not just free-floating "positive energies." That's why even Please gimme prayers count as an expression of faith.

Second, I need to trust that He has my good at heart. Not only that He can hear my prayer, but that He wants to. Again, not just a generic belief that the desired event will transpire, or that the Almighty has enough firepower to get the job done. Instead, it's trust in the heart of a Person. 

So what about just focusing your energies, your belief, your expectancy, on a desired event? Is there any power in that?

Actually, there can be. There is such a thing as the power of positive thinking, though it will only take you so far. If you focus all your efforts on studying for a biology test and foster a strong feeling of confidence in yourself and your ability to learn about cell structure, you're more likely to get an A. There's evidence, too, that a positive mindset helps fight disease--but, nota bene, a positive attitude is no substitute for a well-times course of chemotherapy, and there's no excuse for blaming a sick man's problems on insufficient cheeriness.

The power of negative thinking is real, too--and maybe even more powerful. Jacques Philippe and others speak of "limiting beliefs": self-fulfilling prophecies of failure we lug around with us, like "This isn't the kind of thing I'm good at," or, "Yeah, right, how many times have you made that resolution before?"

Sometimes limiting beliefs arise from childhood experience. Maybe someone labeled you the problem child, or your sister (and only her) the artistic one. Or maybe it was some past experience of genuine failure. Either way, the power of self-talk is real, for good or ill: it makes a dramatic difference whether we go around muttering, "I'm an idiot! I can't get anything right!" or silently proclaiming, "OK, here we go, nothing I can't handle."

 It's immensely useful to recognize the games our minds play on us, and the patterns of self-sabotage we fall into.

But psychological techniques have their limits! Yes, grace builds on nature, but the theological virtue of faith is something richer than even the most encouraging self-talk. Until we trust God, we can't accept His help, and without his help, we're left to solve problems of love and hate, life and death, good and evil, with faulty, fallen equipment.

Tapping into positive energy, real or imagined, is no substitute for union with a really trustworthy Person.

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One of my favorite bloggers, Kelly Mantoan of This Ain't the Lyceum, has two children with Spinal Muscular Atrophy. Her post this week is about that, but it's of interest to just about everybody, parents or not, special needs or not.

Kelly recalls:

I remember the first time Fulton asked me if he would be able to walk when he was an adult. I was getting him ready for bed, when BAM I was hit between the eyes with his innocent question. I remember answering him in a matter of fact way,  “No, you’ll always need a wheelchair.”,  and then getting a bit teary about it later as I recounted the episode to my husband.

Since that first time, Fulton and Teddy have asked Tony and I numerous times why they can’t walk, why can’t we just teach them to walk, and several other variations. As painful as these moments can still be for me, I realized very quickly that they were nothing of the sort for either Fulton or Teddy.

As a special needs parent, especially one who sees the milestones of her healthy children side by side with the limitations of her disabled children, I need to watch that I do not think my sons are any less happy than their siblings simply because they can’t do all the same things or require doing something differently.

When you have a special-needs child, it's ever-present. Even if (like me) you aren't inclined to build your identity around it, it's still easy to forget that you're seeing things through your own eyes, not your child's.

I want this post to remind you that Fulton and Teddy, and people like them, can speak for themselves and even I, as their mother, cannot fully share their experience. My stories may be about them, but they’re not Fulton and Teddy’s stories. My feelings may run the gamut, but they do not reflect how Fulton and Teddy feel. If my life is overwhelming, hard, frustrating, or upsetting, it is because that is my subjective opinion, and maybe I should check myself to make sure those feelings are appropriate, rather than assuming my life calls for such emotions. If my sons are not overwhelmed, frustrated or sad with their situation, why am I?

You see? She's not just saying "It's important for me to keep my feelings in check." She sees that life sometimes "calls for" some emotions, sometimes for others. Some feelings are fitting for a mother watching her child navigate the special-needs life, and others are fitting for the child himself. But more than that--each is separate and distinct, belonging to the subjectivity of one person, not another. Even if the two people are mother and son.

Maybe that seems obvious. But look again: it's surprisingly easy for us to try to "usurp" each other's subjectivity, in all kinds of sneaky or unconscious ways. Maybe we assume somebody feels the same as we do. Maybe we project our feelings onto other people. Or we try to manipulate them into feeling as they "should." Or into feelings advantageous to us. Maybe we think of other people's affective lives as extensions of ours. We can end up by forgetting they have their own subjectivity at all.

