This is my summary of the book The Meaning of Persons by Dr Paul Tournier. I have centered my notes specifically on the following question: “What does it mean to be human?” From Dr Tournier’s terms – he defines the human both as the personage (who we are outwardly) and the person (who we really are). The book attempts to help us become more human by becoming the real persons we are; to fully integrate the person with the personage.
Personage could be defined as the persona we wish to project; the facade we build around the person within. This creates an inner tension within when we or others exhibit a discord between the persona which a person projects and the inward reality of their lives. Dr Tournier says in Chapter 3
It is not the mask, the personage in itself, but its artificial and deceptive character, which gives us the uneasy feeling…It happens as soon as we perceive a discord between the person and the personage. It is not, then, a case of casting off the personage, but of bringing it into harmony with the person. It is a case of being in accord with oneself.
It is my hope that these notes will help all of us bring our persons and our personage into harmony. All indented paragraphs are direct quotes from the book. The rest is my commentary.
Chapter 1 Who am I?
To begin the process of discovering who we really are, we have to rely on our memories. But we must be careful because:
When we evoke our memories, we can never be quite sure that we have banished all illusion from them, however sincere we are. What we call to mind is not the facts themselves but their appearance, the way in which we saw and felt them.
But we need not despair because as we spend time and sift through the memories when compared to what actually happened (facts), we can learn a great deal about who we are from the way we distort them.
If our memories deceive us, … the distortion that they have undergone is by no means accidental; it tells us as much about ourselves as do the facts themselves.
… what matters in this search for the person is not so much historical facts as the way in which we see and feel them.
He also warns us that
… there could be no discovery of the person without this desire for complete honesty.
Dr Tournier warns us that this is not easy.
I … can speak endlessly of myself, to myself or to someone else, without ever succeeding in giving a complete and truthful picture of myself. There remains in every man, even for myself, something of impenetrable mystery.
Though not easy, digging deep to learn “the meaning of persons” is rewarding:
… it is far more interesting to understand one man thoroughly than to examine a hundred superficially.
He encourages us to continue to process our reactions to new events.
Who knows whether tomorrow my reactions to some new event will not reveal an aspect of my person more important than any I have so far discovered.
We cannot expect perfection in this process since
I have become increasingly aware that the person, pure and unvarnished, will always escape us.
I can never grasp the true reality, of myself, or of anybody else, but only an image; a fragmentary and deformed image, an appearance; the ‘personage.’
This process of discovering the true meaning of who I am can help me see why it is so hard to have honest and pure relationships with each other:
[My] absorbing search for the [meaning] of person[s] … has made me see how superficial and false are the judgments that people are constantly making about each other. I do not refer only to moral judgments, but to psychological and philosophical judgments as well.
He goes on to talk about the importance of the context in which our person is formed:
… it is impossible to understand a Frenchman, a Finn, a Greek, or an American without putting him in the context of the scenery of his life, the history of his people, the background of his family, his job, his festivals and his customs.
As he unfolds a bit about the process of discovering who we really are, he talks about two paths. We need information to understand the personage (the outer person) but that can lead us to touch the reality of the person:
What happened [that caused my trembling] at that moment was that I passed from information to communion. Information is intellectual, whereas communion is spiritual; but information was the path that led to communion. Information speaks of personages. Communion touches the person. Through information I can understand a case; only through communion shall I be able to understand a person.
He closes the chapter by talking about our need to be understood. We long to be understood as both personages and persons:
Men expect of us that we should understand them as cases; but they also want to be understood as persons.
We live our lives in the world revealing our personage (the way we appear) but rarely expose the true person. Who I am can be revealed through memories – but not just the bare facts – but the way we remember them and feel about them. Discovering our true self requires diligence and honesty – recognizing that we will never fully know the true self in this life. But the process is rewarding – not just in understanding ourselves but in truly understanding others.
Chapter 2 This Impersonal World
In this chapter, he highlights the challenges we face in discovering who we really are in this impersonal world. From chapter 1, he said that real honesty was required if we were to discover this. But …
Outside close intimacy and the miracle of the presence of God, real honesty seems to me to be utopian.
Part of that is because we want to project a false image of ourselves:
“We strive continually,” wrote Pascal, “to adorn and preserve our imaginary self, neglecting the true one.”
