One Thousand Words or So

Unless You Change and Become Like Little Children

Stella is reading, and thoroughly enjoying, Charlotte’s Web. I bought it for her for Christmas, and she has just two chapters left. I still have my old, ratty, hardcover copy that I bought at a library sale when I was about Stella’s age (eight), but I felt like she should have her own, new copy. Last night, she was telling me which characteristics of Wilbur Charlotte had featured in her web, but Stella was not quite sure about the meaning of the word “humble.”

I explained, but did not do a stellar job of it, because it left my little reader rather upset. She couldn’t quite tell me what it was about my explanation that bothered her, but I was able to guess. In fact, as I was defining the word for her, I was thinking to myself, “Uh-oh, this probably itn’t the best way to go about this.”

So I clarified. Originally, I had explained that humility, from which we get the word “humble” means thinking little of yourself, and I told her that it is the virtue that combats the vice of pride. I told her that vices are bad and virtues are good. “Pride is bad?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied, and pretty much stopped there. That was my mistake. I should have gone on to differentiate between types of pride, as I ended up doing once it became clear that Stella was upset. Of course she was worrying that she had done something wrong by being proud of her accomplishments, and why wouldn’t she be, after my lame explanation? I then reassured her that there’s nothing wrong with being proud and happy of things we’ve done well. Pride becomes a problem when we start to think highly of ourselves, when we start to think that we don’t need God for anything, that we know better than He does, when we feel like we can do it all ourselves. I then reminded her that if we are humble, we understand that God deserves credit.

I remembered this conversation a little while ago, as I was getting into chapter 13: “An Education in Freedom,” of Luigi Giussani’s Religious Sense. I had just written this at the top of page 127: “You need humility for this. Pride won’t let you be open.” I still haven’t finished the chapter, because I wanted to get my thoughts down before I forgot them. Thus far, though, it’s a good chapter, and when you get right down to it, it really is about humility.

First, Giussani tells me that freedom is played out in interpreting the sign. What is the sign? The whole world, also known as reality. He then says that we need an education in freedom to interpret the sign (the world) and find our destiny. Further, according to Giussani, freedom and responsibility are identical. (Talk about a message our society absolutely does not want to hear.) Since “response” is the root of “responsibility,” we are talking about responding to the call. Who’s doing the calling, you ask? You know Who I’m talking about. Even if you don’t want to say His short, one-syllable name, you know Who I’m talking about.

Next, Giussani breaks down for us the components of an education in freedom. They are: education in attention and education in a capacity for acceptance. Remember when, in a previous post, I wrote about the two meanings of preconception: one positive and one negative? In a positive sense, preconception is simply what arises in our minds whenever we encounter something new. It’s basically what we already know and understand, and it can help us interpret the new stuff. For instance, my rather basic education in the French language sometimes helps me decipher Latin words that I come across every now and again.

On the other hand, “preconception” can have a negative connotation, and that can pretty much be summed up by substituting the word “prejudice.” This is a negative because if we think we know it all, we won’t be open to learning anything new. Hmmm … that reminds me of another word. Oh, I know: pride.

Where are we at this point? Well, the world (reality) is a sign that can point us to our destiny, if we let it, but to do that, we need to be educated in freedom/responsibility, which means we need to pay attention to the world around us (the signs) and we need to cultivate a capacity for acceptance, because if we’re not open to learning something new (seeing where the signs are pointing), we’ll never discover our destiny. Oh, and if you think that “discover our destiny” sounds a bit woo-woo, new-agey, substitute, “reach eternal life in heaven with God.”

A slight aside: Giussani writes, “Preconception, no mater what its origin, impedes our attention.” I love that sentence, because it succinctly tells us what we need to jettison to both create and appreciate art, and it tells us why.

Things are getting intense (in the book, not my life), and I don’t know if I’ll finish the chapter today. If I do, I think I’ll want to share what I learn from the rest of it in tomorrow’s post. I’ve really barely made it through the chapter’s first section, and that’s only seven paragraphs long, three of which consist of only one or two brief sentences. Check out how dense the final paragraph of the section is:

An education in attention and acceptance assures the correct fundamental attitude in front of reality—wide open, free, and without presumption, which calls reality up to face our own verdict, an attitude that does not judge reality on the basis of preconception. To summarize, educating one’s freedom to attentiveness, that is, to be wide open toward the totality of factors at play, and educating it to acceptance, that is, to the conscious embrace of what it finds before it is the fundamental issue of the human journey.

“The fundamental issue of the human journey.” Way back in chapter one, Giussani wrote that if we want to get to know something, we have to study it ourselves. Other people’s opinions don’t matter; what we think we know doesn’t matter, “objective” (cough, cough, splutter, splutter) scientific studies don’t matter. We have to throw all that out and get down to it: just you and whatever it is you’re studying. Have you ever done that in your life? No matter what the subject: big or small. If so, what was the result? Whether it was good or bad, I bet you learned something. Want to try it soon? Start simply: pick up a book you know nothing about and start reading it. Skip the summary and author profile on the dust jacket flaps, the review quotes, the preface, introduction, foreword, and “I want to thank” verbiage. It has to be just you and the words on the pages in front of you. Just dive in and see where the current carries you. That’s what Giussani is telling us we need to do with all of reality. Can you even imagine where it might take you?

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