After scrolling for a few minutes, I feel it. Faced with all of the world’s problems, I feel the overwhelming need to fix them - all of them. This is one of the gifts and pitfalls of being a woman: I’m perceptive of others’ needs and motivated to fulfill them.
My mind races as I see problems related to the current pandemic and racial climate. On a bad day, I stew on this from dawn until dusk, trying to figure out how I can solve systemic injustices by myself. On a good day, I look to Dorothy Day for wisdom in discernment.
This is one of the gifts and pitfalls of being a woman: I’m perceptive of others’ needs and motivated to fulfill them.
I vividly remember how I felt reading Dorothy Day’s autobiography The Long Loneliness. I had never felt so compelled by a book but, when I closed it, I didn’t have a concrete idea of what I was compelled towards. After sorting through my thoughts for a few weeks, and conducting more research into her life, I discerned that what Dorothy Day called “personalism” was what enchanted me. She has been a guiding light in my life for several years now, helping me frame the principles I want to live by and offering me practical avenues for living out Catholic Social Teaching. Lately, in the midst of a pandemic, racial injustice, and political polarization, she has offered me yet another gift: discernment through the lens of personalism.
Dorothy Day’s personalism is found in all of her work. it is the way she channeled her faith into action in such an effective way, and the reason why she is such an influential figure, even in 2020. Her personalism held fast to two main principles: the dignity of the human person and personal responsibility (The Catholic Worker Movement). When we view current events through these two aspects of personalism, I think we can avoid both the pitfall of feeling paralyzed by all the needs of the world and the temptation to work ourselves into a state of burnout and cynicism. Two examples of these pillars of personalism in my own life immediately come to mind.
First, like many others, I have recently devoted a good portion of my reading to anti-racism literature. A few weeks ago, I read Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. I was challenged by his timely reminder that one of the keys to revolution and change is viewing the oppressor as a human being made in the image of God. How often I forget this! How often I forget that these systems that hurt people are composed of human beings, too. Seeing them as such helps me approach them with the humility of Jesus and sets us on equal footing to have conversations about change.
I was challenged by [Howard Thurman's] timely reminder that one of the keys to revolution and change is viewing the oppressor as a human being made in the image of God.
Second, I do have a responsibility as a Christian to work towards justice and the common good. I do not have the responsibility of successfully toppling empires on my own. Instead of framing our responsibility to society within the framework of “success,” I think we should return to the first principle of personalism: remembering that social justice work is about people. I have a personal responsibility to my neighbor, and focusing on this removes much of the temptation to strive for “success.” I have a much clearer, more urgent responsibility to the living, breathing, struggling person in front of me than I do to entire groups of people. Feeding my hungry neighbor, correcting my family member for a racial slur, and wearing a mask are all ways to take concrete steps toward a better society. These personal acts are like ripples in water, spreading justice across our troubled country.
I think we should return to the first principle of personalism: remembering that social justice work is about people.
With all of the division, arguments, and information overload we must sort through these days, Romans 12:2 is particularly helpful: “Do not conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Perhaps what we need is to renew our mindset and our approach to the world’s problems. If we framed our desire to perform good works within the context of personalism, maybe we wouldn’t feel so exhausted, so often. We would have a clearer vision of what justice looks like, knowing that we fight for the image of God in all, and we would know how to pick our battles. We could cultivate boundaries and stay in the fight for justice for the long haul, just like Dorothy did.
Bond Warner Strong lives in the mountains of southwest Virginia with her husband, Reece, and her two sons, Willis and Harmon. She can be found on her website and on Instagram @bwarnerstrong.