Marriage is of course a wonderful environment where the two can truly be honest and the true person revealed. But
Dr Theodore Bovet remarked that the worst enemy of marriage was plain boredom. It is true that boredom inevitably creeps in when the subtle fluidity of the person insensibly coagulates in a personage.
This phrase “subtle fluidity of the person” also characterizes the problem. When we don’t press into the subtleness of who we really are, we fall back to relating to who the person is in their outward appearances (personage). Later in Chapter 3 he says:
Even between husband and wife it requires a miracle to establish and still more, to maintain complete frankness. The fear of being misunderstood, of being criticized, judged, even despised, keeps back certain confessions and confidences. The reactions of the one soon lead the other to humor him in certain matters, to adopt a behavior that will avoid difficulties.
Marriage ought to mean that each of the partners helps the other to attain fullness of development.
Later, in Chapter 4, Dr Tournier expands on the role that community plays in discovering the person:
The notion of the person is bound up with the human community, a spiritual solidarity, a common patrimony…
Another pressure on us that prevents us from disclosing to ourselves and others our true self is expressed in this way:
I am sure my readers understand the subtle temptation which always assails me: that of trying to be the personage I am expected to be.
The expectations of others play a vital role in recognizing who we are and prevents us from disclosing to ourselves and others our true self:
Another factor that mitigates against our ability to discover who we really are is the emphasis on scientific discovery and our drift towards scientism because:
Science knows nothing of the person.
Finally, this impersonal world carpet bombs us with distractions that keep us from both discovering and disclosing our true person.
Most of our contemporaries … have no one with whom to share their secret burdens. Everyone is in a hurry, caught up in the superficiality of a mechanized society.
Real honesty is required if we are to truly know ourselves and others. But real honesty requires real hard work in a world that majors on the impersonal. The communities in which we live (including our marriages) can help or hurt our ability to know ourselves. Scientism and unrelenting distractions also hinder this discovery process.
Chapter 3 This Contradictory Being
If the impersonal world is not enough to derail our efforts of discovering our true self – our true person, there is the fact that we are conflicted inside. We are contradictory beings.
We are all seething with contradictions; it is only with difficulty that we admit the fact to ourselves, and we take great care to hide it from others.
We do not have to explore the unconscious to find these contradictions, they are obvious whenever a man speaks to us frankly about himself.
In spite of these internal contradictions, we long for others to know the real me. But …
What [many people feel] is that people habitually misjudge him. [ie people don’t know him / he doesn’t feel known.]
In this chapter, Dr Tournier also addresses three things that shapes us:
Labels given by others The power of suggestion exercised by the labels we are given is considerable.
Habits we form – The power of habit of which Pascal said that it is a second nature, and which we can see becoming part of our person.
External roles we play Our personage [the outward expression of who we are] moulds our person [our inner man]. The external role we play transforms us constantly, exerting its influence even on the deepest and intimate recesses of the person. Of course the habit does not make the monk – the proverb is an indication of the subtlety of the problem – putting on a dress will not turn us into a saint.
Part of the internal contradictions that shape us are:
We must recognize the profound uncertainty which surround the motives of our behavior. Our motives are often quite different from what they seem.
In part, the reason we are filled with internal contradictions is that:
We are controlled by feeling, not by logic, though we fondly imagine that we are being guided by our reason.
Discovering our true self is difficult because of our own internal inconsistencies.
Chapter 4 Utopia
In Chapter 4, Dr Tournier explores the ideal. He begins by addressing wrong paths towards that ideal. Introspection is not the path towards coming to understand the person.
Introspection does not throw any sure light on oneself. … Moreover, introspection actually alters the person. Self-examination is an exhausting undertaking. The mind becomes so engrossed in it that it loses its normal capacity for relationship with the world and with God. … Self-contemplation would never have led Amos to discover his person. He reveals it as he answers God’s call.
The dangers of introspection are highlighted in this quote from Saint Francis de Sales:
It is not possible that the Spirit of God should dwell in a mind that wishes to know too much of what is happening within itself. … You are afraid of being afraid, then you are afraid of being afraid of being afraid. Some vexation vexes you and then you are vexed at being vexed by that vexation. In the same way I have often seen people who, having lost their tempers, are afterward angry at having been angry. All this is like the circles made when a stone is cast into the water – first a little circle forms, and that in its turn makes a bigger one, and that one makes yet another.
