“To be lonely is to feel unwanted and unloved, and therefore unlovable. Loneliness is a taste of death. No wonder some people who are desperately lonely lose themselves in mental illness or violence to forget the inner pain.”
Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, a Christian community where people with a mental handicap live with non-handicapped people, died a few days ago. While he lived most of his life in France he is a Canadian whose father, Georges Vanier, was the Governor General of Canada from 1959 to 1967. He became a champion of the most anguished people on Earth in reaction to his own privileged upbringing: a challenge that all of us should consider in the journey that each of us has in trying become truly human.
He explores this idea brilliantly in his book Becoming Human, based upon his Massey Lecture of 1998. It has become one of my favourite books and I often reread it to remind myself that each of us, if we are honest, are not as human as we could be and need constant reminder and effort to become human in the way Vanier describes. I admire him so much that for a “meet the candidate breakfast” I am having tomorrow with the local Nursing Association in Ottawa I am bringing a copy of his book along to show – as it is the foundation of my politics as a Green Party candidate.
His most significant accomplishment was to establish the unique value of an intellectually disabled life. In the laboratories of human transformation known as L’Arche houses, where residents live on equal footing and status with the assistants who help them, and where everyone sits down to at least one meal a day around a common table – a simple rite that defines the entire project – Mr. Vanier demonstrated that the able-bodied need the fragility of the intellectually disabled as much as, and probably more than, they need us.
“It is not just a question of performing good deeds for those who are excluded,” Mr. Vanier wrote in Becoming Human, his biggest bestseller, based on his 1998 Massey Lectures, “but of being open and vulnerable to them in order to receive the life that they can offer; it is to become their friends. If we start to include the disadvantaged in our lives and enter into heartfelt relationships with them, they will change things in us. … They will then start to affect our human organizations, revealing new ways of being and walking together.” In the long, bleak history of human disability, mankind’s most disenfranchised human beings suddenly had demonstrable value, Mr. Vanier declared. They taught him “to recognize and accept my own weaknesses and vulnerability. I no longer have to pretend I am strong and clever or better than others. I am like everybody else, with my fragility and my gifts.” It made for a less aggressive posture toward the world – a posture that seems even more relevant today.”
Of course, like any great idea or any great life his message to us goes far beyond the care of the mentally handicapped. It extends to our care and acknowledgement of all those who are weaker than us – and that includes all life on Earth. For Vanier makes it clear that the strong need the weak at least as much, if not more, than the weak need the strong, for without the weak the strong become arrogant, miserable and lonely. A good example of such a person is Macbeth ( I choose him because I taught the play in High School and absolutely loved doing so). Here is a person who could have been great, if he had remained loyal to good King Duncan. Instead, egged on by the witches and his wife, he assassinates the good King and all others who stand in his way, in a bloodbath that seals his own doom. Many of us, without the essential ingredient of taking care of somebody else, risk becoming as evil as Macbeth became.
One of our great challenges is that we are all existentially lonely and if we remain alone or self –absorbed we destroy our very humanity. Jean Vanier says this in an interview:
“The reality I see, particularly in rich countries is that there are so many lonely people. In our rich countries, we’ve won many prizes in a sense, many competitions: We have wealth, we have opportunities, the possibility to make choices, but we have lost something—a sense of belonging and a sense of community. People feel lonely. Children feel lonely. They break away from their parents because somehow these have been too authoritarian, too dominating, too absent. And there is the loneliness of the broken family: Everywhere there is the terrible screeching of lonely people. Today there is an immense need for community, for belonging. Of course there can be a “belonging” without any personal becoming. You can see assemblies of human beings in powerful sects where people don’t feel free to be themselves. They have to obey the group and sacrifice their personal consciousness for the security of collective consciousness.”
You can learn about the organization he founded, L’Arche.
and it would be worth your time to hear him on a podcast
or better yet hear his Massey Lecture [top CDN intellectual speech done on CBC radio 1x/year] that was turned into a book called Becoming Human
His book is about the liberation of the human heart. Jean Vanier shares his profoundly human vision for transformation – for creating a common good that radically changes our communities, our relationships, and ourselves. Becoming Human invites us into freedom from the tentacles of chaos and loneliness, and from those fears that provoke us to exclude and reject others. It is a freedom that opens us up and leads us to the discovery of our common humanity amid difference.
“We are not called by God to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love. ”