Arts and Culture

Joined Together in the Mystery of Existence

Eighth in a series

ONE OF MY favorite insights among the many that I have received from personalist philosophers is their reflection on how person is a “we” term. What I am referring to is the view that the way I relate to myself influences how I relate to others, and the way I relate to others influences how I relate to myself. The way I express this to my students at St. John’s University is by saying something like the following:

“I cannot be the best Robert Lauder possible without you, and you cannot be the best you without me. We are tied together. This is the way that God has made us. The self-made man does not exist.”

Then I try to help students reflect on the mystery of personal existence, their own existence and the existence of other persons. When students reflect on the mystery of personal existence, they seem as awestruck as I am.

It seems strange but it is true that we can hide from ourselves. We can refuse to think deeply about our identity, our good points and our flaws, our past and our future. I do not think our culture encourages us to think deeply about ourselves. In fact, it seems to distract us from serious self-reflection and encourages us not to be open and receptive to the mysterious and wonderful presence of others in our lives.

I think I have lived a rather introspective life. In my six years as a major seminarian I spent close to three hours in chapel each day; went to confession every week; met regularly with a spiritual director, a practice I have continued in my 57 years as a priest; read countless deep theological, philosophical and spiritual books; have taught philosophy for 50 years, and yet, I still do not understand myself completely, and I never will. Nor will I ever understand my closest friends completely.

In his book, “Gabriel Marcel” (South Bend, Indiana: Regnery/Gateway, Inc., 1963) Seymour Cain does a nice job in commenting on Marcel’s view of the relation between presence to self and presence to others. He notes that there can be fidelity to the self, and that this does not mean conformity to a style, habit or custom. It means readiness to change, to be renewed, to go deeper into the mystery of self. To refuse to do this can lead to self-alienation. Cain writes the following:

“In the state of self-alienation I become a ‘deserter’ and adopt the view of the outsider toward myself; I become ossified within my principles and status and achievements. And as I become cut off from myself, I become cut off from others; the more intimate I am with myself the more I can be in real touch with my neighbor. What is this self with which I am intimate, this ‘presence’ to which I am faithful? Marcel suggests it may be the divine spark of creativity within me, in any case a ‘mystery’ which, just as that other self, is revealed only in love.” (pp. 82-83)

As soon as I think about being present to self, I almost spontaneously think of the examination of conscience. One blessing related to celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation is that we are called to examine our consciences. Unfortunately, it is easy to slip into practices that involve selfish behavior without being aware that we are not living up to Gospel ideals. Examining our consciences helps us catch behavior that we otherwise might miss. Becoming aware provides the opportunity to change.

Another way of entering more deeply into awareness of the self is reflecting on how we relate to others. It is impossible to have many “best friends,” and instant intimacy does not seem desirable or even possible, but we can avoid being deliberately manipulative with others. I knew a professor who told me that everyone was his friend. However, when I got to know him better, I realized that though he had many acquaintances, he had no close friends.

Another way of entering more deeply into oneself is to observe people who seem to be able to do this. A professor I had must have been physically and emotionally very strong because he had the enviable capacity to be really present to others. People like him can be wonderful models.

I suspect the best way to enter deeply into awareness of oneself and others is through prayer. The honesty that genuine prayer demands can help us to be honest with ourselves and with others. It’s also probably good to remind ourselves that we can fool others, but we cannot fool God.