Friday 14 September 2018

The Freedom of Being Nobody

St. Ignatius of Loyola, pray for us.
The "Principle and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises" of Saint Ignatius of Loyola helped me a lot when I was grappling with a very difficult decision years ago.

Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created. 

From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it.  

For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honour rather than dishonour, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created. 

The part that really challenged me was the idea of not desiring "honour rather than dishonour," since I was about to quit a PhD programme and therefore abandon my lifelong dream of becoming a university professor.  

Now, I would never recommend to anyone that they drop their PhD programme. Getting that far and then giving up--for whatever unhappy reason--can leave a very deep wound.  (I suppose if it is for a happy reason--like something so much better--then you'd be okay.) However, I eventually found a fulfilling life outside of academia, even discovering that the Great Conversation carries on outside the walls. 

In fact, the conversation inside the walls can become very restrictive, and I am reminded again of the time I positively savaged a book of feminist theology in a book review published in the Toronto Catholic Register. At that time, Canadian Catholics in academia did not rip apart the books of other Canadian Catholics in academia in print. Doing so is not very nice, and the Catholic Register was (and may still be) a nice paper, rather more interested in building up than tearing down, which was as it should be. Moreover, ripping into the works of potential future colleagues is not great for your future career. 

However, I was very passionate about theology, and I had a very low tolerance for the cotton candy quality of thought that came along with the 1970s-style pastoral branch, so I very much hated this book. I recall hating it so much, I threw it across a laundromat--which I may have said in my review. 

It did not occur to me to imagine how the authoress would feel when she read my review, as she inevitably did, and I have paid for my thoughtlessness since by reading reviews of my own work. (I no longer do this for I have suffered enough.)  

But not to put a fine point on it, she went nuts. She wrote to me at two email addresses, and she wrote to the editor-in-chief, and she telephoned him too. Telephoning a newspaper editor to scream is inelegant, but at least it leaves no traces. I never deleted the authoress's email and although I have written many stupid emails since the genre was invented, I have never written one quite like that. 

In short, the authoress was a learned, respected professor at a wonderful university who had the confidence and support of the bishops----"and who are YOU?"

"I'm nobody," said your humble correspondent to her screen and "--and that makes me free." 

I don't agree with St. Ignatius about the health and the riches, exactly. I'm not sure 16th century people had as much choice about these things as we westerners do now, and compared to 16th century people, we're all rich. However, I do think he is spot on about the honour/dishonour thing. If you do not care that much about what Very Important People think of you--caring more about, say, how you appear to the ladies of your mother's branch of the Catholic Women's League*--then you have more freedom to stand up for what you believe in, no matter how unfashionable it is.  

The outraged authoress did me three very good turns by freaking out, by the way.  

First, her tears (I think I was told she cried over the phone) were a wake-up call that words hurt even grown-up strangers with tenure. 

Second, although I myself have cried over bad reviews since then--even private ones from friends, shameful, shameful, shameful**---I have never pulled the "I am so GREAT, and you are so SMALL" stunt, and I hope God prevents me from ever doing it.  

Third, she alerted the editor-in-chief to the fact that there was something scream-worthy in that week's Register. He picked up a copy and had a read of my review. And that, mes enfants, is how I eventually got my own column and my first book published and thus the book republished in the USA and in Poland. 

I am very thankful that when my once-promising academic career fell sick and died, I had my writing career (!) to fall back on. But I am also grateful for the lesson that to be "nobody" is to be free and being "somebody" can lead to delusion.

*The ladies of the Catholic Women's League, I am quite sure, would draw a line well before  picketing outside a private house and telling a man's children that his father is a horrible person and loads of people hate him. I suspect the CWL eyebrow would have lifted right when Mr Bone told his parents that instead of getting a job after university, he was going to live on the public purse.

**When I had spent the requisite time with poets, story-writers and other scribblers in the 1990s, I began to notice that we seemed particularly vulnerable to certain sins, chief among them volcanic envy. I will never forget my reaction when I first discovered that a dear friend had had a book published by a mainstream publisher with a big advance and bee-oo-tee-ful binding: murderous rage. Up until that moment I thought I was proof against the snarling hatred certain poets I knew had for much more successful poets their age.  Ah ha ha ha ha--no. 

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