The Ugly Celibate

In “Existentialism is a Humanism,” Jean-Paul Sartre tells a story of a young man who became a Jesuit priest.  As a young man, the fellow had had a number of bad breaks:  he grew up in poverty; his father died at an early age; he felt like a charity case; and he botched every romantic relationship he ever had.  For all intents and purposes, he was a loser’s loser, a cautionary tale for the rest of us.  Strangely, though, instead of being bitter or depressed, he looked upon all these events as signs that he was meant to live a sacred life, not a secular one – no doubt “for the greater glory of God.”

Sartre asks, why interpret the signs this way?  Other interpretations were possible:  he might dedicate himself to carpentry, or become a revolutionary.  In all of this, it’s clear that the events or signs had no “content” in and of themselves; it was the young man who gave those signs their meaning.

There’s a conundrum tied into this story, something I like to call “the problem of the ugly celibate.”  Imagine that this young Jesuit was born horribly disfigured, without hope of changing his appearance.  Suppose further that it never really dawns on the young man that this horrible disfigurement may be at the root of all his subsequent bad breaks – too ugly for human connection.  And still, with all of this, the young man says yes, I take the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, all for God’s greater glory.

Here’s the problem:  can you say you are living a chaste life if, in fact, there was never any chance that you would ever get laid?  It’s the good-looking celibate (male or female) whose vow of celibacy embraces a real sacrifice – or “such a waste,” as I remember those from either gender comment upon the news that a classmate wanted to enter the religious life.

In conjunction with Sartre’s take on humanity as the source of all meaning, it comes to this:  Is the ugly celibate only deceiving himself?  Or does he in fact affirm humanity’s ability to give meaning, no matter how seemingly illusory, to ordinary, everyday existence?  An aphorism from Nietzsche helps:  “No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”  If an individual is aware of the conditions in which she lives, and still says “yes,” that’s not self-deception – that’s affirmation, of both self and world.

Reframing for Revelation

A friend wanted to know what I thought about the concept of “reframing.”  I asked her what she meant.  She replied that, in trying to come to terms with some of the more painful experiences in her life, her therapist asked her to “reframe” those experiences, to see whether anything positive might be extracted from them.  But she couldn’t shake the feeling that reimagining these experiences in this way felt inauthentic, that the meanings of those experiences were inextricably tied to their original “framework.”

Now I can see why being told to “reframe” an experience seems somewhat false, fake, maybe even dishonest.  But many people may think the opposite – for them, “going with the best truth” or “looking on the bright side” seems false, contrived, even naïve.  “Reframing” may seem false because it lacks content – it only tries to “reassemble” the event or issue.  By contrast, “looking on the bright side” may seem more authentic because it brings out content – albeit in a “predetermined” way.

The difference between “looking on the bright side” and “reframing the issue” concerns whether meaning (content, reality, truth – it goes by a bunch of different [yet similar] names) is a matter of definition (“reframing”) or of intuition (“looking on the bright side”).  If “reframing” seems false compared with “going with the best truth,” then meaning is a matter of intuition; if “reframing” seems more true than “going with the best truth,” then meaning is a matter of definition.

But this isn’t an “either/or” matter – meaning requires both intuition and definition.  A famous line from the history of philosophy captures the idea quite well: “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.”  In other words, if all you have is definition (and no intuition), you don’t really have anything worth having (“empty”), and if all you have is an intuition (and no definition), you have content but without any direction (“blind”).

Long story short:  “reframing” is bogus if it only reshuffles the pieces of the experience puzzle.  But, if reframing reveals some new meaning or content or information ABOUT the experience not previously realized, then the concept will have some practical value.