A new favorite author: Paul Tournier and “The Meaning of Persons”

I stumbled upon this book while scrolling through my WordPress reader. On a blog I am following called ‘On Being’, there was an article by Eugene Peterson titled “On Congruence: The Beauty of Uniting Who We are and How We Act.” In it, the author recalled attending a lecture by the author, Paul Tournier. He recounts the experience:

But there was something else: Paul Tournier himself. During the lecture I had the growing feeling that who he was and what he was saying were completely congruent. He had been living for a long time in Switzerland. Precisely the way he lived and what he was now saying in Baltimore came across as an accurate and mature expression of all he had been living and writing.

This concept of congruence and the example of it in the life of Paul Tournier assured me that this author would probably be worth getting to know. So I began looking up some of his books. I found that most of his books were originally published in French, and that most are no longer in print nor available at the library– and maybe not even on Amazon. However, I was able to find one at my university library titled “The Meaning of Persons.” I wasn’t disappointed.

paul_tournier

 

Tournier is a doctor, a psychologist, and a Christian. He fully embraces the legitimacy of psychology, but is able to also fully embrace the tenets of Christianity. He does this through the development of two concepts: the person and a personage. A personage is probably the easiest to define. A personage is everything automatic– a role or a routine. A personage could be being a husband, a father, a Democrat, a dentist, a Christian. A person on the other hand goes beyond the sum of all our personages. It is something beyond that is difficult to define, but is what is our task to uncover. He contrasts the two: “The person is the original creation, the personage is the automatic routine.”

Science, psychology, and sociology can only study the personage, and can never reach the person. In this case, when science says that free will is an illusion, it is absolutely correct. Our personages are determined, and if we only live according to our personages, we will be acted upon and not free to act. But Tournier believes that when we uncover our person, we achieve liberty:

To be truly personal is to acquire liberty of conduct, to be, to some extent at least, able to govern oneself instead of being governed by automatisms. It is to be able to be generous or sparing as the changing circumstances require and in accordance with a conviction freely arrived at. It is to be able to be an idealist without losing sight of reality, to be a realist without betraying one’s ideals. It is to be orderly without making such a fetish of order that the least disorder is a torture.

This is what he believes is central to Christianity, rather than fossilized moral tenets:

In adolescence a child brought up in this sort of formalist environment may very well revolt against his parents and regard all their religious and moral traditions as a hollow farce or a strait-jacket. His indictment will have something in it of the accents of Christ himself when he inveighed against the Pharisees, those great religious personages of his day. They too were imprisoned within rigid principles whose distant source was in the revelation of the living God, though now there lingered only the automatisms it had left behind. Jesus Christ took his stand against them saying, ‘I am… the life.’

This is absolutely beautiful. I was surprised that Tournier has been described as a Calvinist existentialist. Existential makes sense (philosophical thinking that begins with the human subject), but Calvinism’s core tenet is predetermination, no? He does have a certain pessimistic viewpoint that he admits– we can’t be completely free from our automatisms, our personages– but he does uncover how true life and liberty are attained as we attempt to strip ourselves of such automatisms.

This viewpoint is so relevant, and he uncovers so many of the superficial philosophies that are entirely reactionary in our day. Rebelling against parents or against a religion at the start are just replacing one personage for another, and isn’t an expression of true liberty. True liberty is making decisions for oneself, and making decisions involve a value system.

Tournier’s discussion involves going beyond mere psychoanalysis, although he uses the terminology quite frequently. I don’t know if you would find a therapist like Tournier in our day. He doesn’t seek to impose his belief system on others though; there is no proselyting going on. Rather, he tries to help others to choose:

We are not called upon to impose our own scale of values on our patients. But if we help them to recover this fundamental function of life, namely choice, sooner or later they will raise the question of values– the dialogue will become spiritual. I cannot at this point break off the dialogue on the grounds that I am neither a philosopher nor a theologian, but merely a doctor. What I must do then is to know what my own convictions are, and take responsibility for them, without attempting to impose them on others.

