Potty Training with St. Augustine

By: Wolfgang Vondey
Monday, August 16th, 2010

Okay, if you haven’t figured it out by the title,┬áthis blog post is tongue in cheek. My 2 1/2 year old son is experiencing the delights and disappointments of potty training. He really wants to have a clean diapie and use the potty…but it just does not work out many times. Here is where St. Augustine comes in.

Augustine distinguishes between memory, understanding, and will. These three are not only significant components of his view of the Trinity, they emerge from his own personal struggles, so vividly portrayed in the Confessions. Memory, of course, is what we remember, what we keep stored, of the events of the past. That can include the memory of who we are and how we have lived our lives or just the memory of looking out the window a minute ago. Memory is important for understanding, since all understanding and judgment is based on the collective storage (or memory) of events and facts and previous knowledge. We cannot understand what we do not remember, and consequently we cannot make informed judgments. Those judgments of the understanding (based on our memory) informs the will to do (or not to do) things. So how does this apply to my 2 1/2 year old?

My son certainly exhibits the memory of having used the diaper or the potty with varying degrees of success. His understanding of what he did causes either a delightful shout of “I did it!” or a small voice of disappointment and embarassment acknowledging the negative result. He can elaborately explain his past experiences and recall potty experiences up to the present, he can analyze them to a degree and voice his understanding that he should use the potty and not the diaper. He wants to use the potty. But that is where it ends. He wants to, but his will is not engaged. Augustine put it this way:

“[The mind] does not will it in its entirety: for this reasopn it does not give this command in its entirety. For it commands a thing only in so far as it will it, and in so far as what it commands is not done, to that extent it does not will it….. Therefore, it is not a monstrous thing partly to will a thing and partly not to will it, but it is a sickness in the mind. Although it is supported by truth, it does not wholly rise up, since it is heavily encumbered by habit” (Confessions VIII, 9).

Augustine recognized the dilemma of the mind. His memory revealed to him his own shortcomings; his understanding judged them to be wrong; yet he found himself unable to will the good. To be sure, he desired the good (in my son’s case, the successful use of the potty). He wanted to overcome his shortcomings. But he found himself caught in an inner conflict between wanting to do and not willing to see it through. Augustine, of course, was talking about more weighty matters than my son’s potty. Yet, the dilemma of the two are not so far apart. Something has to happen in us so that we are no longer in two camps, a habit has to be trained that leads toward the good life, where doing what is right is not a burden anymore but a delight. And where what we used to do has become too heavy to continue. Potty training is a training of habits. As Augustine notes, that task is not limited to the mind; it does not even start there. Rather, it is a matter of the heart, a matter of desire, a matter of love. Learning is not a matter of willing but of properly directed desires. As a parent, I have the task to help my son to successfully “learn”┬áthe habit of using the potty. But thinking and knowledge are not the key, are they? Is it not rather a matter of all things surrounding the mind? Of the heart, the body, our feelings, emotions, and environments? Our sensitivities and senses? Our aesthetics and imaginations? If yes, how can we bridge the gap from understanding to willing? The answer Augustine gives, at least in part, speaks to our need to love, or better, to learn to love. In this sense, the way from potty training to a conscious decision of faith may be long, but somehow the connections are not that remote.

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Wolfgang Vondey
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