Who are you dressed up as today?

Since we’ve been talking about theatre, (and had a guest post from an actress) I have all the excuse I need to link to Eve Tushnet’s tribute to John Keegan. She wrote:

Keegan proposes that leadership requires theatricality:

Heroic leadership–any leadership–is, like priesthood, statesmanship, even genius, a matter of externals almost as much as of internalities. The exceptional are both shown to and hidden from the mass of humankind, revealed by artifice, presented by theatre. The theatrical impulse will be strong in the successful politician, teacher, entrepreneur, athlete, or divine, and will be both expected and reinforced by the audiences to which they perform.

This is the opposite of the modern cult of authenticity. “Revealed by artifice” is a concept we can barely even articulate now. The idea that one’s proper relationship to others could involve masking one’s deepest inner self rather than revealing (or, as often happens, projecting) it sounds, to the contemporary-casual ear, dishonest and insincere.

Keegan notes that you can’t wear someone else’s mask. Individuality and self-knowledge are part of the kind of leadership he describes. But the mask often requires putting one’s own preferences and quirks aside for the sake of a group or a goal: becoming changed by the needs of others.

…At any rate, I just wanted to muse a bit on Keegan’s insight here. The mask of command exerts pressure on the leader as well as those he leads; it challenges him and pushes him to go further than he might otherwise. It’s an ideal he strives to live up to. It’s a simplification, a cartoon, but that makes it easier to see from a distance. Leadership, because it must imagine the world as it is not, requires exaggeration of some features and suppression of others. That distortion is the mask.

Virtue ethics is the practice of wearing a mask until it sinks into the skin.  That’s why C.S. Lewis’s description of the moral life as ‘dressing up like Christ’ had a lot of resonance with me, even when I was an atheist.  Christians can draw from the lives of the saints, and I’ve spent plenty of time doing what someone else would do, whether that person was fictional or a friend.  But I have one friend who came up with a really interesting system for doing this.

In college, two friends of mine had ended up with a fat stack of face and name flashcards for members of our debating group (they needed to know everyone’s names before they stood for office).  They didn’t throw out the photos after the election.  Instead, one of them had the idea of picking out a card at random and pinning it up in their common room, and his roommate followed suit.  For the week the photo was up, he thought about some virtue or behavior that was a particular strength of the person on the flashcard, and then tried to cultivate that good in himself for the week.  When the week ended, he’d deal himself a new card.

I really liked this system.  It meant my friends didn’t just retain the names, they had to think more deeply about the people they were interacting with.  It meant they could stumble on a virtue they hadn’t been thinking about, since they were picking at random from a weird group of people.  Not to mention, thinking about particular people they saw day in and day out meant they were thinking about specific behaviors to emulate instead of getting stuck thinking “I should be better” as you might when dressing up like Christ.  And this system helped keep them calm during political storms, since, instead of people only rising to their attention when they caused problems, they were habitually reminding themselves that there was something to cherish about these folks.  (I’ve tried using the “think of a virtue this person has that I should inculcate” trick when I notice I’m particularly teed off at a friend).

In fact, while writing this post, I realize I could stand to take on this practice preemptively, instead of waiting for problems to crop up.  Anyone have a good recommendation for how to sample randomly from your Facebook friends?  Anyone else want to try this out with me?

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    What a good idea. Your friend who sought to find virtue in others and cultivate it by their example is starting from a place of great humility. I love this piece.

  • Alexi

    I love the use of Miles Morales as the picture here, since he’s quite literally dressing up as Spider-Man until he becomes Spider-Man. Of course, a similar idea is at work in the first hundred-or-so issues of the Lee/Ditko Spider-Man, where Peter gradually loses some of his “bitter geek with a chip on his shoulder” mentality by trying to emulate his own heroic Spider-Man persona.

  • http://caritasestveritas.wordpress.com Jessica

    The wide array of saints is one of the things that first appealed to me about Catholicism. They can be so helpful to emulate. Your idea here is inspiring because it’s a practical way to live the abstract notion that all people are created in God’s image and can radiate an aspect of His character.

    I’m not sure how to sample Facebook friends–I guess I’d need to pare my list down to people I know well enough to know their virtues! (Maybe that’s another bonus to this exercise?)

  • Ted Seeber

    I did this for a year when I was 28. Except I changed daily, and used the old pre-Vatican II Roman Calendar, complete with some of the saints whose stories had passed beyond that magic 300 year limit when authentic history recedes into myth.

    What I learned from it, beyond everything else, was the virtue of generosity. Oh, most saints had their own method of being generous, but that’s what people remembered about them most- and the more generous they were, the larger following they had, and the larger following they had, the more likely they were to be recognized as a Saint after death. because they left behind a community of friends.

    Thus, the #1 way to become a Saint- Be Generous to the Point of Insanity. #2- Found an Order. The rest pale in comparison.

  • Andrea

    Thank you, this is a wonderful idea. It’s always so hard when you want to “be better” but don’t know quite where to go from there. I think I will try this with my friends.

