The Personalist Project

The human significance of suffering

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life.  It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish.  Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.  Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him.  And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Erin of Bearing Blog has some good thoughts up about free agency and the mentality of "have to." She gives an accessible example: "I have to get dinner ready."


Well... I could neglect to make dinner at all.  I could work on something else instead, or lock myself in my room and read a novel right up until it's time to leave.

[...] I could choose something different.  I could choose a lot of possible somethings-that-would-be-different.  A lot of those somethings would be objectively worse choices than I have been making.    Others would be completely acceptable and okay, and some might even be better.

I am lying to myself every time I say I have to cook dinner.

I'm freer than that.

This is something I've thought about a lot, as I've tried to apply to my life the revelation I had seven years ago:

We must govern ourselves because nobody else can enter into our subjectivity and make our choices for us. Even when we commit ourselves to obedience, as in religious life, that obedience has to be freely chosen with every day and every act of compliance. 

When my husband and I were separated, I would get into these blue moods where I would resent that I "had" to do all the work of raising our kids, that I "had" to be responsible. I resented him for what I perceived as a freedom I didn't have. 

I don't remember when it first hit me, but something began to soften in me when I changed the way I thought. I admitted to myself that I was free. I could use my freedom to walk away from my responsibilities. I could use my freedom to simply *stop*---wallow in depression and despair and refuse to move forward. (I recognise that would not be a free choice for many seriously depressed people. But for me, this seemed like an option, a path open to me if I chose to take it). 

This wasn't an escapist vein of thought. I wasn't fantasising about running away, assuming a new identity, and living a carefree, single life in some exotic locale. I was looking at it as an option, one of many options.

Like Erin, I stepped back and examined my "have-to" and saw that it wasn't a "have-to" at all. I could look at all my options, all the things it was possible for me to do rather than care for my children, and I could say wholeheartedly, "I don't want that, because I don't want what that would cost."

I didn't want it! 

When I compared the irresponsible life I could choose with the good things I wanted for myself and my children, I knew that I wanted to be there for my children more than I wanted anything else. It wasn't a "have-to." It was a free choice of something good.

When I remember it, this way of revisiting my "have-tos" is hugely helpful for me, in the small things as well as the great ones. Sometimes it reveals an unnecessary burden I have taken on myself that I could choose not to carry. I don't "have-to" send Christmas cards. Some years I enjoy it and have the time and energy it takes, but some years I don't. I don't "have-to" throw themed birthday parties for my kids, or make them homemade decorated cakes. But...I enjoy it, and value it, and value the warm memories my children have of their birthdays, so I choose it. 

(I wonder how much of the Mommy Wars comes from interpreting private choices as universal "have-tos"? Or feeling burdened by "have-tos" and trying to discharge resentment by laying the same burdens on others? How much would it ease the pressure on all of us if we all embraced our individual, personal choices out of freedom rather than guilt?)

There are a lot of things in my life I could do differently, and a lot of things I choose to do now that I might not always choose to do. But underneath the layers of "ought" and expectation, there is a radically inalienable autonomy. This is the life I have chosen--the loves I have chosen to honour, the goods I have chosen to value.

This is me, choosing the life I have.

Image via Pixabay, CC0 Creative Commons

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There's a passage in the Lord of the Rings where Galadriel, "the greatest of elven women," addresses the question of magic.

'And you?'," she said, turning to Sam. 'For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem also to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy. But this, if you will, is the magic of Galadriel. Did you not say that you wished to see Elf-magic?'

In The Chronicles of Prydain, which I'm reading to my kids these days, the same idea comes up. The Princess Eilonwy has a "bauble," a golden sphere which lights up "magically"--but only when used by certain people, under certain conditions.

Eilonwy gains its "cooperation" so easily that the reader might  imagine that the magic resides in the object itself, regardless of what kind of person is using it, or for what kind of purpose. But Taran finds it only lights up for him when he is thinking of her, and the hapless but goodhearted Prince Rhun finds it only works when he stops thinking of himself and uses it to rescue his friends from a pit. 

