Jean Vanier’s fundamental contributions to our understanding of 'being human' are informed by his deep yet inquisitive faith and his philosophical training, but are inspired in the main, by his transformative experiences of sharing life with people with developmental disability.
Pamela Cushing is a Cultural Anthropologist and Professor in Disability Studies and Social Justice for King's University College at Western University, Canada. She lived in L'Arche and did ethnographic PhD research there in 2000. Ongoing collaborations include: the Anthropology of L'Arche (with John Sumarah), Intercordia, L'Arche Canada education, and recruiting.
For over 5 decades, he has been their friend and radical advocate, inviting us to recognize the profound gifts and lessons that they can offer others when they are supported and included with dignity: ‘We must stay near them and take time to listen to them because out of fear they speak quietly and infrequently.’
Vanier’s work expands our understanding of human purpose and the good life through three core questions:
What does it mean to be fully human?
What does it mean to serve others well?
How can unity be fostered among diverse people?
His response to these questions has been practical and intellectual, lived and written. The simple, yet transformational practice at the heart of his vision is to create supportive spaces for two people to come together across differences. In this, he shows that it is indeed possible to live out humanistic ideals.
In exploring what it means to be fully human, Vanier invites us to observe the tension in our world between the pressure to achieve mastery or control, and our longing to find ways to live at peace with our own, and others’ imperfections. Where modernity privileges progress and perfection, Vanier has drawn attention to imperfection and fallibility as important and overlooked aspects of being human. Vanier believes that highlighting the universality and centrality of our shared fragility has the potential to unite us in commonality: “The weak teach the strong to accept and integrate the weakness and brokenness of their own lives.” Vanier’s narratives reveal how people really blossom when they are welcomed as they are, with their gifts and their weaknesses together.
Importantly, while acknowledging the humanness of our imperfection, Vanier also insists that we continually take responsibility to strive to grow towards freedom and serving others in spite of this.
The gem of inspiration at the heart of L’Arche is that mutual relationships with those who are vulnerable open us up to the discovery of our common humanity. In this way, he names human imperfection as a gift, and an opportunity. Imperfection and weakness can draw people closer together, for instance in solidarity around someone who has been hurt and needs help. Vulnerability can move others to give more of themselves, or to open up and reveal their own shortcomings. Strength and mastery can be impressive, yet they tend to divide people in competition and the regular disappointment of not measuring up. "I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes."
Sharing life with marginalized people galvanized Vanier’s understanding that to serve others well requires us to move beyond charity and tolerance. He recognized the hubris that grows when a helper imagines himself as somehow superior or separate from those he serves. He learned how much better help feels to the person in need when animated by a sense of solidarity and common humanity than help driven merely by a sense of duty. The felt distinction is between merely caring for others, and actually caring about them as people. And since you cannot legislate people to care about others, part of Vanier’s distinct contribution to our understanding of serving others well, is to demonstrate with his communities, that it is possible to create the conditions for this mutuality to develop. "Every child, every person needs to know that they are a source of joy … needs to be celebrated.” He suggests that it is only through this kind of profound acceptance that “our negative, broken self-images can be transformed." One example is his insistence that simply being with the marginalized in solidarity and celebration, is as vital as doing practical things for them. He entreats people to cultivate “fidelity to the wonder of each day… visible in small and daily gestures of love and forgiveness."
Vanier insists that while difficult and fraught, care relationships that are not at least on a path towards mutuality will be shallow and inadequate. Amidst the routine physics of care, he reminds us of the fundamental goal of service: “to support and love people to greater freedom.” By this of course he does not mean that one’s need or impairment disappears; but that a person should not be made to feel trapped by their need or interminably beholden to others. He points to the unbearable weight we heap onto people already living with an impairment, when we add the social burden of feeling that they are defined by their need, and have nothing to give to others.
As both a realist and a student of the heart, Vanier has long recognized that you cannot force people to love, appreciate or include others that they deem unworthy of it because of their differences. While this instinct to judge, fear and exclude those who are different in devalued ways is natural, Vanier points us to the opposing possibility: that the scope of our imagination can be enriched if we learn to live with the hidden lessons of the dissonance that diversity occasions. Vanier rejects resignation to our base fears and instead offers stories of the exciting possibilities of difference, designed to encourage the desire for openness by choice, not law. Vanier holds the unsentimental conviction that love is what can make power generative instead of degenerative."We are not called by God to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love."
Vanier has shown that when marginalized people are welcomed in love and friendship, their gifts have transformative effects on personal and interpersonal healing and unity. This transformation flows both ways: When one’s gifts are properly acknowledged, a person with disabilities’ resilience and sense of worth is strengthened. The human yearning to be loved and to belong is universal and L’Arche and Faith & Light communities are living laboratories that explore, every day, how to best respond to this yearning. In their sustained encounter with marginalized people, the community members gradually name, explore and embrace their own human fragility and thereby readjust their moral compass. They are challenged and taught how to bring their strong and the weak sides together. They learn that tenderness and compassion are as important as power and knowledge. In acknowledging their own imperfections, they also learn to live with greater humility in the face of others’ vulnerability. The result is a cohort of peacemakers within & without these communities, trained in Vanier’s distinct humanistic ideas of care, imperfection and unity. These actors bring those ideas to bear in everyday life as citizens, leaders and family members. "It is only when we stand up, with all our failings and sufferings, and try to support others rather than withdraw into ourselves, that we can fully live the life of community."