What is habitus? A concise definition using Bourdieu’s own terminology “is a property of actors (whether individuals, groups or institutions) that comprises a structured and structuring structure” (Maton 2014, 50). In other words, one’s past and present, such as family experience, can be a structured system within which habitus operates in a structuring manner to shape current and future routines or practices (Maton 2014, 50). An exploration of my own familial holiday experience over the years points to the effects of habitus over the holidays as Christian praxis and transformative formation. As a young lad, I would visit my Irish Catholic relatives in St. Louis for Thanksgiving. I remember all the sights and sounds of the Thanksgiving festival, the deep connectedness, a shared sense of gratitude, and the distinct joy and laughter present in Irish culture. Grandpa and Grandma’s McCarthy house was filled with warmth – the warmth of wit and love, a true home. Frequently, I persistently engaged in adventures such as exploring the darkened depths of Grandpa’s workshop in the basement, my imagination running wild with youthful curiosity and a dash of fantasy – although being told to not venture inside the workshop for my own safety. Even having not been exposed to C.S. Lewis yet, there was in some sense a looking for a magic door to a new undiscovered world. What was in the darkness? Little did I know, however, the magic door to the new world, my future, was included in the habitus of those adults who celebrated and served among me.
Grandpa and Grandma always asked how each of us (grandchildren) were doing in school, as well as in extracurricular activities, subsequently bragging on us with wide smiles and gleaming eyes while serving fresh coffee cake to us for breakfast. As the Thanksgiving celebrations continued throughout the day, a prayer of gratitude was given before the meal, our aunts encouraged children and teens to go back for second and third helpings, and we sat down for the traditional viewing of the Cardinals and Cowboys. Cheering and excitement filled the room. Grandpa in particular, was always magnanimous, and to this day probably the “most alive” person I have ever encountered. He lit up the room with his humor, joy, and energy, wisecracking intuitively with the kids. He had a special gift with children. Perhaps you may have encountered someone like Grandpa during your lifetime. Even though I had not personally met what would be the Jesus of my faith later as a child, through these encounters with Grandpa I would come to know that I had experienced the life of Christ lived out in practice. I remember the joy.
As a person who was later diagnosed in my late 20’s with Type I Bipolar Disorder, I found out what was in the darkness as I struggled my entire life knowing the joy of Jesus. I spiraled into depression numerous times and have fallen into manic masquerades dangerously mimicking but not equating well-adjusted joy. As I have reflected on the habitus of my holidays in St. Louis with Grandpa, including my other guardians, I now see Jesus had left me a trail of “breadcrumbs of joy” and celebration in my early years that would function as “structured and structuring structure,” becoming deeply embodied in my human experience such that even my genetic pre-dispositions could not completely sap its nature. Somehow time and time again, joy has gracefully and supernaturally found its way into my life through laughter with my Mother, an adventurous evening out in Miami, or even a book transporting me to a new world. I proudly declare, with my Grandpa and Grandma, by virtue of habitus and grace I am Andrew McCarthy – Bipolar Practical Theologian and Irishman in which Christ inhabits and walks in my darkness.
Wishing you the true joy of the season – and the discovery of the habitus in your holidays
Maton, Karl. (2014). “Habitus.” In Pierre Bourdieu: Key Concepts, edited by Michael Grenfell, 48-64. London and New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.