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Untangling the Tentacles Around the human heart
by Roman Sabo

What can we do so as not to surrender to despair? Is it possible to rescue our compassion for humanity? How can we preserve our ability to care? In answer to these fundamental questions, Jean Vanier, in Becoming Human (a book comprising the 1998 Massey Lectures, first broadcast in November 1998 as part of CBC Radio's Ideas series), advises that we alter our perspective: "Is this not the life undertaking of us all... to become human? It can be a long and sometimes painful process. It involves a growth to freedom, an opening up of our hearts to others, no longer hiding behind masks or behind the walls of fear and prejudice. It means discovering our common humanity." Anybody offering such an example of personal awakening deserves to be taken seriously because the lesson just might contain a grain of intellectual or emotional truth.

Vanier began this journey to freedom when he decided to dedicate himself to people with intellectual disabilities. The idea of L'Arche grew from this commitment, and today many communities share the basic ideal of helping those with mental disabilities who have experienced neglect, abuse, and exclusion. Vanier says that although they may not be very capable on the intellectual or practical level, "these men and women are very gifted in relationships". Being people "of the heart and trust", they have helped this student of philosophy and theology, trained to rationalize experience, control emotional life, skilfully distance himself from the dictates of heart, to develop a capacity to relate to others. He defines this act as "becoming more open and vulnerable".

Everything we are taught tells us to do just the opposite-to protect ourselves. How unconvincing then to tell us to become "open and vulnerable", even when the promise is as glorious as this: "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. I want to show that this discovery is a journey from loneliness to a love that transforms, a love that grows in and through belonging, a belonging that can include as well as exclude. The discovery of our common humanity liberates us from self-centred compulsions and inner hurts; it is the discovery that ultimately finds its fulfilment in forgiveness and in loving those who are our enemies. It is the process of truly becoming human."

It is because of the high-pitched rhetorics represented by this opening statement that I caution any reader of this book to make an effort to differentiate the sermon from the real lesson, the noble Christian commandment of "love thy enemies" from the actual achievement of this goal without succumbing to the dangerous acrobatics of "leaps of faith". This is a skill, I am afraid, that we may have lost to the canonized process of unlearning how to perceive the spiritual aspects of life-in other words, in the process of becoming a species seasonally eager to entertain the honourable ideals of brotherly love, but always falling back on reason after experiencing the first disappointment with our "brothers and sisters".

The basic precept of the book is that the civilization created by us excludes the weak and the needy, deeming them obstacles. We live in a fast-paced society, we proliferate signs which inform others to stay in the slow lane to avoid blocking our way, and we usually erupt in rage when this basic rule of conduct is ignored. Yet this is a bountifully creative life that provides us with all those beautiful gadgets, cures for diseases, new technological breakthroughs; its downside is that it corrodes the experience of belonging, the trust of community, the ability to care.

Becoming Human warns against the lopsided model of exclusive, rather than inclusive, society, of a merely strong rather than a complex human being, of a domineering rather than a cooperative social group. To transform the domineering, arrogant, and unjust aspects of ourselves, and by extension, of our civilization, Vanier suggests a twofold approach. One approach calls for a change in focus of the strictly individualistic attitude which places the interests of the one above those of a collective. The other is more troublesome, as it extols the merits of communal life: "The history of civilization shows how men and women who want to commit themselves to a religious, cultural, or social ideal bond together to live out that vision, to find the structures that are necessary for what they want to do, and to give mutual support and care for each other. Such small groups have generally occurred within the world's great religions, where people come together with a common purpose. This is what we are trying to do in L'Arche as we build up small, family-sized communities. It is what many in our Western cultures sought to build during the 60s and 70s."

Unfortunately, the history of the same civilization offers countless examples of a community destroying the individual to secure its safety; of one community imposing its rights over another; of a small group subjugating entire nations to its political or social agendas. Moreover, experience proves that more and more people are willing to exchange free will for a semblance of belonging enforced by the strict dogma of, say, a Christian sect. In this context, should one not try to advocate for some form of individualistic awakening rather than extolling the merits of a tightly woven, task-oriented, almost elitist group?

What Vanier is advocating is a small group with a peculiar focus which excludes "total obedience, cohesion, and efficiency" at any price. Such a group takes pride in creating a community of individuals united by a common ideal-in the case of L'Arche, the ideal of co-creating a caring environment together with persons with intellectual disabilities. Since, Vanier suggests, we can only come to terms with our individuality through contacts with other people, the type of the group he advocates is one that encourages "the growth of individual members to inner freedom and service to others". He also suggests that in the process of associating ourselves with a group of similarly minded people we may learn how to cope with the many fears which impede our ability to care about others by promoting insecurity: fear of dissidents; fear of difference; fear of failure; and fear of loss and change. And he concludes by "suggesting that if each one of us, with our gifts and weaknesses, our capacities and our needs, opens our heart to a few people who are different and becomes their friends, receives life from them, our societies would change".

Which brings us back to the unpractised skill of "leaps of faith". Vanier calls this the way of the heart, and adds "[m]y point is that a human being is more than the power or capacity to think and to perform. There is a gentle person of love hidden in the child within each adult. The heart is the place where we meet others, suffer, and rejoice with them. It is the place where we can identify and be in solidarity with them. Whenever we love, we are not alone. The heart is the place of `oneness' with others."

Therefore, in order not to surrender to despair, in order to rescue our compassion, in order to preserve our ability to care, Vanier advises us to surrender to the way of the heart within the bounds of a small, caring, self-regulating community.

I have the feeling that I am running around in circles, and somehow failing to make a rational point. And I am still distrustful of the rhetorical aspect of Vanier's book, which in its final stages sounds very much like a sermon-delicate and sensitive, indeed, but nonetheless radically departing from a factual rendering of the trials and successes associated with the daily activities of L'Arche. At this point, however, I am starting to appreciate the personal character of Vanier's testimony: it will speak volumes to the initiated, but, most importantly, Becoming Human will offer a whole array of mental checks to those who superficially express their love for humanity and with hollow words justify their indifference. 

Roman Sabo is a Vancouver-based writer.


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