Dr Tournier continues:
Man remains a mystery to himself, and to attempt to elucidate that mystery by delving into one’s mind is merely to increase its perplexing obscurity.
We are then pursuing a chimera in attempting to grasp the essence of our person [through introspection].
I do not say that this delving into ourselves is entirely valueless; it opens up a rich field for discovery; the trouble is that it is too rich.
Dr Tournier asks “Where does our person / the real self come from?”
Are we then to conclude that our most superficial, most accidental and artificial characteristics are the most personal thing about us? We intuitively rebel against such an idea. And yet practical observation seems constantly to give the lie to that intuition.
If we think we can discover the true self through introspection we are fooling ourselves.
Chapter 5 The Example of Biology
In chapter 5, Dr Tournier explores some of the biological aspects of the person all the while recognizing that:
[science] is concerned not with things themselves, but with the relationships between things; not reality itself but an image of reality, which is in part conventional.
‘Science saw that it could explain many things about life, but that it could not understand life itself.” Siebeck
Although we are strongly influenced by our biology, we cannot understand who we are from biology alone.
Chapter 6 Psychology and Spirit
In this chapter, Dr Tournier explores the role of psychology in understanding the spirit of a person / the essence and the reality of a person. Dr Tournier was one of the first holistic physicians. He was convinced that living a life where the persona does not line up with the person would cause serious health issues.
Dr Huebschmann has undertaken the psychological analysis of a large number of tuberculosis patients, and has shown that the evolutive phases of the disease regularly coincide with period during which the mind is troubled by serious inner conflicts, particularly moral conflicts. [Tournier believed that spiritual problems can also be the source of physical ailments]. He then goes on to describe a person with TB who came to him and was set free from a number of moral dilemmas and was subsequently set free of TB.
Here he describes a path towards frankness/honesty/sincerity with respect to our persons.
We saw earlier that complete sincerity is an unattainable ideal. But what is attainable is the periodic movement of sincerity, the moment, in fact, when we confess that we are not as we have sought to appear; and it is at those moments that we find contact with God once more.
The way of the Christian faith, leads man to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, to a trusting abandonment of himself to him. That is why prayer, and especially common prayer in the community of faith which constitutes the Church can often have psychological effects very similar to those of a medical cure.
Our psychological makeup plays a vital role in the real person. The way we think about ourselves and others can have a profound effect on our health.
Part III The Person
Chapter 7 The Dialogue
In this chapter, Dr Tournier begins to chart a path towards the integration of the personage and the person / between the persona and the real person. And true dialogue with God and with others is that path.
He talks about how important it is to let children keep secrets from parents. Keeping secrets is essential to becoming a person.
… the first essential feature of the person: the free disposition of oneself.
He becomes a person through his contact with the ‘thou’ – through dialogue.
And in dialogue, there comes the need for the person to take responsibility.
… the second fundamental characteristic of the person: responsibility.
True personal relationship, of the sort that makes the person, involves both choice and risk; it lays one open to a reply, and to the necessity of replying in turn; it is a dialogue.
[when a patient truly connects with his doctor] it is more than a mark of infantile affection; it is an act of adulthood, of self-determination, a personal commitment in a dialogue between persons.
Truly knowing oneself comes through dialogue with others.
Sartre writes: ‘ I cannot know myself except through the intermediary of another person’
One thing that strikes me when I am talking with my parents is that the moment deep personal contact is made, the very style of our talk changes. Images spring spontaneously to the mind, we begin to talk in parables, and we understand one another better than when the tone of our conversation was intellectual and didactic.
This change of tone [leaving convention aside and really sharing] marks the beginning of a true dialogue, for then the personage effaces itself, and allows the person to appear.
The true dialogue is not that first easy communion, wonderful though it be – the impression one has of sharing the same feelings, saying the same things and thinking the same thoughts. The true dialogue is inevitably the confrontation of two personalities, differing in their past, their upbringings, their view of life, their prejudices, their idiosyncrasies and failings – and in any case with two distinct psychologies, a man’s and a woman’s.
Dialogue – true interchange between two persons (including with God) is the path towards discovery of the true person and provides one of the key steps towards integrating the person and the personage/persona.
