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personhood and memory

Those dark and pathetic medieval thinkers had some truly extraordinary insight into the workings of the human mind. Every time I pick up Mary Carruthers’ The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200, published by Cambridge University Press, my amazement is renewed. There was something so much more whole, so integrated, about their theories of thinking.

For example, whereas we tend to think of memory (without wasting too much time thinking about something so banal and unimportant, of course) as a conscious intellectual process by which we force our minds to recall information, Mary Carruthers tells us that their notion was “a much more expansive concept, for it recognized the essential roles of emotion, imagination, and cogitation within the activity of recollection.”

One way to abbreviate her point would be to argue that they saw recollection, or memory, as something done by humans in human ways – as something personal.

But lest you misunderstand the meaning I intend that word personal to carry, I want to quote a little longer section from her next paragraph:

“In medieval monasticism, the individual always had his or her being within a larger community, within which a single life was “perfected,” “made complete,” by acquiring a civic being and identity. That civic being, I will suggest, was brought into consciousness through learned practices that were both literary and rhetorical in their nature.

Perhaps this is idiosyncratic, but when I hear the word personal I tend to think of the act of hiding things away in a private place. “Don’t touch that – it’s personal.” “Now you’re getting personal” (i.e. you are asking questions that have to do with my private self and you should stay away from that area). Even, “Have you accepted Christ as your own Personal Saviour?”

But, while there’s a validity to these uses, the relatively exclusive “Personal” use of the word personal betrays an emphasis in our thinking that I believe to be both inconsistent with reality and harmful.

The word “personal,” as you can readily see, arises from the root word “person.” I love this word for many reasons, one of which is that Christians can unflinchingly look back on it as one of the most significant contributions to human thought. Prior to the Ecumenical councils, persona basically meant a mask and was a theater term. Of course, with the decline of Christian thought and its influence, with the redirection of so much Christian thought away from Christ to man, the word is reverting back to that common use. The reality of personhood is reverting back to the masks we hide ourselves with instead of the essence that we hide with those masks.

Personhood really only came to be understood when the Fathers of the church drew the distinctions between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But it’s crucial to notice that the person’s of the Trinity are defined by their RELATIONSHIPS to the other persons. In other words, God Himself never existed in some imperious isolation, towering above all those non-existing contingent entities that relate to others. It is not a weakness to relate to and even to need others. It is essential to personhood.

My son David was recently married and Karen and I just celebrated our 25th anniversary. I doubt many parents of married children have missed the joy of watching as their child’s beloved drew out qualities in their child that had been waiting for the beloved to arrive. I sometimes wonder if that isn’t the real joy of youthful love – young people find something worth living (if not dying) for and it draws out powers and emotions they never knew they had. It’s an exciting journey of self-discovery, the key to which is that they pay no attention to themselves – or at least they think they don’t.

Meanwhile, I can tell you that in 25 years of marriage there have been plenty of times when Karen has had to deny herself (at least a dozen!) and a few when I have had to as well. Soren Kierkegaard suggested that life has three “stages” to it. The first he called the aesthetic, when people avoid making decisions and take in as much as they can for themselves. This stage always leads to despair and, therefore, boredom.

Then the point comes when a young adult needs to make a once for all choice – a commitment. Some decide to make the choice and proceed to the ethical stage. Others refuse and are stuck in the aesthetic. You can easily see this in the difference between a faithful married couple and the barracudas that swim through our bars, dorms, and youth groups.

The sense of irony is crucial to growing into this second stage, because it looks as though you are setting limits to yourself. Commitment means, by its very nature, self-denial. It means you won’t indulge the appetite of the moment, but it also means you will set aside deep burning desires that never really go away.

And there comes, for many, a time when that deep burning desire is set in conflict with the committed love for a husband or wife or children or friend. The decision one makes at that time determines the kind of person he will be from that point forward.

If he goes back on his commitment – if he turns his love into a theory – then he becomes the kind of person whose love will be theoretical, which often means sentimental and a little desperate.

If he keeps it, he will find the rest of his life limited, but he will find that he becomes a man.

Every successful artist knows that it is in the limits that they achieve greatness. Every successful businessman knows that success comes from focus. Everybody who has ever succeeded at anything has known that he succeeded by denying himself.

But so often we read or hear about living without limits. It’s childish, aesthetic, madness.

Because when we try to live without limits, which is to say, without sacrificing anything for our relationships, the very thing that draws us out of ourselves, the very thing that causes us to become human, to discover our capacities and limits (yes we have them!), to discover where and how and why we matter, has been treated as an obstacle.

We become human only in committed relationships. We discover our own inner lives only in relationships. We develop our personhood only when we give it to another.

Frankly, like all men, I wish I could have done many things with my life that I have been unable to do because I chose to marry Karen and to beget five children.

And because I did not do them, I became a man and can now boast as my greatest achievement that Karen and I have been married for 25 years. I can’t wait to see what we’ve become after 50!

This might seem to have taken us a long way from the discussion of memory with which I began this blog, but it hasn’t really. Personhood values memory. Memory sustains relationships. But because what we do in schools is so “academic,” we fail to think about and realize the full personal value of a trained memory. As a result, we have forgotten nearly everything that matters.

But at least we get a good feeling when we worship our relevant God with contemporary music. Who cares if those who have denied themselves on behalf of the church and their communities are driven away by our preference for the tastes of the young and hip. Family traditions, church traditions, social traditions – they just get in the way of…

The individual always had his or her being within a larger community, within which a single life was “perfected,” “made complete,”

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