I also appreciated his emphasis on persons, not abstract principles, a theme I have been learning more about recently, and I find a central tenet of my beliefs. Believing in a person and a person requires seeing them as inherently good and giving them the freedom to act for themselves without imposing your own values on them. His idea of tolerance was so refreshing:

This, in my view, is not only a matter of tolerance, in the sense in which that word is usually understood, implying a certain claim to possession of truth while condescending to live with those who are in error without persecuting them. IT is a much more profound conception, arising from what we have said about the dialogue with God. That dialogue is essentially personal– and that implies that we seek in it guidance for ourselves, and not for others.

I think I have found a new favorite author. If I have to, I will learn French so I can read the rest of his works.

Some of the ideas he discussed felt familiar. His method of uncovering a problem and then proposing a solution based on relationships seemed very familiar to “Bonds of Love”, another favorite book of mine. His own take on Socratic dialogue, and the inability to find complete communion with others sounded like “Speaking into the Air.” He also quoted a few individuals I am partial to, including Saint de Exupery, Chesterton, and Francis of Assisi.

 

Quotes:

A foreign colleague remarked to me recently that he was in the habit of taking part in meetings for ‘collective psychoanalysis’, where he said the strict rule is that everybody must say exactly what he thinks, without any pretence or keeping anything back. I confess I burst out laughing. That was naughty of me, or those people are undoubtedly sincere, and believe that they do keep their rule. But I am very much afraid that, all trained in the same school of psychoananalysis, they unwittingly remain subject to a tacit convention of some kind. Psychoanalysis has liberated them from certain social conventions, but inevitably it has created new ones. Every society and every movement eventually acquires its own particular vocabulary and code of behavior. One does not notice it if one is on the inside; it is those outside who see it. Every army has its uniform. Even the language we speak inescapably moulds the way we express ourselves.

We are like chess-players scheming to win our game; or rather each of us lives his life like those chess-masters who play a hundred games simultaneously.

‘I cannot board a trolleybus’, he told me, ‘without feeling an urge to offer up a silent prayer at the sight of all those people packed together, eyeing each other, judging each other by appearances, calculating their chances and trying to keep themselves in countenance.’

‘Only once on rare occasions have I succeeded,’ he says, ‘when I have been in love. And even then the spell was broken almost at once, because I realized that it was not really love I was looking for, but life; love was just one more pretence. And in order to keep even that, my words and attitudes had to be carefully calculated; I had to play the game of love in the way the woman expected me to; to give way to her whims in order to please her; or else she had to follow mine, in order not to lose me. And so life escapes us just when we think it is in our grasp.’

All this is inevitable, and many believers are worried by it. I even think it to be one of the hidden causes of the tension one often feels in the councils of the Church and on the committees of religious organizations. I have seen many men coming away from such meetings full of a vague uneasiness– and after a few years they have grown discouraged, and have resigned. It is not possible for people to work together at a common task without there being differences of opinion, conflicts, jealousy and bitterness. And in a religious organization they are less willing to bring these differences into the open. They feel quite sincerely that as Christians they ought to be showing a spirit of forgiveness, charity, and mutual support. The aggressiveness is repressed, taking the form of anxiety.

I should like with all my heart to be full of love for all my patients, for I know well that that is what they need most, and what Jesus Christ expects of me. I cannot escape the danger of trying to show it when I have not got it, of covering up criticism, and irritation under a mask of amiability, the discordance of which an intuitive person is quick to note. Is this then the price that has to be paid in every noble vocation? Noblesse oblige, after all. The master must hide from his pupils the gaps in his knowledge. The barrister must show himself confident of success. The doctor would do grave harm to the morale of his patient were he to impart to him all his doubts about his diagnosis and prognosis. The university professor would not be considered a serious scholar unless he published a large number of books.

The person is the original creation, the personage is the automatic routine.

For their part those who aspire to live like real persons and not like automata find themselves caught in the toils of a mass society, against which originality rebels for a time, and then grows weary and is extinguished. The more people there are crowded together, the more does the herd-instinct develop. The massive undertaking in the long run turns its participants into automata.