                                         *     *     *     *     *

When Harry Potter first came out, it was the target of much criticism--some reasonable, some just plain silly. I'm not opining here on the merits of the books, which I've only read fragments of. But the various arguments against them are illuminating. Here they are, from weaker to stronger:

  • The weakest argument, I thought, was the objection against ever depicting magic in literature. This would rule out both Narnia and Middle Earth, an idea most of us would find hard to take seriously. These are people who reject fantasy, altogether, putting it in the category of falsehood. I don't think these fundamentalists are the ones who want to transform children's literature curricula to include fewer stories and more dishwasher assembly manuals, but they have more in common than either party might guess.  (If anyone feels I've misrepresented this objection, we can talk.)
  • Then there was the idea that magic in a storyline, though not in itself a bad thing, can awaken an unhealthy interest in the occult. The objectors pointed out that kids whose interest in reading has been awakened by Harry Potter (and only Harry Potter) would often go online to search for similar things and end up at sites promoting the occult. There's certainly something to this, though it doesn't touch the question of the merits of magic in literature at all. Vigilance of children online is a good thing. You'll get no argument from me. And taking the occult seriously--even going to apparently excessive lengths to make sure you're not unwittingly opening yourself up to it--I'm all for that, too. But again, we're talking about a possible side effect, not the thing itself.
  • A stronger objection was, I believe, put forth by Michael O'Brien, author of Father Elijah and other books in the series Children of the Last Days. Magic in Harry Potter, the argument goes, is presented as a property of things--a neutral, generic, impersonal property of certain material objects, that can be called up, or, as it were, "turned on," by saying certain words or performing certain actions. It's not a force to be cautious about, except maybe as a technical matter. It doesn't interact with the soul of the one who practices it. It doesn't have a "mind of its own," the way Tolkein's Ring does. If it's dangerous, it's the kind of danger an amateur runs into when tinkering with something he haven't yet mastered. This can lead not to corrupton of the soul, but at worst to unexpected or inconvenient consequences, as when the peasant wife wastes her three wishes on possessing a sausage, wishing it stuck to her husband's nose, and then wishing it unstuck. (Though maybe that's a bad example: you sense there's something more at play than bad luck and lack of forethought!)*

People today, I think, tend to look at magic either as a forbidden means of getting dark forces on your side, or else as a neutral problem-solving tool--not something that could alter or corrupt the soul of the practitioner.  What they miss is the personalist angle: the way such powers interact with the one who wields them.

I'm not saying personalist magic is more realistic, exactly--but it certainly makes for better literature.

What do you think?


*I'm not saying this is indeed the way magic is portrayed in Harry Potter--just that if the shoe fits, it's a more respectable objection.

Image credits:

Galadriel: Flickr

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"It's hard for me to judge," I said to my spiritual director, "whether I'm being too hard on myself or too easy on myself." (I'm pretty sure I was being sincere.)

She didn't hesitate, not even a split second. 

"Too hard on yourself in theory, too easy on yourself in practice."

Bingo. She knows me well.

It's so easy to overthink these things. We can tie ourselves in knots, trying to build up an image of ourselves as people of high standards, people who approve all the right things and disapprove all the wrong ones. The worse we do at living up to our false little image, the more miserable we get--but it's not the kind of misery that leads a person to pull herself together and live up to higher standards. It's a much more sterile kind of suffering.

My old pastor, Fr. Ed Fride, used to talk about "one of the Snake's oldest tricks": while you're in the throes of indecision, the Tempter is the first to tell you, "Aw, c'mon, t's no big deal. Don't be such a perfectionist. You're only human." Then, once you've caved, there he is, the Accuser, horrified and disgusted. "I can't believe you would do such a thing!" he gasps. "Why would you expect to be forgiven after doing that?"

