But personalism asks, as much as possible, for I-Thou encounters: that you just don’t regard people as a data point, but as emerging out of the full narrative, and that you try, when you can, to get to know their stories, or at least to realize that everybody is in a struggle you know nothing about.
The second responsibility of personalism is self-gifting. Twentieth-century psychologists like Carl Rogers treated people as self-actualizing beings — get in touch with yourself. Descartes tried to separate individual reason from the bonding emotions. Nikolai Berdyaev said that tends to turn people into self-enclosed monads, with no doors or windows.
Personalists believe that people are “open wholes.” They find their perfection in communion with other whole persons. The crucial questions in life are not “what” questions — what do I do? They are “who” questions — who do I follow, who do I serve, who do I love?
The reason for life, Jacques Maritain wrote, is “self-mastery for the purpose of self-giving.” It’s to give yourself as a gift to people and causes you love and to receive such gifts for others. It is through this love that each person brings unity to his or her fragmented personality. Through this love, people touch the full personhood in others and purify the full personhood in themselves.
The third responsibility of personalism is availability: to be open for this kind of giving and friendship. This is a tough one, too; life is busy, and being available for people takes time and intentionality.
Margarita Mooney of Princeton Theological Seminary has written that personalism is a middle way between authoritarian collectivism and radical individualism. The former subsumes the individual within the collective. The latter uses the group to serve the interests of the self.
Personalism demands that we change the way we structure our institutions. A company that treats people as units to simply maximize shareholder return is showing contempt for its own workers. Schools that treat students as brains on a stick are not preparing them to lead whole lives.
The big point is that today’s social fragmentation didn’t spring from shallow roots. It sprang from worldviews that amputated people from their own depths and divided them into simplistic, flattened identities. That has to change. As Charles Péguy said, “The revolution is moral or not at all.”