Most of our contemporaries, dragooned and drowned in our mass society, caught in the vortex of speed, find themselves isolated in unbelievable spiritual solitude. They have no one with whom to share their secret burdens. Everyone is in a hurry, caught in the superficiality of a mechanized society.

Why is it that some people take refuge in dreams, while others are content with a humdrum existence? Is it not because there exists within them a call to which they have been unable to respond, and that this call in fact has something to tell us about their person? To write off their dreams as escapism, as smoke without fire, is to fail to understand the drama that is being played within them. There is no smoke without fire.

Man a discussion would take quite a different course if we were to admit to each other the emotional and quite personal bases of our opinions.

Is it really possible to keep a journal which gives an approximately accurate impression of its author? I am beginning to doubt it.

Self-examination is an exhausting undertaking. The mind becomes so engrossed in it that it loses its normal capacity for relationship with the world and with God. Locked in a narrow round of endless and sterile self-analysis, the person becomes shrunk and deformed, while false problems multiply ad infinitum.

Saint Francis de Sales: “It is not possible that the Spirit of God should dwell in a mind that wishes to know too much of what is happening within oneself… You are afraid of being afraid, then you are afraid of being afraid of being afraid. Some vexation vexes you, and then you are vexed at being vexed by that vexation. In the same way I have often seen people who, having lost their tempers, are afterwards angry at having been angry. All this is like the circles made when a stone is cast into the water– first a little circle forms, and that in turn makes a bigger one, and that one makes yet another.”

The Bohemian who affects to despise conventions is not on that account without a personage. He has simply chosen one which he considers to be more original, and takes as much pride in it as the dandy in his sartorial elegance.

Our personage moulds our person. The external role we play transforms us constantly, exerting its influence even on the deepest and intimate recesses of the person. Of course, the habit does not make the monk– the proverb is an indication of the subtlety of the problem– putting on a dress will not turn us into a saint. But neither is it without good reason that a priest wears a cassock, a judge his robe, or the soldier his uniform.

It is not then, a case of casting off the personage, but of bringing it into harmony with the person. It is a case of being in accord with oneself. Pindar put it magnificently: ‘Become what you are.’ We must turn about, and proceed in an entirely new direction. Instead of turning our backs on the outside world and concentrating on our own inner life, where the true nature of the person always eludes us, we must look outwards, towards the world, towards our neighbor, towards God. We must boldly undertake the formation of a personage for ourselves, seeking to form it in accordance with our sincerest convictions, so that it will express and show forth the person that we are.

But in this world full concord between personage and person remains a utopian ideal. Further, by an odd paradox, we approach it only in so far as we become day by day more aware of their constant discord. So we might also say that progress in our knowledge of ourselves is progress from uneasiness to uneasiness. It is this gradual feeling our way along a road of discovery, rather than a full and complete knowledge of ourselves, which bears living fruit. The final reality of the person– always in motion, complex, mysterious and incomprehensible– still eludes us. Here and there we may catch a gleam of light, a reflection of it, just at those humbling moments when we perceive that we are not what we thought we were.

Many of the people I see yearn for a stable spiritual life. They blame themselves, after bursts of fervour, for falling back into lukewarmness, and after victories of obedience, for backsliding into sin. In this they are doubtless right– and I blame myself for the same thing; but I must at the same time bring them to see that that is our normal human condition. There is scarcely any such thing as a stable spiritual life…
We do not ‘possess’ God, or contact with him. We find him periodically, and that is precisely the authentic and living religious experience. It is an adventure, of which the return of the Prodigal is an illustration, whereas the older son, to whom the Father says ‘Thou art ever with me’, undergoes no religious experience.

Piety is manifested in all the habits which go to make up this personage: regular prayer, confession, Bible-reading, the Church with all its rites and ceremonies. He who, on a plea of preserving spontaneity, refuses to submit to any religious discipline, will find his piety becoming extinguished. Just as we were unable to grasp life apart from the automatic living phenomena of the body and the mind, so we cannot conceive of spiritual life detached from all concrete and regular expression.