  • Ferny

    Let’s be fair to the record Leah: I’m pretty sure the roomate took it in the opposite tack – to mock the person on the wall. Because, you know, I was there when we mocked them together :P

    • Ferny

      Unless we are thinking of a completely different set of people, but I’m pretty sure we are thinking about the same people.

  • McNihil

    Hi Leah,

    Sorry to comment here. My comment is unrelated to this post. I looked around for a way to contact you directly but couldn’t find an email address. Feel free to point me to wherever it can be found in case I overlooked it.

    I would like to find out if and when you are planning to answer JT’s preliminary questions – http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd/2012/06/25/leah-said-yes/ – concerning your conversion. According to his post, you agreed to do that 2 weeks from the time he asked them. That would have been about 5 weeks ago.

    I am sure you are busy but I can also see that you had time to post plenty of blog posts since then and personally, I can’t quite wrap my head around how you prioritize your blog posts. Don’t you think it would be more (if not most) interesting for your readers – believers and non-believers alike – to learn about you purportedly rational, evidential, intellectually defensible reasons why you converted to Catholicism before jumping into writing about other things that you now approach from a catholic perspective?

    I – and I know of others in the atheist community who agree – try to give you the benefit of the doubt and take your word for it that you had good, evidential and rational reasons for your conversion. Ater all, many theist drones were heard chanting that lo and behold, there are rational reasons for believing in the Christian god (even if they themselves can’t come up with any) because a smart, rational atheist blogger changed her mind and converted. However, so much time has passed since your promise to reply to JT’s questions that that benefit is waning and some people – including me – are starting to speculate that you didn’t actually have rational reasons and that you are not able to answer those questions meaningfully. For those atheists that paid attention to your conversion, that will certainly be the takeaway of it if no answers are forthcoming.

    • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

      I too would very much like to see Leah’s responses to those questions.

  • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

    Ater all, many theist drones were heard chanting that lo and behold, there are rational reasons for believing in the Christian god (even if they themselves can’t come up with any) because a smart, rational atheist blogger changed her mind and converted.

    [citation needed]

    • McNihil

      [citations provided]

      http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd/2012/06/26/theyre-coming-and-theyre-aggravating/

      http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd/2012/06/29/brenda-chimes-in-next/

      http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd/2012/06/29/next-guy-who-advances-a-position-without-a-reason-lero/

      http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd/2012/07/02/its-true-oh-good-to-know/

      http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd/2012/07/12/elizabeth-scalia-gets-everything-wrong-on-libresco-and-catholicism/

      I could provide a myriad of links to posts on reddit from around that time (i.e. 2 months ago or so) but I don’t feel like going on a wild goose chase to find inane, baseless, intellectually embarrassing comments on the matter from said drones. 5 posts from the blog that initially posed the questions should suffice to paint an adequate picture of the kind of people and their intellectual integrity that jumped to Leah’s defense at the time.

      • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

        Um, no.

        You claimed many of us theist drones were making the argument (Leah converts)=>(there must be good reasons for theism even if we don’t know them ourselves). What you provided is links to JT Eberhard getting agitated about theist comments related to Leah’s conversion that he found dumb.
        #1 is about someone arguing for theism. He might have found JT via Leah, but the arguments he’s making don’t mention her at all.
        #2 says atheists critical of Leah’s conversion aren’t well informed enough. Close, but no cigar. It doesn’t say Leah must have arguments we don’t understand, it says she understands arguments the atheists critical of her don’t understand. (And there’s nothing about that commeter not being able to come up with those arguments herself.)
        #3 says an intelligent atheist converting to Catholicism isn’t surprising, because many intelligent people have been atheists. This one is actually lame, but still not the specific lame argument you were claiming.
        #4 says many other people enter the Church for rational reasons and that Catholicism is true in spite of many people leaving. This is actually a rejection of the “convert flow proves truth” argument.
        #5 is the Anchoress not being worried about Leah’s remaining difficulties with Catholicism because she’s smart and will figure out the truth. Note how the direction of inference is (it’s true)=>(she’ll figure it out) and not the reverse direction you suggested many theist drones were making.

        You may think those are “inane, baseless, intellectually embarrassing comments” and for some of them I’d agree (though compared to JT’s replies they are all positively brilliant) but that’s simply switching targets. You claimed a specific dumb argument to have been made by lots of people and your links clearly aren’t proving that.

        • leahlibresco

          I think McNihil and JT’s claim is (correct me if I’m wrong) that people said I was reasonable but didn’t point to the reasons, not that they claimed my general reasonability was evidence for Christianity.

          To flip the example: if it turned out that, tomorrow, a prominent pastor became an atheist, atheists shouldn’t take his flip as strong evidence for their position and they should probably hold off on feting him until they know why he switched. People can come to the right answer for the wrong reason, and, although there’s some good in that, it’s important to ask them to show their work and fix their epistemology.