And this fits right in with what another priest friend once told me in confession: "Don't be twisting back on yourself and thinking, 'What an awful person I must be to have done that.' That's not the point. Don't be all preoccupied with yourself. Look outwards, towards God, towards goodness. It's not just about you."

And one more related piece of wisdom: before she got Alzheimer's, my mother was talking to someone who feared he was losing his faith. She was trying to express the same kind of thing, I think. She told him: "You don't look inside yourself and try to locate this thing called 'faith.' That's not how it works. You look outward at the One you have faith in. You're not examining your own spiritual innards and trying to dig out this thing that you think is supposed to be there. You get out and look at the reality outside yourself." (This is, of course, paraphrased from memory.)

It's tricky, what I'm trying to say here, because of course self-knowledge is a good thing. But twisting back on yourself is not the way to get there. Morbid introspection is not the same thing as fearless contemplation of your own inner reality. The wrong kind of self-contempt is just as easy to fall into as the wrong kind of self-love.

It's not that the personal self is unreal or unimportant. It's not that what goes on inside the personal subject--the whole realm of interior acts--is less significant than objective facts about other sorts of beings. We at The Personalist Project has expended lots of virtual ink trying to demolish that error.

Maybe the problem arises when we try to theorize too hard about what's going on inside of us. Some realities, even though they're unfolding within us, are opaque to us. When we do that, we we distance ourselves from our own experience. 

I'll wrap up--if you could call it that--with a thought from another of my favorite sources of wisdom, Jacques Philippe. "God is realistic," he says. He doesn't want to shower His grace on the person we're supposed to be, or the person we would have liked to have been. He  addresses Himself to the person we are. Once we accept our real selves--it's then that He can get somewhere with us. As long as we insist on fiddling around with our little collection of fake selves, mistaking that for self-knowledge, His hands, you could say, are tied.

Or so it seems to me. Does it make sense to you? Does it ring true? What do you think?

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Setting consequences in place gives someone a clear choice and sets them free to make it.

Our job is to accept their consequence. We let them know that they can choose a or b. If they choose a, certain things will happen; and if they choose b, other things will happen. This is clarity and freedom.

This mindset does so many good things. It helps you get clear about what you want. It forces you to communicate what you want directly. It keeps you from being judgmental, nagging, controlling or cajoling -- all of which bring about bad feelings in the relationship. And most of all, it preserves the freedom of the other person to make his own choice, something he has had all along, is clearly exercising anyway, and that you are not honoring. 

--Dr. Henry Cloud, coauthor of Boundaries

I hit a low point in my life seven years ago, and two books helped pull me out and bring clarity to the fog. The first was Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend. The second was The Selfhood of the Human Person by John Crosby.

The two books are very different in writing style, intended audience, purpose, and genre--one is a self-help book and the other a work of Personalist philosophy--but they both spoke persuasively to me of the inviolability of the free will of each person.

A person may be coerced, forced, or acted upon against their will, but their will itself--the part that chooses and acts--remains autonomous and outside the power of others. There remains a boundary between your will and theirs, between your choices and theirs, and between your moral responsibility and theirs. If you want to truly love others, you need to respect these boundaries, just as God loves us so much that He desires that we be able to return--or not return--that love freely, of our own choosing.

This divine perspective on the origins and purpose of free will make it something sacrosanct. Autonomy refers to self-governance. We must govern ourselves because nobody else can enter into our subjectivity and make our choices for us. Even when we commit ourselves to obedience, as in religious life, that obedience has to be freely chosen with every day and every act of compliance. This is how it must be, or obedience could have no value. Coerced obedience--external compliance with no free assent of the will--is a violation, not a virtue.

When we try to stage-manage others or accept undue responsibility for other's choices and moods, we treat their inner lives as extensions of our own. We fail to recognise them as persons distinct from ourselves. True respect for persons requires that we recognise not only the other's common humanity, but also his or her incommunicable subjectivity and moral autonomy.

