Jean Vanier on the Importance of a ‘Healthy Belonging’

Jean Vanier outside his home in Trosly-Breuil, France, in 2015. (Tom Heneghan/Reuters)
Wisdom from the founder of the L’Arche community in France.

There’s a very out-in-the-open debate happening right now about whether an unborn child at the heartbeat stage should ever be considered a child. It’s the norm for Democratic presidential candidates to extend that question to the case of children who survive abortions. At a recent unprecedented pro-life event in New York City’s Times Square, a baby’s heartbeat was heard on screens, with 4D sonogram imaging displayed on the same. The Crossroads of the World got about as quiet as it ever gets, to watch and listen.

Only a few days later, the Interwebs were abuzz about a Pennsylvania state representative who posted video of himself harassing a woman quietly praying outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Philadelphia. The former speaker of the New York City Council, meanwhile, was on CNN explaining how an unborn baby is not a person — she’s an extension of the woman’s body, is how the argument goes. The heartbeat that Times Square listened in on seems to expose that delusion pretty clearly.

But let’s set differences on abortion aside for a moment. Let’s just talk respect — of the kind that can lead us to look at one another differently.

Jean Vanier was the founder, in France, of the L’Arche community, a way of life for people living together with disabilities. Vanier died at 90 this month and had many wise things to say over the course of his life. Perhaps nothing was as powerful as the way he humbly lived his life alongside the men and women he served.

In a book Becoming Human, he offered some keys to reconciliation. “In healthy belonging, we have respect for one another,” he wrote. “We work together, cooperate in a healthy way, listen to each other. We learn how to resolve the conflicts that arise when one person seeks to dominate another. In a true state of belonging, those who have less conventional knowledge, who are seemingly powerless, who have different capacities, are respected and listened to. In such a place of belonging, if it is a good place, power is not imposed from on high, but all members seek to work together as a body. The implication is that we see each other as persons and not just as cogs in a machine. We open up and interact with each other so that all can participate in the making of decisions.”

This may be as countercultural as it gets right now. It’s the opposite of our insta-comment/insta-slam social media. It’s the opposite of insta-categorization and ostracism. Or, as Vanier put it: “This type of cooperation is not easy. It takes time to grow to a maturity of the heart. Belonging calls forth what is most beautiful in our capacity to love and accept others but it also can awaken anger, jealousy, violence, and the refusal to cooperate. This growth to maturity might mean that, at certain moments, authority has to be exercised with firmness. Little by little, as we live and work with others, especially if we are well-guided, we learn to break out of the shell of selfishness and self-centeredness where we seek to be brilliant and to prove our goodness, wisdom, and power. We receive and give the knocks of life. It is like the polishing of diamonds as they rub together.”

Imagine if we looked at one another as diamonds in the rough? Even the person we most disagree with on Facebook? Even the politician who most infuriates us.

Vanier reflected: “We all have to discover that there are others like us who have gifts and needs; no one of us is the center of the world. We are a small but important part in our universe. We all have a part to play. We need one another.”

In a healthy politics, we want some division. We want robust debate. We want to be challenged and stretched. We want that in family and every community dynamic. I’m writing to you at a Christian Alliance for Orphans gathering of over 2,000 from at least 44 different countries. They are leaders of families, churches, communities — all of the above, in many cases. There are 195 CAFO member organizations here. One man, Johnston Moore, himself one of these foster and adoptive bravehearts on all these fronts, described it as a gathering of Saint Peters — people who get out of the boat and try to follow the gospel, despite all its uncertainty and seeming impossibility. They are people who tend to look on the vulnerable with something like the heart of the God who made them, because they know how weak they are on their own.

“It is because we belong with others and see them as brothers and sisters in humanity that we learn not only to accept them as they are, with different gifts and capacities, but to see each one as a person with a vulnerable heart” is how Vanier put it. He emphasizes forgiveness. “We learn to forgive those who hurt us or reject us; we ask forgiveness of those we have hurt. We learn to accept humbly those who point out our errors and mistakes and who challenge us to grow in truth and love. We support and encourage each other on the journey to inner freedom.”

That’s a kind of independence day we don’t always talk about, but it is every much as important as anything in our national declaration. If we stopped looking to Washington to be better, we might just make the world better — one decision of the heart at a time.

This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.


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