Most self-help books are quite confident about offering us advice on how to live our best life now by losing weight, gaining confidence, dealing with family issues, or hustling our businesses. Their remedies are “quick,” “never fail,” “bite-sized,” and “sassy. “Be a badass”, says one, “make some d*mn money already.” “Wake up to the miracle you are”, says another. “Love yourself” and just “wash your face.” It’s all so easy if you buy the book.
But what if you aren’t just five easy steps away from a happier, healthier life? What about when the power of positive thinking can’t cure a chronic illness? Or making your bed isn’t the fix-it for a failed marriage or eating the frog won’t heal the grief of losing someone you love? What about when there are things you can’t just get over?
Jean Vanier takes the opposite approach. In Becoming Human, our Everything Happens Book Club pick for July, success is not measured in how much of a winner you become, or how dominant, or how much money your fit new self can pull in: success is just the opposite. It’s about learning to get small and vulnerable. It takes patience. You’re going to need help. There’s going to be fear, but that’s okay, fear is one of our best teachers. We are going to have to look for inspiration in strange places—among the poor and differently abled and those in the midst of trouble. On the other hand, he has high hopes: he tells us how to change society and what is necessary in becoming human.
The northern half of this continent, Canada, the land from which I come, does not have a President. Our head of state is Queen Elizabeth II, and in her absence, a Governor-General who opens Parliament, hands out awards, and carries on all the ceremonial duties while mere Prime Ministers and politicians do the grubby business of actually running the country. By universal accord, the greatest of our Governors-General was Georges Vanier, a splendid figure of a man with a heroic mustache, a chest full of medals, and a long record of service to his nation as a soldier and a diplomat. His wife Pauline was beautiful, pious and serene; together they helped refugees and founded the Vanier Institute of the Family. But perhaps their greatest gift to the world was the birth of their son, Jean.
Jean Vanier served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War and was a career officer in peace time with the Royal Canadian Navy. He resigned his commission to become a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto, publishing works on Aristotle. When he was 36 years old, a friend showed him the horrible living conditions endured by people with mental disabilities. Many were institutionalized without love, community, and care. The result of this visit was a lifelong dedication to serving the helpless and oppressed. He began a small community for those with disabilities and their helpers called L’Arche or The Ark, in a village in France, which blossomed into a worldwide movement with 147 homes in 35 countries. Vanier died recently at age 90, still a resident of his L’Arche community in Picardy.
Though his book is built around Vanier’s work living in community with intellectually-challenged adults, Becoming Human is about much more: it is Vanier’s blueprint for creating better people and, ultimately, a better society. Today, he sees a culture broken by a spirit of selfishness and competition, quick to judge others and to segregate ourselves from those who are different. He would like to change us, little by little, into a culture of welcome, mutual respect, and belonging.
To do that, we begin by confronting the problem of loneliness. The disabled, he tells us, are lonely, desperately in need of friends but, Vanier says, we are all lonely. “Loneliness is something essential to the human condition; it can only be covered over, it can never actually go away. Loneliness is part of being human, because there is nothing in existence that can completely fill the needs of the human heart.” That’s a pretty stark statement but Vanier is not without hope. Loneliness, he admits can lead to depression, chaos, and confusion, or it can be a spur to creative activity, a prompt to fight injustice or to seek a deeper union with God.
If we are to emerge from loneliness, we must change. We must be open to revealing ourselves; we must seek to understand others and to communicate with them, and to forgive. We must, perhaps above all, celebrate. “Every child,” says Vanier, “every person, needs to know they are a source of joy, every child, every person, needs to be celebrated.”
I hope you’ll join us as we read and discuss Vanier’s Becoming Human this month for the Everything Happens Book Club. To learn more and download discussion questions, click here.