"Remember, no man is a failure who has friends" - Clarence, “It's a Wonderful Life”
Today is my twentieth birthday. Leaving the teen years behind calls for some self-reflection. When I look back on the last 20 years of my life, it is really easy to laugh at all of the failures and mistakes: all of the times I thought I knew who I was and what I was doing but really had no clue. Thankfully, these failures have taught me more than I could have imagined. Out of all that I have learned, I find one lesson to be the most encompassing and important: the greatest gift of life is being in communion with another.
I am no stranger to the effects of living in a consumer-based, individualistic society. The mantras “the more the better”, “the best way to do it is by yourself”, and “my hell is other people” taught me to always put myself first. All efforts to do so were positively labeled as hard-working. A social world became a social ladder. People become connections and friends were passing. Being constantly praised for my autonomy by the adults I looked up to, I began working harder and harder to be as independent as I could. Eventually, I found myself in isolation thinking I was the happiest I could be.
It was a few years ago that two women started to chisel through my heart, hardened to the idea of community. The first was Flannery O’Connor, a twentieth century American writer and essayist. The way she described persons in her short stories was mind-boggling. The characters in these stories were revealed through their interactions with one another. Each character had a history, but at the same time each character was being developed by their engagement with other characters. Through the gift of self, the characters revealed more of their self to the reader. In her letters, she speaks so reverently of her friends and family that I could not help but wonder at her love for others. The second is a social activist and journalist named Dorothy Day, another twentieth century American woman. When I finished reading her second autobiography, “The Long Loneliness”, I was confused. There seemed to be so little about her but a lot about the great friendships she made throughout the years. These women showed me that your view of yourself should not be limited to the narrowness of yourself but should include the value of those of your community.
To these women I am indebted. It was through their life and work that I abandoned my isolation to begin to strive to see others. I no longer wanted to be so independent that I did not know what it meant to know and be known by another in the process. Persons came alive and I desired to know myself. I began to start seeing them as Flannery O’Connor described and wanted to form relationships like those of Dorothy Day. And, I did. I met one of the world’s greatest friends in high school. My family was no longer merely the people I lived with but a great gift. I saw persons and the only proper response was, and continues to be, love. And what did this love do to me? I couldn’t have said it better than John Paul II in “Love and Responsibility”, “It [Love] makes the person want to do just that- surrender itself to another, to the one it loves” (125).
Dietrich von Hildebrand is quoted in “The Dietrich von Hildebrand Life Guide” as saying, “We will never do justice to the nature of the person and the fullness of his being if we do not fully understand the nature of community” (54). I think that is why Dorothy Day spoke so much of others in her autobiography. It is impossible to understand what it means to be the person you are without giving oneself in community. This is the lesson I have come to learn in the last twenty years.
As much as I have grown as an individual, I certainly have not done so by myself. I could not agree more with Dietrich von Hildebrand: “The community, which in an ordered, meaningful way ‘unifies’ human beings as spiritual persons, implies great support and help for the individual person in the forming of resolutions, in the readiness to act heroically, in the adherence to convictions” (53). I thank my friend Amanda, who taught me faithfulness, for our friendship that has taught me to love being myself (quirks included) and thus how to come alive by doing things that I love. I learned I am made of love and for love, as Saint Catherine of Siena so famously said, through my friendship with Michelle, and by her friendship continually learn that I am a person who has experiences that are valuable and worth sharing with others. To my parents, I owe my “never give up” attitude and the gift of my brothers who taught me how much I love to care for others. To a lady I met in France who taught me my ardor for family and to my professor who taught me I love to teach, thank you. Mary, the woman who taught me what friendship is, I can also thank for showing me I am made for daily joy. The list could go on to be very long. It is to all of these people with whom I share a communion that I owe thanks today. Thank you for the gift of communion that has helped me become the person I am. Today, I am celebrating you.