Chapter 8 The Obstacle
In this chapter, Dr Tournier explores the obstacles to true dialogue with God and with others. Overcoming these obstacles can lead to integrating who we are outwardly with who we are inwardly. Here are some of the obstacles that he explores:
Fear of Reality “So we are all afraid of reality; we pretend to want to know ourselves, and we are afraid of knowing ourselves.” For example, some of us are afraid to ask a question because we are afraid of the answer. “Doctor, how long do I have to live?”
Lack of Curiosity “Many a husband imagines that he knows his wife, and as a result loses the loving curiosity he had while they were still only engaged to be married.”
Men who want to fix everything “Men are at bottom terribly conscious of their impotence when faced with great sorrows; and they do not like to be made to feel it. … For great misfortunes raise many questions to which one does not know what answer to give.” A friend has suffered the loss of their child and we know that we cannot fix it so we don’t enter into dialogue or even (and more importantly) just go and sit there with them.”
Fear of not knowing what to say The fear of not knowing what to say makes us talk of something else, divert the conversation on to subjects that are not so uncomfortable to discuss.
Painful memories “[Dialogue] may involve the calling back to mind of memories so painful that one has never been able to speak of them to anyone. For this reason they are doubly toxic: firstly on account of the ineffaceable wound they have caused; but also on account of their secrecy. There are secrets which can weigh on the heart to the point of crushing it. To tell them is to relive them, to experience all over again the intolerable emotion which has become attached to them and which their secrecy is an attempt to hold at arm’s length.”
Fear of our emotions “Many people avoid person subjects through fear of the emotions they may arouse, for fear of weeping, of having their hearts touched and their sensitiveness revealed. They are afraid that such demonstrations might be taken for signs of weakness.”
Fear of exposing our faults and our shortcomings “It is precisely when they have the highest ideals, when they are most cultured, educated, and refined, that men are most ashamed of their secret behavior in certain circumstances and that they do everything to hide it.”
Work “Work, too, can be used as a defensive shield. There are men who bring work home every evening so as to have an excuse for not entering into any serious conversation with their wives or children.”
Small talk “The small talk of everyday life can be a genuine road toward contact, a way of getting to know somebody, a prelude to more profound exchanges, a simple and natural approach. but, let us admit it, it is also often used as a means of avoiding person contact.”
One path towards wholeness in dialogue is the role of confession. Dr. Tournier believes that we need to restore real confession into the life of the church.
Pastor Thurian has recently recalled with what clear insistence the reformers enjoined the regular practice of confession. With great discernment he shows the importance of restoring it in the Protestant Churches.
There are many obstacles to obtaining true dialogue with God and with others. Attempting to overcome these obstacles by shear will-power is futile. Confession can be a tool that God uses to help us overcome these obstacles.
Chapter 9 The Living God
Dr Tournier opens this chapter with a summary statement:
We have seen that man runs away from the dialogue for fear of discovering and revealing his person as it really is. But we have also seen that he seeks the dialogue, and awakens to personal life when he overcomes his resistance and finds true contact with others.
But then Dr. Tournier wants us to understand that we cannot have real dialogue with our friends and neighbors unless we are also cultivating dialogue with God:
… neither is there any real human dialogue unless it is, so to speak, doubled by an inner dialogue with God.
But how are we to begin this real human dialogue that includes dialogue with God? By faith …
Faith consists only in recognizing who it is who speaks.
And then with faith, we bring an openness about one’s feelings
Do not let it be imagined that one must remain silent about one’s feelings of rebellion in order to enter into dialogue with God. Quite the opposite is the truth: it is precisely when one expresses them that a dialogue of truth begins.
He describes his and his wife’s own transformation when they entered into this true dialogue with each other and with God. They heard God:
… calling us from ecclesiastical activity to a spiritual ministry.
He saw that:
We were so engrossed in his service that we had scarcely any time to listen to him.
We have been taught to listen to him, at length, passionately and concretely. For us this dialogue has become interwoven with our dialogue together as man and wife, imparting to it its value and its richness. From reply to reply, in spite of all our misunderstanding, all our neglect, all our running away, all our stubborn silence, it has taken us further than we ever imagined possible.
Seeking God’s purpose means whole-heartedly accepting each circumstance that arises, facing all the problems it raises, and listening to what God is saying through it.