I was lost in shame and anger when I picked up these two books, all those years ago. I felt shame and responsibility for the ways others had let me down. I resented the choices I'd felt forced to make alone and the choices I was still avoiding making. Cloud and Townsend, and Crosby, made me see that refusing to choose is itself a choice.

This deeply personalist understanding of autonomy and agency has been revolutionary for me. It's not easy. It never becomes easy. It is difficult to accept other people's choices when they run contrary to my hopes or wishes, and it is probably even harder to own my own desires and ask openly for the things I want or need.

Sometimes, I get the impression that Boundaries has filtered into our cultural awareness in only a negative form. We frequently hear talk about "setting boundaries" as a way of shutting people out and controlling what (and who) you are exposed to. But that's not the heart of it. The heart of it is self-knowledge--figuring out what you do actually need and what your true responsibilities are--relinquishing your attempts to control other people, and accepting that all choices have consequences.  

It's hard to accept that you can't make things go the way you wish they would, and have to work with and around other people's freely chosen actions (or inaction). But it is ultimately freeing--for you and for the people around you.

When you make room for each person's free will, you make room for real affection, love, vulnerability, trust, and self-gift to grow.

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Some things you know in theory, but they only become real at a particular moment.

This happened to me once in Liechtenstein when I briefly took a job as a temp worker at a plastic factory. I went to the employment office to find something a philosophy student in search of cash for a quick trip was qualified to do. A plastic factory in Switzerland, it turned out, needed somebody to lay squares of plastic down on a mold, heat the mold so that they collapsed onto it, spray them with cool water so they'd hold their shape, and then lay them down in a second pile.

I could do that.

And I did it for twelve hours a day, which sounds demanding until you realize that it was only for two weeks. The most alienated of workers, I didn't even know what the plastic slabs were for. I was a cog in a machine. I'm sure my job is no longer done by a non-mechanical cog.

But one thing stuck in my mind. At the bus stop at 4:30 am each day, I'd see a crowd of people. Guest workers on THEIR way to work. But they kept it up for months, years or decades. They'd been entirely invisible to me, and they would have stayed that way, too, if I hadn't decided I needed spare cash for my trip.

The other day, something similar happened. I was taking a Greyhound from DC to Boston, and at 2am we stopped at Port Authority in New York for a couple hours. There, too, I saw a crowd of (formerly) invisible (to me) people. There was an old lady with a walker piled high with blankets. She sat down next to me, muttered something about prices these days, and slumped down on the bench. It was freezing, but she fell asleep at once.

A girl across the hall sat on the grimy flooring, deep in conversation on her phone. "If you're not gonna love me, what the f--- am I here for?" she demanded tearfully. And on and on. A couple sat on the cement in the corridor beside a toddler in a dilapidated stroller. The woman, frustrated but patient, was trying to coax the little girl to sit still, but the man just kept hissing "Stop," at intervals, in a monotone, through clenched teeth.

The toddler dropped her sippy cup, which gave me a chance to pick it up, hand it back, and launch into a well-intended mini-speech.  I remember when mine were that age. It's so hard, isn't it? It does get easier. Want me to rock the stroller for a minute? I wasn't sure, though, whether what they needed was an encouraging word or for me to alert one of the roving policemen so he could confiscate that baby and give her a stable home somewhere else.

As departure time neared, I moved towards my gate and saw people lining up to leave. As bedraggled and miserable as THEY looked, they were a definite step up from the others, who, I realized belatedly, weren't waiting to get out of there. They were hoping not to get KICKED out of there. They LIVED there. 

How oblivious could I get?

Sometimes we hear words like "marginalized" and "periphery" and dismiss them as bleeding-heart buzzwords. But sometimes their meaning hits us over the head. 

Then we get away from Port Authority, or the village bus stop at dawn, or the bad neighborhood, and out of sight becomes out of mind. But they don't fade into non-existence because a passing stranger has caught her bus and gotten on with her life. They're no less there than I am. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, a person's a person, no matter how invisible.

Image credits: Pexels

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