From time to time God raises up saints or prophets– a St Francis of Assisi, a St Bernard, a Wesley. From their personal experience a renewal of life flows out, new forms of piety and obedience, a new language which helps those who were beginning to lose them to understand the eternal verities of the Gospel. Little by little these forms and this language establish their own tradition, become sacrosanct formulae which will be broken down in their turn when there comes a new prophetic message.

In the spiritual life too, automatisms, the necessary servants of life, are at the same time its tomb. These habits of piety, indispensable as I have shown them to be, can very quickly become emptied of their truly creative substance, to become nothing more than the cloak of a devout personage. There are bigoted stick-in-the-muds in every church. In a pious family it is easy to mistake for a living faith what is in reality only a system of rigid principles which imprison life.

In adolescence a child brought up in this sort of formalist environment may very well revolt against his parents and regard all their religious and moral traditions as a hollow farce or a strait-jacket. His indictment will have something in it of the accents of Christ himself when he inveighed against the Pharisees, those great religious personages of his day. They too were imprisoned within rigid principles whose distant source was in the revelation of the living God, though now there lingered only the automatisms it had left behind. Jesus Christ took his stand against them saying, ‘I am… the life.’

A child’s secrets must be respected. Something vitally important is at stake: nothing less than the formation of his person. Too often parents have no idea of the importance of these secrets. They think they have a right to know all about their child, even when he becomes an adolescent– or even an adult! This is denying his status as a person, it is keeping him in a childish state of dependence on his parents.

Separation followed by a relation. By the secret the person is formed, and then by communication of the secret it is affirmed. There was an infantile relationship when the daughter believed herself obliged to tell all her secrets to her mother. There is on the contrary a personal relationship when there is a free choice of a privileged confidant, the cnoice of a person by a person, a relationship between two persons– a dialogue.

I was thinking about this the other day, at the end of a lengthy conversation which had ended in deep silence. And my patient noticed it at the same time I did: we felt that there had been going on between us a double dialogue; one apparent and visible, formed of our words, our confidences, our looks and gestures– an encounter of personages; the other inward and invisible– the encounter of persons. The second could not have existed without the first, but the first had no value except as an expression of the second.

In the multitudinous contacts of social life, however, how often do we thus commit our inmost selves in the apparent dialogue? One can chat endlessly, engage in abstruse intellectual arguments, read whole libraries and so make the acquaintance of all kinds of authors, travel the world over, be a dilettante collector of all sorts of impressions, react like an automaton to every caprice of sentiment, without ever really encountering another person, or discovering oneself by taking up a position with regard to him. Think of the haste and superficiality of modern life, radio programmes flitting from one triviality to another, the ‘permanent’ cinema, ‘Digests’ that skim over everything, organized touring that leaves no time for really making contact with things and people.

It many homes it is actually, by a strange paradox, concern for marital harmony and the desire to safeguard love, which gradually turns the partners away from transparency: ‘I don’t talk about that subject with my husband; it irritates him. He gets annoyed at once, and we quarrel, and both let ourselves be carried away into saying things we regret. What’s the good? All it does is to put us a little further apart.’

It is always a denial of love, and to some extent a disavowal fo marriage, to begin to calculate what one says and does not say, even when it is done with the excellent motive of safeguarding one’s love. It is a contradiction of the law of marriage instituted by God: ‘They are no more twain, but one flesh.’

Between man and wife too, the true dialogue has periodically to be re-established by the confession of some secret; and the higher and more sincere our ideal of marriage, the more irksome it is to admit that we have hidden something.

Personal contact is ever a fragile thing, unstable and insecure. It has to be found again at each meeting. When it is established, words come easily, and seem all true, to have life and substance. But beforehand they seemed hollow, conventional, trivial. We are somehow embarrassed as we approach one another. Lack of contact causes embarrassment and embarrassment makes contact more difficult. My patient and I are both seeking contact, and in order to find it we hide our embarrassment under a cloak of banalities, witticims and digressions. Each feels that the other knows very well what we are doing, and that makes the embarrassment even worse.