At the creative moment of dialogue with God or with another person, I in fact experience a double certainty: that of ‘discovering’ myself, and also that of ‘changing.’
We cannot manufacture [dialogue with God]; all we can do is to prepare the way and the climate for it.
Dr Tournier and his wife were radically changed as they learned to dialogue with God and with each other.
Chapter 10 The World of Things and the World of Persons
In Chapter 10, Dr Tournier address the role that things and persons plays in helping us become persons:
By becoming oneself, a person, one discovers other persons round about, and one seeks to establish a personal bond with them.
To become a person, to discover the world of persons, to acquire the sense of a person, to be more interested in people as persons than in their ideas, their party labels, their personage, means a complete revolution, changing the climate of our lives.
Things however become obstacles preventing us from becoming real persons
…specialization within the narrowest limits is the order of the day. This has not been without its effect on our minds. They are becoming incapable of perceiving what is not objective. In this depersonalized state of mind man himself becomes a thing.
Dr Tournier casts a vision for meaning and purpose in work when it is not approached as a thing
… the meaning that work can have when it is no longer a thing but the activity of a community of persons.
In the world of persons, all one’s professional relationships take on a new character. They become shot through with joy that was absent when they were merely fulfilling of a function. Everything becomes an occasion for personal contact, a chance to understand others and the personal factors which underlie their behavior, their reactions and opinions. It is much more interesting, as well as important to understand why someone has a certain failing, than to be irritated by it; to understand why he maintains a certain point of view than to combat it; to listen to confidences than to judge by appearances.
The atmosphere of office, workshop or laboratory is rapidly transformed when personal fellowship is established between those who previously criticized or ignored each other.
All systematic criticism of a person or a group of persons is an indication either of jealousy or of some other personal complex.
Given the “efficiency” of the on-line University, one can only wonder which university of the future will survive:
In a recent lecture Profess F. Gonseth …spoke of the ‘law of dialogue’ which he believes must govern the university of the future. By this phrase he means personal contact between teacher and student, so that the person is committed in the intellectual dialectic.
As with Chapter 7, Dr Tournier lays out the road to becoming a person:
For me as a doctor to become a person, to attain completeness as a human being, the road is … the road of personal dialogue with God and with my fellows.
And our dialogue with God is critical if others are to open a window to their true humanity / their true person.
The more a person opens his heart to me, the more important is it that he should find in me a man in close contact with God.
How do we move forward? Dr Tournier is beginning to summarize:
We must boldly undertake the formation of a personage for ourselves seeking to form it in accordance with our sincerest convictions, so that it will express and show forth the person we are.
This will no longer be a cold intellectual analysis; it will be a movement of life, a daily fashioning, a becoming, a constant adjustment of our personage in order to render it more in conformity with our thoughts, feelings and aspirations. It is an act of will, a conscious choice of an external appearance, of a line of conduct and behavior that will be as genuine as possible.
But in this world, full concord between personage [the outward appearance] and person [the real you] remains a Utopian ideal. Further, by an odd paradox, we approach it only in so far as we become day by day more aware of their constant discord. So we might also say that progress in our knowledge of ourselves is progress from uneasiness to uneasiness. It is this gradual feeling our way along a road of discovery, rather than a full and complete knowledge of ourselves, which bears living fruit. The final reality of the person – always in motion, complex, mysterious, and incomprehensible – still eludes us.
We saw earlier that complete sincerity is an unattainable ideal. But what is attainable is the periodic movement of sincerity, the movement, in fact, when we confess that we are not as we have sought to appear; and it is at those moments that we find contact with God once more.
Now it is precisely because we feel the impossibility of following this call that we recognize our need of God and his grace, of Jesus Christ and his atonement. If we thought we did not need God, should we still have a spiritual life?
Thus many people are in fact, even without being exactly aware of it, in dialogue with God; and that not only at the culminating point of confession, which we have chosen in order to see more clearly what is happening; but every time that their scale of values is called in question in the inner struggle, every time a man makes a reference to a standard of beauty, goodness and truth.
I know that it is in fact God who puts these questions [any questions we ask] to him, that it is God who is speaking to him, even though he may not realize it.
The important thing about these moments of communion with God is not that they happen but rarely, like flashes of lightning in the night, but that with all their solemn richness they do happen, and that they mean more for our whole life and person than years of automatic existence.
