How telling people what you do for a living affects your personality

The newly republished book by Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Art of Living, includes two beautiful essays by his widow, Alice, on the topics of communion and hope.

The chapter on communion is marvellous and incisive. She begins by discussing the various crises of communion in our contemporary society. There are different types of solitude. Sometimes being alone can be a source of anxiety and other times it can be a relief. The peculiar and unsettling loneliness is that of being alone in a crowd, which Hannah Arendt discussed as the social realm (neither the public nor the private sphere but some collapsed in-between) and which Sherry Turkle discusses in the context of technology in her book Alone Together.

Alice von Hildebrand writes, “Maybe it is not exaggerated to say that the drama of the society in which we live lies in the fact that we put the greatest weight on social contacts, while living in tragic isolation.” She then gives the example of certain cocktail parties where “one feels very strongly that the person ‘delighted to see you’ has not focused upon you for a single moment, has treated you as a number, as an object, as a thing, and in no way an individual person.”

The crisis of true communion with others comes from, among other reasons, “the lack of reverence with which we tend to approach other persons.” Weaving Gabriel Marcel’s distinction between problem and mystery, Hildebrand explores the issue of treating others as problems to be solved rather than as mysteries who are irreducible and inexhaustible.

Alice von Hildebrand adds these insights borne out in her experience:

Another reason, I believe, why communion so often fails to be reached in our society is due to the importance granted to our work, our function in society. My students tell me that, from their early youth on, the whole accent of education is put on the question, What will you do to earn a living? Little is said (if anything at all) about what one will be as a person. Little by little, we accustom ourselves to seeing ourselves as nurse, as secretary, as teacher, and so on, and this vision will color strongly the formation of our personality.


Few are those whose life is based upon this shelteredness in God’s love, and as a result, people fear an encounter with another person who might reject them.”


“It is a very serious perversion to view professional work as the serious part of life, and family life as a relaxation. No, the time we spend with our loved ones is not the time to relax and take it easy, but rather the moment to put on our festal garment, the moment to accomplish a real sursum corda (the elevation of the heart to God).”

What is the effect of identifying ourselves by what we do rather than who we are? In what way does our manner of asking and answering questions condition us and influence our priorities? How is my personality colored by the way I ask and answer questions in social settings?

Alice von Hildebrand’s short essay on communion invites reflection on the obstacles in our lives to greater communion with God and others. Like her husband, she is keen to orient us toward, as Plato puts it, “a vision of another, better life.” She offers positive explanations, not only critiques.

She ends by describing the love that is proper of a more sincere communion, guarded by mystery, willing the good of the other, trusting the person to become who he is meant to be, and waiting patiently in hopeful perseverance:

“Love is so much linked to hope that it will never force another person into becoming what I know he should become, but it will patiently and reverently accept the rhythm of development proper to another person, while trusting all the time that he will come to be what I know he should be.” 


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