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The Beauty of Being Seen: The Importance of Personalism and the Life of Karol Wojtyla

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“Whenever we say that man is a person, we mean that he is more than a mere parcel of matter, more than an individual element in nature, such as an atom, a blade of grass, a fly or an elephant… Man is an animal and an individual, but unlike other animals or individuals.”
- Jacques Maritain


        He saw me.


        This was enough to stun me as I stuck my hand out to be warmly gripped by the professor to whom I was introducing myself at one of our Hildebrand Project “reading circles.”  He was looking me in the eyes, as many people do upon introducing themselves.  But for once, I felt truly seen.  Here he was, back on campus at 8:00 in the evening, just to discuss philosophy and go over the text I had been reading for the past few weeks in order to answer any of my lingering questions and ascertain my own personal thoughts on the text.  

There is something about the way this professor carries himself that is hard to forget – wherever he is, he is fully present.  It’s as if his entire personhood is concentrated in every look and every gesture; yet it comes across as natural and effortless – not forced.  He is calm, respectful, soft-spoken, and one of the wisest men I have had the good grace of making acquaintance with.


        This is the power of a lived personalism.


        In one of my recent blog posts, I talked about the dangers of adhering to a philosophical school of thought that lends itself to despair – a whirlpool of thinking which becomes isolating.  In sharp contrast to this lies the interpersonal and freeing philosophy of personalism.


        Personalism as a discipline can be hard to define with precision; it spans across many different areas of focus, including philosophy, theology, and humanist thought.  It encompasses many different topics and figures.  Standing like a lighthouse amidst the crowd of personalists, however, we find Karol Wojtyla.


        From the thousands of accounts circulating regarding the late John Paul II (and newly minted Saint), it is clear that the descriptions of his character have many striking similarities with the description of my professor.  People share their memories of John Paul’s special presence; every ounce of his being was hyper-focused in every moment on every person he encountered.  Growing up, there was an old man who lived next door to me who had met John Paul several times.  His stories sounded unreal and very idealized – he claimed that after briefly meeting the Pope, John Paul was able to recognize his face and remember his name some 10 years later when their paths crossed again.  Embracing him like they were old friends, John Paul II looked him in the eyes and exclaimed: “Clarence, my friend!  How are you?  I have been praying for you ever since we last met.”


        This is the power of a lived personalism: the ability to intuitively see the importance of an individual infinity within every human person.  When one infinity crosses paths with another, something truly astounding happens.  We have been given the gift of an encounter with another.

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        The human person is more than a something, she is a somebody (Stanford).  It is a gift particular to the human person to be both object and subject simultaneously in relation to an act of freedom.  This personal subjectivity is “a kind of synonym for the irreducible in the human being” (Ibid.).  Each person stands autonomously unique and unrepeatable, distinguishable by more than the mere definitions of a genus, species, or a particularity.  There is an alert, unique subjectivity within each particular human person that is telling of an inner dignity which can be intuitively grasped by every other human person.  With a dignity that is both particular to the individual and common to all individuals, there is nothing more mysterious nor more marvelous than the human person, save God Himself.


        Personalism as a discipline was very near to the heart of Karol Wojtyla.  Like Dietrich von Hildebrand and Edith Stein, Wojtyla was trained in Husserl’s school of phenomenological thought which found its Polish intellectual headquarters in the Catholic University of Lublin.  Upon his personal discovery of the works of Max Scheler, the Aristotelian-Thomistic trained Wojtyla began to blend his newfound phenomenology with Aristotelian metaphysics. The result was a fresh take on personalism that inheres in his works Love and Responsibility and The Acting Person, which were largely inspired by the thoughts of Husserl and Hildebrand (Ibid.).


        Certain aspects of personalism, such as focusing on the inherent dignity of the individual, have helped me understand my own particular humanity in a way that frees me to be able to relate with others so that they might feel cherished and respected in their personhood.  It has taught me how to live as a person among persons.


        There is truly nothing in this world more powerful than being seen by another.


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