          • McNihil

            @ Leah:
            You are almost correct with regards to what JT and I claim (well, I can’t speak for JT but this is what I think he claims). Let me try to clarify by differentiating 2 possible groups:

            1) Theists believe that your conversion is evidence that Christianity is true by virtue of you being a reasonable person.

            2) Theists believe that there are good reasons to accept Christianity and that you applied those resons and that’s what you led to Christianity. However, they may not actually know those reasons – both your personal reasons and general reasons – themselves.

            I think both those groups exist. The group I was specifically referring to in my original comment is group 2 and I think the subsequent links I provided are examples of members of that group. Their motivation to pester JT was clearly your conversion (some mention it explicitly, some imply it) and within each of their comments they claim that there are good reasons for your conversion specifically and/or conversion to theism/Catholicism in general. However, they all fail to actually give any good reasons, let alone your personal reasons.

            From the first link: “I’m a theist but my interest is more in the mechanics of the reasoning that takes people to one position or another.”

            From the second link: “For those who are critical of Leah and her conversion, educate yourselves first about the Catholic Church and open your hearts to God, He is infinitely patient and waits with open arms.”

            From the third link: “the existence of God is pretty logical”.

            From the fourth link: “Every year tens of thousands of people enter the Church of their own accord after studying history and theology and applying reason to their findings.”

            From the fifth link: ” Catholic teaching has been thoroughly reasoned and laboriously fleshed-out; there is actual thinking, full of nuance and complexity, at its core — where Faith and Reason share a kinship, within which the natural and supernatural wave back and forth, like wind-stirred wheat in a field; it’s a dance of organic wholeness.”

            Group 1 definitely also exists and many of its members could be seen embarrassing themselves on reddit at around the time of your conversion. Forgive me if I don’t go back digging through reddit to provide citations for this. You can take my word for it or leave it.

            With regards to how atheists should view pastors who deconvert to atheism, in my opinion you are spot on.

            @ Gilbert:
            I do appreciate your inquisitiveness and demand for citations backing up my claims. I think I have satisfied that demand with regards to my original claim which you may have misunderstood and which I have clarified above.

            Now, even though your demand for citations is appreciated, it distracts from the original request. This isn’t about theists defending Leah’s conversion and their own reasons and reasoning for being theists, lame or otherwise. This is why I won’t go further into any of those arguments. Suffice it to say that I heartily disagree with your assessment of those arguments being “positively brilliant” compared to JT’s replies. This is about nothing else but Leah’s initial agreement to answer JT’s questions and holding her to that agreement (or at least getting an update from her as to when those answers might be forthcoming and why it’s taking so long). I merely mentioned those other theists that chimed in to show that Leah’s conversion was and is important to people of both communities and that it caused a flareup between the two and that it’s therefore important to the two communities that Leah actually explains her reasons.

          • Ted Seeber

            I’ll speak for myself. Leah’s conversion has NOTHING to do with Catholicism being true. Catholicism is true. If Leah converts it is because she is convinced of that truth, personally. If she doesn’t convert, it’s because she wasn’t convinced of that truth.

            Her conversion isn’t a done deal even if she completes RCIA and is baptized next Easter, MY conversion as a cradle Catholic isn’t complete until I’m partying in the Church Triumphant.

    • deiseach

      Speaking as a theist drone of the even more virulent and pestilential Papist sub-species, and as someone who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, I can vouch for the fact that I find chanting infinitely easier than trying to sing hymns in church (or outside of it, for that matter), or indeed singing in general.

      “Tantum Ergo” I can maange, without frightening the horses, whereas attempting to sing the “Our Father” in an ordinary version you’d hear anywhere made a woman in the next pew turn around to look at me.

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  • Joe

    Sounds like a cool idea. I guess if you just check your home page every morning and who ever has the most recent post could be the one you emulate . Is that random enough?

    • leahlibresco

      Very not random. I’ll see the people facebook already knows I’m most closely connected with.

      • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

        The facebook “Download your information” feature is useless for most other purposes, but it does give you a list of your friends’s names. You could open that in Excel and then select a random line.

        But if you friend lots of new people in the average sampling period that might be too labor-intensive.

        The luxury variant would be writing a facebook app that does it for you.

  • Rachel

    Interesting question.
    The people that I have been emulating to some extent lately have been monastics and solitaries. Some of my reading material of late has been the Philokalia, a 4-volume (in english) collection of egyptian and greek writers whose writings have had an enormous influence on greek and russian orthodoxy. I have been trying to put into practice some of their ideas on how to live a good and beautiful life.

  • jscalvano

    For randomly selecting from your Facebook friends I would suggest a random walk. If you can manage to get your friends list into graph form that is. I don’t know what your coding proficiency is but I feel like you could manage it or know someone who could. Simpler perhaps is to assign numbers to all of your friends and use a random number generator and then mod the resulting number by total friends. And I often find what you are describing in trying to imitate the virtues of your friends as an excellent exercise when I am reflecting on my humility, or lack thereof.

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