It is above all through the Bible, the book of the word revealed and incarnate, that God speaks, and personal contact with him is established. And when it is established, Bible reading is no longer an irksome effort to solve an enigma as to absorb general precepts. It becomes a personal dialogue in which the least word touches us personally.
For it is before God, who knows us and loves and forgives us, that we dare to see ourselves as we are.
He does not speak in the same way to all. Nothing is more futile in this respect than to compare oneself with other people, to imagine that God is nearer to those whose notebooks are the first to be filled with beautiful thoughts. There again, psychology can help us to get things clearer; those whose up-bringing has taught them to be always doubting themselves doubt also whether they are hearing God, and their doubt makes them deaf.
“Apart from Jesus Christ we know not what our life is, nor our death, nor God, nor ourselves. Thus, without the Scriptures, whose only object is Jesus Christ, we know nothing, and can see but obscurity and confusion in the nature of God and in our own nature.” Pascal
All aspects of our lives (including work) can be transformed as we travel on this path of discovering who we really are through learning to dialogue with God and with others. All of this happens by God’s grace.
Chapter 11 To Live is to Choose
Dr Tournier is providing his summary ideas:
Dialogue with God gave my life an axis. So far from impoverishing it, it has made it more fertile, more interesting, more adventurous.
In each of the personal dialogues of which the Bible is full, the Word of God speaks to a man, making him a person, a responsible being who must answer.
External protection, therefore, must be replaced by the internal protection of their own judgment, their own personal choice.
Engaging in the dialogue, in the sense in which we understand it here, does not mean plunging into religious or philosophical theories about life, man, or God. The people who have helped me the most are not those who have answered my confessions with advice, exhortation, or doctrine, but rather those who have listened to me in silence, and then told me of their own personal life, their own difficulties, and experiences. It is this give and take that makes the dialogue.
Professor Robert Moon one of the Nuclear Physicists who helped create the atomic bomb, declared … that this mortal danger would only be removed if we began to listen to what God was saying to us: “In our time, the Holy Spirit must take first place, and the intellect must come second.
It is characteristic of Christianity that choice is made not of principles but of a person, of the living God, of Christ.
This discovery process begins by making a choice to put the Holy Spirit and God’s word first and our intellect second. The process continues as we ask God and look to him to take us on this journey.
Chapter 12 New Life
What conclusions are we to draw from our study of the person?
We assert ourselves as persons in the moment of choice freely and responsibly made; then life wells up in us. Thereafter it sinks gradually back into automatisms it has created and which become our prison. The personage hides the person until it breaks forth once more in a new self-commitment.
True liberty flows, then, from our being freed from automatism.
We do not realize how terrible psychological determinism can be. It wears down the will as concrete wears away the fingernails.
[Illustrating a wife whose husband had been unfaithful and was set free from her terrible rages against him upon conversion only to find her husband again unfaithful and the rage returning. She began to doubt her faith] St. Thomas Aquinas … said that grace does not suppress nature.
Dr Tournier claims that the easy disappearance of certain reactions after conversion is not transformation but blocking; not liberation … [but] repressing; not quick liquidation but gradual transformation. He acknowledges that sometimes the Spirit does liquidate the reactions early on but we must accept the more normal gradual liquidation for most of our harmful reactions.
We are always finding old reactions reappearing in us when we thought we had been freed from them. Living in grace is not the same as living in cotton-wool. He who has tasted grace can no longer be content with compromises, escapism, or psychological compensations. He is constrained to confront all of his problems courageously, and faithfully to do battle with them.
To be truly personal is to acquire liberty of conduct, to be, to some extent at least, able to govern oneself instead of being governed by automatism.
… self-renunciation … means… refusing to invent for oneself a conventional personage but instead handing over the direction of one’s life into God’s hands so that he may awaken our person in accordance with his purpose in dialogue with him.
Our dialogue with God is always spasmodic and veiled. But however difficult and incomplete the search for God’s guidance, it is nevertheless that which creates the person, that which is the source from which new life and liberty spring.
To depend on God is to be free of men, things and self.
Chapter and Book Summary
To discover who we really are and who those around us really are, is hard work. Learning to dialogue with God and with others, though spasmodic and often obscure is the vehicle of discovery. God desires to awaken the real you and me through true communion with Him.