Suppose someone has just paid me a compliment. Instead of telling him that what he says pleases me enormously, I pass it off with a hollow protest. But of course this affectation of modesty does not deceive him. I am reminded of a remark made by one of my patients: ‘Life is a universal game of hide-and-seek in which we just pretend to hide.’ And yet I do desire this personal contact. It is even a thing that I am particularly greedy for; it is one of the things that I value most in life.

‘I am coming to pay you a flying visit…’ can mean ‘I am not disposed to broach with you the question which we are both thinking about, and which really calls for a frank explanation.’ Even without saying anything, but by using gestures suggestive of haste, one can give one’s partner to understand that he must not draw one into a difficult or serious discussion. There are many people like that, always in a hurry, never allowing themselves to be tied down. They rush from one activity to another, with magnificent devotion and tremendous zeal. So long as they are concerning themselves with technical problems, they are prepared to exercise a lively intelligence and all their ability. But they have no time to spare for the more intimate remarks which alone create a personal bond.

The more costly an experience is to us, the greater its significance in our lives and the more it occupies our minds– and also the more are we afraid of its being misunderstood, or that it will be cheapened by some misapplied remark or suspicion.

Thus, although we are made to suffer by reason of the discordance between our personage and our person, of which I have spoken, nevertheless we carefully foster it for fear of having our person hurt if we reveal its most precious treasures. This is often what happens in the case of our artistic, philosophical or religious convictions. We feel they are still too fragile to stand up to being judged and even brutally contradicted by others. But our convictions are never really clear and firm until they have been expressed and defended.

I often ponder over the nature of true human sincerity, true transparency… It is a rare and difficult thing; and how much it depends on the person who is listening to us! There are those who pull down barriers and make the way smooth; there are those who force the doors and enter our territory like invaders; there are those who barricade us in, shut us in upon ourselves, dig ditches and throw up walls around us; there are those who set us out of tune and listen only to our false notes; there are those for whom we always remain strangers, speaking an unknown tongue. And when it is our turn to listen, which of these are we for the other person’s sincerity? That should make us think of God, who is not only One who says “Listen to Me!” but also One who says “I am listening to You.”

There are moments of silent adoration which constitute supreme fellowship with God, a dialogue, even though it may not be put into thoughts and sentences. These are sudden moments of joy that are more binding than promises. There are heart-rending cries that ring truer than praises learnt by rote. There are liturgical prayers, repeated since childhood, into which one so puts one’s heart that they are more personal than extempore prayers that strain after originality. Our own personal experiences can never be taken as the norm for other people. What matters is that our prayers should be living and sincere. Each of us has his own temperament; one is more intuitive, another more logical; one is more intellectual, another more emotional. The relationship of each with God will be marked with the stamp of his own particular temperament.

In the world of persons all one’s professional relationships take on a new character. They become shot through with a joy that was absent when they were merely the fulfilling of a function. Everything becomes an occasion for personal contact, a chance to understand others and the personal factors which underlie their behavior, their reactions and opinions. It is much more interesting, as well as important, to understand why someone has a certain failing, than to be irritated by it; to understand why he maintains a certain point of view than to combat it; to listen to confidences than to judge by appearances.

However precious one’s friends are, one must not become their slave. Being a person means acting according to one’s personal convictions, due regard of course being given to those of others.

If we answer with advice, exhortation, or theories, we are putting ourselves in a position of superiority, not equality. We are concerning ourselves with ideas, and not with the person, confining ourselves to the objective world of things, instead of entering the subjective world of persons. When someone lays bare to me the burning realities of his life, I am well aware that most of my replies could easily be only those of my personage.

‘Those who impose upon us their ready-made solutions, those who impose upon us their science or their theology, are incapable of healing us.’

