The Personalist Project

Human longing only satisfied by absolute truth

It is the nature of the human being to seek the truth. This search looks not only to the attainment of truths which are partial, empirical or scientific; nor is it only in individual acts of decision-making that people seek the true good. Their search looks towards an ulterior truth which would explain the meaning of life. And it is therefore a search which can reach its end only in reaching the absolute.

John Paul II, Fides et Ratio

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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Every heart, every heart 
to love will come 
but like a refugee. 

Ring the bells that still can ring 
Forget your perfect offering 
There is a crack, a crack in everything 
That's how the light gets in.
– Anthem, Leonard Cohen

Russian aggression. Zika panic. Police shootings. Children without clean water in Flint, MI. Refugees risking everything to escape violence. Terrorist attacks in Brussels, Turkey, Nice. Wildfires and drought in parts of the US and Canada. Brexit, Trump, and renewed division and suspicion buoyed by populist movements across the west. The Pulse nightclub shooting. Continued war and tragedy in Iraq and Syria.

2016 has been a dark year in so many ways. 

And then there were the deaths. Not just politically and historically significant deaths, like Antonin Scalia or Fidel Castro. So many of the people who died this year were people who inspired and encouraged us with their work, their art, and their warmth. Harper Lee, Patty Duke, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard, Maurice White, Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman, Sharon Jones, Muhammad Ali, Florence Henderson, John Glenn...the obituaries kept coming at a record-breaking rate

The shadows cast by the losses and tragedies of this year can feel unendurable. But in the midst of the grieving and the heartache, I saw light alongside the pain and loss. 

When David Bowie died in January of 2016, it was the end to his music-making here. His fans shared their sense of loss with the world, through tributes and, naturally, by sharing their favourite songs. And something interesting happened. People who had never paid much attention to the person or the music of David Bowie, or known anything of him past the briefest awareness and the names of a couple of his most famous songs or albums--those people clicked on links and bought songs and read biographical essays...and beauty spread a bit further into the world. 

Again and again, this year, I saw beauty follow sadness, touch people, connect people. We watched movies we'd never watched before to understand the artistry of Alan Rickman and the genius of Gene Wilder. Maurice White and Sharon Jones were introduced to young people who had never heard of Earth, Wind, & Fire or The Dap-Kings. We listened to our fathers reminisce about Florence Henderson, America's Mom. We looked to the sky with renewed wonder, reminded that it has only been a little over half a century since John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, heralding an era of space exploration and discovery that inspired a generation.

Public Domain, via wikimedia

We often have occasion to remember that no joy in this life comes to us entirely unmixed with sorrow. The wheat and the tares grow together until the harvest, and the poor we will have always. It's clear that an earthly, here-and-now paradise is not promised to us.

But that truth brings with it this comfort: there is no sorrow entirely unmixed with joy. In the face of tragedy, we can be stirred to greater passion, greater dedication to love, greater gratitude for the people around us. In the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando, the deadliest in US history, writer and composer Lin-Manuel reminded me of this truth in his sonnet, delivered at the Tony awards in lieu of an acceptance speech:

...When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day.
This show is proof that history remembers
We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;
We rise and fall and light from dying embers, 
remembrances that hope and love last longer
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is 
love cannot be killed or swept aside....

Anyone who has driven a highway at night knows that the more complete the darkness is, the more brilliant and eye-catching even distant or scattered light. We know that

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:5

Photo by jeet_san

In a time of fear, I've seen generosity and hospitality to refugees reach into my own small town, shedding light and building community where there could have been suspicion or apathy. Hurricanes and wildfires have inspired outpourings of aid and comfort. Friends struggling with private sorrows have forged brave new beginnings, been lifted by the prayers and kindness of unseen friends, and found strength where they thought there was nothing but weakness. 

I write this during the darkest week of the year. The nights are long around me and the days are short and cold. Here, in the dark, is when Christian tradition marks the coming of the Light of the World. "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned." Christ came to an occupied land, to a stable in an over-crowded town, to a humble man and woman. God became man and came to live among us, not despite our sins and the darkness and hardness of our hearts, but—o happy fault!—because of them, in response to them.  

I quoted Leonard Cohen when I began this post.

"There is a crack, a crack in everything/ That's how the light gets in." 

This has been a year to leave us our hearts feeling bruised and broken. But if we bring them with us to the manger this Christmas, perhaps the Light will get in through the cracks in our hearts, that we too may shine in the dark places and be not overcome.

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