The Discovery of our Common Humanity
“This book is about the liberation of the human heart from the tentacles of chaos and loneliness, and from those fears that provoke us to exclude and reject others. It is a liberation that opens us up and leads us to the discovery of our common humanity.”
These are the opening lines of Becoming Human, the 1998 bestseller, in its first chapter – “Loneliness” – by Jean Vanier, a beautifully articulated book. Vanier movingly describes how humanity can find the “peace” it so desperately needs, the “respect and trust” it so achingly lacks, and the “love, patience, humility, and forgiveness” it so deeply must embrace.
We were saddened one month ago today, when Jean Vanier passed away, at age 90. Along with Fred Rogers and Henri Nouwen, Vanier is a spiritual hero of ours. Becoming Human was one of the first books Tom and I read together as Someone To Tell It To was born and began to grow. Its simplicity and profound depth serve as a north star for us as we made the commitment to enter into the dark center of the human condition together, into its agonizing loneliness and pain.
When someone we have respected, whose work we have followed, leaves this earth, we stop to reflect on and remember the life and legacy that has been left. How can we honor it? Vanier’s life and legacy are remarkable. He was a Canadian philosopher, theologian, author, and humanitarian, considered a man of deep compassion and humility. His most enduring gifts to the world are the two international organizations he founded – L’Arche and Faith and Light – established in more than 119 countries combined, for people with developmental disabilities and those who care for them. His five-decade advocacy for people who have traditionally been marginalized, is a living testament to what it means to respect, to value, and to love.
Admittedly, I have an Olympic-sized soft spot in my heart for others who dedicate themselves to people living with disabilities of any kind. My son Matthew’s birth into our family’s life has influenced my uncalculatable regard for those who embrace the wide spectrum of the children of God who are like Matthew – who need to be diapered even at age 31, who grunt, squawk, and bellow instead of speaking words, who pull his mother’s hair when he wants her attention. It is these very people, whose quirks and differentness sometimes make them a challenge to love, who Jean Vanier embraced with passionate intention.
It has been a sacred gift to read his writings, to hear his stories, and to be introduced to the life of Jean Vanier. This man, who established communities for people who are like Matthew, and then actually went to live in one of the communities alongside the residents – as a peer, an equal. These are the people whose societal marginalization he strove to end, literally sharing his life side by side with them. It was not his way to keep them at a distance. But it was his way to meet them right where they lived, every day, vulnerably, intimately. His acceptance of their fundamental value and humanity showed the world their inherent place beside all the rest of us. He placed their quirks and differences right alongside ours. He announced that they are really no different, no less than, any one of us in terms of sacred worth. It was a choice he made and I am in awe of him for it.
I just know that when I chose from the beginning to embrace our third son as an equal member of our family, as an equal to his brothers, as a child of God who matters just as much as anyone else, life with him was made much more joyful. I believe that all of us in our family have been made much richer emotionally, spiritually, and relationally because we have. I believe that is a vital key to achieving fulfillment and joy in this life.
I thank Jean Vanier for helping to show how it is done. To embrace everyone in our lives as a person of sacred value liberates “the human heart from the tentacles of chaos and loneliness, … and leads us to the discovery of our common humanity.”