Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics

Jean Vanier: Becoming Human

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.

Every child, every person needs to know that he or she is a source of joy; every child, every person, needs to be celebrated. Only when all of our weaknesses are accepted as part of our humanity can our negative, broken self-images be transformed.

But let us not put our sights too high. We do not have to be saviours of the world! We are simply human beings, enfolded in weakness and in hope, called together to change our world one heart at a time.

Every act of violence is also a message that needs to be understood.

What happens when a child feels unloved, unwanted? There is nothing to compare with the terrible loneliness of a child; fragile and helpless, a lonely child feels fear, anguish, a sense of guilt. And when children are wounded in their hearts, they learn to protect themselves by hiding behind barriers. Lonely children feel no commonality with adults. They have lost trust in them and in themselves, they are confused and feel misunderstood. Lonely children cannot name the pain. Only self-accusation remains. However, life wants to live. If some children fall into depression and want to die, others seem to survive despite adverse conditions such as sickness, squalor, abuse, violence, and abandonment; life can be tenacious and stubborn. Instinctively, all children learn to hide their terrible feelings behind inner walls, the shadowy areas of their being. All the disorder and darkness of their lives can be buried there. They then throw themselves into their lives, into the search for approbation, into self-fulfillment, into dreams and illusions. Hurts and pain can transform into the energy that pushes children forward. Such children can then become individuals protected by the barriers they had to build around their vulnerable, wounded hearts. Children who are less wounded will have fewer barriers. They will find it easier to live in the world and to work with others; they will not be as closed in on themselves. The lonely child is unable to connect with others. There is a lonely child in each of us, hidden behind the walls we created in order to survive. I am speaking, of course, of only one aspect of loneliness, the loneliness that can destroy some part of us, not the loneliness that creates.

Madness has meaning; it comes from somewhere, it is comprehensible. Madness is an immense cry, a sickness. It is a way of escaping when the stress of being in a world of pain is too great. Madness is an escape from anguish. But there is an order in the disorder that can permit healing, if only it can be found.

Truth flows from the earth. This is not to deny the truth that flows from teachers, from books, from tradition, from our ancestors, and from religious faith. But the two must come together. Truth from the sky must be confirmed and strengthened by truth from the earth. We must learn to listen and then to communicate.

The illusion of being superior engenders the need to prove it; and so oppression is born. A bishop in Africa told me that, even though there were few Christians in the area, he had built his cathedral bigger than the local mosque. All this to prove that Christianity was a better, more powerful religion than Islam. So we build walls around our group and cultivate our certitudes.

Weakness, recognized, accepted, and offered, is at the heart of belonging, so it is at the heart of communion with another.

It was loneliness and insecurity that had brought Claudia to the chaos of madness. It was community, love, and friendship that finally brought her inner peace. This movement from chaos to inner peace, from self—hate to self—trust, began when Claudia realized that she was loved.

Communion is the to—and—fro of love. It is the trust that bonds us together, children with their parents, a sick person with a nurse, a child with a teacher, a husband with a wife, friends together, people with a common task. It is the trust that comes from the intuitive knowledge that we are safe in the hands of another and that we can be open and vulnerable, one to another.

In all conflicts between groups, there are three elements. One: the certitude that our group is morally superior, possibly even chosen by God. All others should follow our example or be at our service. In order to bring peace to the world, we have to impose our set of beliefs upon others, through manipulation, force, and fear, if necessary. Two: a refusal or incapacity to see or admit to any possible errors or faults in our group. The undeniable nature of our own goodness makes us think we are infallible; there can be no wrong in us. Three: a refusal to believe that any other group possesses truth or can contribute anything of value. At best, others may be regarded as ignorant, unenlightened, and possessing only half-truths; at worst, they are seen as destructive, dangerous, and possessed by evil spirits: they need to be overpowered for the good of humanity. Society and cultures are, then, divided into the “good” and the “bad”; the good attributing to themselves the mission to save, to heal, to bring peace to a wicked world, according to their own terms and under their controlling power.

In order for Claudia to grow peacefully towards womanhood, she needed to gradually accept not only her physical blindness but also her inner depression and anger, the scars, even open wounds, that flowed from her experience of rejection and lack of love and understanding during the years in the asylum. It was important that Claudia discover her shadow areas, even if she could not name them, and that she learn that it was acceptable to be less than perfect. It was for Nadine to show Claudia that we are all subject to a higher, more profound law, one that we do not make but which is given to us, hidden in the heart of every human being, to reveal that life is all about growth and that it is possible for each one of us to evolve out of darkness and chaos into light and into a new order of love. Claudia’s growth was subject then to Nadine’s growth. How could Nadine accept Claudia in all her chaos or madness if Nadine refused to accept the chaotic aspects and shadow areas in her own life?

Copyright 1998 Jean Vanier. These quotations are drawn from his book Becoming Human.

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Jean Vanier (born 1928) is a Canadian Catholic philosopher, theologian and humanitarian. He founded L’Arche in 1964, an international federation of communities spread over 35 countries for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. Subsequently in 1971, he co-founded Faith and Light which also works for people with developmental disabilities, their family and friends in over 80 countries. He continues to live as a member of the original L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France. In 2015, he won the Templeton Prize.

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One comment on “Jean Vanier: Becoming Human

  1. anisioluiz2008
    October 16, 2016

    Reblogged this on O LADO ESCURO DA LUA.

    Like

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