“He names weakness as a gift and an opportunity; a force that draws people closer and calls out the best in them.”

Accepting our vulnerability

By Pamela Cushing
 

In a world obsessed with mastery and control, Jean Vanier demonstrates the deep value of imperfection. He helps us to see that often all of our striving for mastery and control are as much about wanting to hide our fear of their opposite – that we might be as imperfect and fallible as everyone else.

Jean Vanier argues that if we can accept that imperfection is intrinsic to being human, we will be liberated of the weighty burden of always trying to measure up to what someone defines as good or normal. Instead of our effort going to hide our imperfection, we can invest in thinking about how we might encourage greater humility around appreciating each other’s imperfections as an important part of the diverse human ecosystem, while never abandoning the effort to grow and change to serve others better. Together with many people with and without impairment, these ideals have come to life in L’Arche and Faith & Light communities around the world.

He names weakness as a gift and an opportunity; a force that draws people closer and calls out the best in them. We must therefore learn to live with imperfection in us and in others, and not be overcome with anguish or shame for it.

Between caring for others and caring about them

Jean Vanier has spent most of his life living and working in solidarity with people who live with intellectual and developmental impairments in and outside of the L’Arche and Faith & Light communities that he founded. If he has learned one thing in this time, it is that very little lasting personal or social change can result unless the two people in a caring relationship can establish a basis for commonality and mutuality. In today’s modern medical system, we often accomplish the “caring for others” with such procedural efficiency that we neglect to leave time for support workers and medical professionals to “care about” the people they are supporting. Vanier’s belief is that if you want the effects of care and support to last, then we must also constellate and inspire the healer within the person receiving care.

“His life work demonstrates the simple yet transforming qualities of love, vulnerability, forgiveness and presence for both parties in a care relationship.”

As a practitioner, his life work demonstrates the simple yet transforming qualities of love, vulnerability, forgiveness and presence for both parties in a care relationship. The high level of well-being of people with developmental disability in his communities points to the power of the model that love and appreciation of difference are the fundamental basis from which people can move forward in personal and skills development.

Our common humanity

Although Jean Vanier has spent most of his life among people whose labels suggest that their physical and intellectual capacities fall much short of his, he insists that he has received the education of his life in their company.

He believes that most of the time, our instinct is to erect protective barriers between ourselves and those who we perceive as different from us, especially if their difference is devalued or stigmatized. While understandable, this has the unintended effect of preventing us from learning to be with and learn from difference in a way that is fruitful and life-giving. He tells many stories of times when he too felt uncomfortable with the differences of disability, but how once he learned to simply stay with someone, he also learned of the deep ways in which his imagination was charged and his mind opened by those same differences. The best way to reduce the hurtful exclusion that so many people, disabled and not, experience today, is to support people through these initially awkward situations and see how their imagination and compassion for diverse ways of being grows as their relation unfolds.

“It is the human heart and its need for communion that weakens the walls of ideology and prejudice.”

We must accept disability as just one among many ways that humans live with imperfection in our minds and bodies, in order to re-humanize those living with impairment and draw them back into the circle of inclusion. Vanier says, “It is the human heart and its need for communion that weakens the walls of ideology and prejudice. It leads us from closedness to openness, from illusion of superiority to vulnerability and humility.”

Legislating compassion does not work

This lifelong disability advocate’s insights become more salient as the years go by. During the heady period of deinstitutionalization and normalization for people with intellectual disability, Jean Vanier was one of the few people who held that simply transferring people from institutions to community homes would not be enough unless we could also change the public’s hearts and minds about the value of these people to our society. Fifty years on, we have seen many changes in the disability field, but it remains that in spite of closing institutions and legislating more rights, the general public still feels a deep ambivalence towards disability and in particular intellectual disability. Vanier has felt the stigma and suffering that are experienced by those with disability first-hand in the communities of L’Arche and Faith & Light that he founded and has lived in for over four decades.

“Vanier’s insight has always been that you cannot legislate compassion towards a group of people.”

In spite of many years of disability rights legislation in Canada, the US and western Europe, there continues to be long waiting lists for these and other communities, suggesting that it remains very difficult for people with intellectual disability to live in the wider community on their own. Vanier’s insight has always been that you cannot legislate compassion towards a group of people: the important and lasting work has to do with crafting a better representation for the public, such that helps them learn how to imagine disability in a new, more positive way.

A prism for compassion

Almost without exception, young people who go to spend a few years of their lives in one the many L’Arche or Faith & Light communities emerge to tell of how their entire worldview has been transformed through their time there. These communities, which are deeply rooted in the philosophy and spiritual insights of Vanier, seem to act as a kind of prism for those who live or volunteer there. Like light transformed and refracted through a prism, people report that their mind is opened, and their imaginations galvanized, through this new perspective on difference, disability, and being a fallible human like everyone else.

“He helps them to separate charity from justice and self-interest from service, in gentle but clear ways.”

You could argue that people emerge from these communities as peacemakers of a sort: they have learned about how to not only tolerate but to appreciate difference, how to be present to others’ needs even when those are confusing, how to work with others in a spirit of respect and mutuality, and how to forgive. While most of these people go to L’Arche hoping to give of themselves to make a difference, they often report the surprising but welcome effect that these motives are funneled into a more generative kind of compassion through the prism of Vanier’s thoughts, in that he helps them to separate charity from justice and self-interest from service, in gentle but clear ways.