When Fulton and Teddy now ask me questions, I realize they’re asking with the same intention of any five or eight year old who casually asks, “Why is my hair brown?”, “Can I be a famous singer when I get older?”, “Why can’t I fly?”. Their disappointment is just as fleeting as when I tell them, “No, you may not make explosives.” or “No, we can’t have ice cream for dinner.”  *I* still feel a twinge of sadness because they won’t ride bikes or play football or experience many things my older children take for granted, but thus far, they won’t feel sad unless I imply to them they’re missing out on something great.

Now this is interesting. Even though Kelly very insightfully notes that she doesn't own their feelings--that their subjectivity and hers aren't one--she does see that she has a chance to influence them. She can do this by respecting their feelings as theirs, or by pressing her own upon them. She can spread the contagion of her own sadness upon their matter-of-fact acceptance of their limits--or not.

If later they become wistful because they can't join the football team, at least it will be their own wistfulness. Just as she shouldn't force hers on them, she shouldn't try to force them not to feel what they feel. Encouragement and realism is one thing; usurpation is another.

But it's tricky, especially in the case of parent and child.

For children who, due to severe disabilities, will not live to see adulthood or be able to function as adults, there’s no reason the time they do have can’t be filled with love. Children can feel love and joy from a bed. If we choose to see each moment they have as a drain, a waste, or pointless suffering, then that speaks to our perspective, not our child’s.

Lots of authors remind us that even a life of handicaps has dignity, that people with muscular atrophy or diabetes have just as much value as any "normal" person. So they do. But this point is almost the opposite: Kelly's not just saying that objectively her children are as valuable as anybody else's; she's urging us to take seriously their subjectivity. She's pointing out that unless we do that, our vision of the objective truth of their life will be hopelessly skewed.

It's a good reminder for all us "normal" people, too.

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Family visiting from Holland (joy!) combined with internet problems (aggravation!) have made for light posting of late. But I'm still reading and reflecting in the background. A person with my cast of mind can't help it.

A visit to the Emily Dickinson homestead last month has me digging into a biography, besides the poems. The biography mentioned ED's copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, which had this line marked:

We’re nettles, some of us, and give offence by the act of springing up.

I loved it so, that I immediately searched for Aurora Leigh and began reading that too. (EBB's Sonnets from the Portuguese surpass Shakespeare's, in my opinion. But they're the only things of hers I've read till now.)

A theme in that great poem/novel—a man proposing to a woman, not because he loves her, but because he thinks she'd be the ideal helpmate for his life's mission—reminded me of Jane Eyre, so Jules and I began listening to that again, too. 

I am feeling fairly bowled over by the potent personalism of four nineteenth century women:

Charlotte Bronte, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and George Eliot.

Each of them dwells sensitively and artistically on the mystery of subjectivity, and the difficulty we have (individually and collectively) in realizing it duly. The tendency of our fallen nature is always to reduce others to categories, to project our own motives onto them, or to use them for our ends and interests.

Take these lines, spoken by Aurora to the cousin who wanted her for his mission:

"What you love,
Is not a woman, Romney, but a cause:
You want a helpmate, not a mistress, sir,–
A wife to help your ends . . in her no end!

He protests, and she continues:

With quiet indignation I broke in. 'You misconceive the question like a man,
Who sees a woman as the complement Of his sex merely.
You forget too much 
That every creature, female as the male,
Stands single in responsible act and thought
As also in birth and death.

This insight is the valid core of feminism.

But it's not only in inter-sex relations that a person needs to assert herself against reductions. Earlier on in the poem/novel, Aurora had to contend with an aunt who resented the awakening of her interior life, in as much as it wouldn't be subjected to the pretend authority of convention. The aunt had become her guardian when her parents died, and had tried to mold her according to her stiff notions of propriety. But Aurora had discovered poetry, and with it her individual passion and vocation.

But I could not hide
My quickening inner life from those at watch.
They saw a light at a window now and then,
They had not set there. Who had set it there?
My father's sister started when she caught
My soul agaze in my eyes. She could not say
I had no business with a sort of soul,
But plainly she objected,–and demurred,
That souls were dangerous things to carry straight
Through all the spilt saltpetre of the world.

In all of Emily Dickinson's writing we find the same constant. She is discretely presenting indications that there is more richness and depth, range and subtlety, freedom and responsibility in her subjectivity than the surrounding society is apt to allow. She, like Aurora and Jane Eyre, knows profoundly that her prime responsibility in front of God is fidelity to her own sense of right, even in the face of peer pressure to conform. And she knows it requires immense courage, especially when the "peers" are family members, who imagine they're acting for her good when they set out to curtail and suppress her individuality.

Take this line:

There are depths in every Consciousness, to which none can go with us.

That's personalism in a nutshell.

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