This, in my view, is not only a matter of tolerance, in the sense in which that word is usually understood, implying a certain claim to possession of truth while condescending to live with those who are in error without persecuting them. IT is a much more profound conception, arising from what we have said about the dialogue with God. That dialogue is essentially personal– and that implies that we seek in it guidance for ourselves, and not for others.

Prolonged indecision is a poison as far as the person is concerned. It always arises from some inner conflict which one has not had the courage to resolve, or even to become aware of. It is common among those who have been kept in a state of dependence by domineering parents. It can persist throughout life long after the death of the parents. Such people will tell us quite openly that they do not even know what their tastes, their beliefs, and their aim in life are. As soon as they have made a decision they begin wondering if they have not made a mistake. If we run away from the first choices we are faced with, we sink into a twilight in which we no longer see clearly the decisions that have to be made.

It takes plenty of courage to live according to one’s convictions. That is why it is always so difficult to break away from social conformity, to act differently from everybody else. And it is because everybody conforms to the ‘done thing’ that it becomes so hard to depart from it.

Choosing also means renouncing. It means defining our person by abandoning resolutely what is not integrated into it by the choice.

Sometimes a man realizes that his occupation does not fit in with his ambitions, that in fact when he made his choice he had not the courage to take the risks he knew he was called to make. In such a case the rebirth of the person may have to be paid for by a heavy sacrifice of material security. Such an honest choice, however late it comes, is as fruitful as the ‘provisional’ life is sterile, dragging on from one employment to another with no whole-hearted commitment of the self to any of them. Having a vocation means acting in a spirit of vocation, being convinced that one is doing what one is called to do.

Viewed in this light, adultery is seen to be a childish act. Marriage too is a choice, and it is only successful if it involves total commitment. Adultery is an infantile regression; on the one hand, because it is a flight from the responsibilities of this commitment, and on the other because it means treating someone as a plaything… I have often seen the truth of this in the confessions of a weak man. With his wife he must face the difficulties of mutual adaptation of the problems of life, of worries over money or the children’s education– in short, a dialogue. With the woman he is making love to he has the illusion of a dialogue. Far removed from all the major worries he forgets in her presence, he finds sweet and flattering consolation. He likes to tell her of all his troubles as a child does to his mother; he presents himself as the victim of circumstances, and awakens the tenderness of her woman’s heart. He feels he is understood; he is coddled and consoled; he escapes from conflict. And if occasion arises, he can take a new plaything, as the child who is tired of his own toy covets that of his comrade, which seems to him to be much more attractive.

This is a confusion one often meets with. There are many who think that being oneself means being spontaneous, that is to say giving way to one’s every whim. To act spontaneously is to act without thought, without judgment; it cannot therefore be said to involve choice.

It is utopian to think that we can live free of all complexes. We are always finding old reactions reappearing in us when we thought we had been freed from them. Living in grace is not the same as living in cotton-wool. He who has tasted grace can no longer be content with compromises, escapism, or psychological compensations. He is constrained to confront all life’s problems courageously, and faithfully to do battle with them.

To be truly personal is to acquire liberty of conduct, to be, to some extent at least, able to govern oneself instead of being governed by automatisms. It is to be able to be generous or sparing as the changing circumstances require and in accordance with a conviction freely arrived at. It is to be able to be an idealist without losing sight of reality, to be a realist without betraying one’s ideals. It is to be orderly without making such a fetish of order that the least disorder is a torture.

To assert oneself, to say what one believes and to act accordingly, is not to offend others, always provided that it is done in charity. Rather does it encourage others to do the same, making possible the authentic dialogue of which we have spoken.

Christianity has a positive, affirmative, creative aspect often ignored by many Christians. I do not deny that it imposes certain specific acts of renunciation. Jesus spoke of the husbandman who prunes his vine so that it may bear more fruit. The purpose of pruning is not to restrict life, but on the contrary to promote its fuller and richer flow.

A completely satisfied man would be a fossil. Dissatisfaction maintains the constant movement of life, like an unending search.

Life is not a state, it is a movement. Nowhere in nature does it present the character of a fixed and stable maximum, but rather of an undulation, successive waves of life.

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