Human Being

Day 2 (Jean Vanier)

People with mental handicap talk about being human. "Who can believe our report?" (Isaiah). Those who are deemed as crazy are great healers. Many have had an experience of God much deeper than any of us -- not through concept but through presence. For example Andrew wanted to win a prize, to get good marks -- he entered into the special olympics; halfway in the 100m final, the next runner fell over.. Andrew picked him up and they ran hand in hand to the finishing line. Are there many of us who would sacrifice a medal in order to be in solidarity with the poor? A group of people with mental handicap were reflecting on Revelation: "I stand and knock at the door: he who opens, to him I will enter and dine with him, and him with me. " To this, Renee said ``He will take me in his arms and say `You are my beloved son'. '' For example Helen -- you might say `does she really suffer?' She lives in a community in the Philippines. She was put into an institution as a baby; now 15, she is very little, blind, her body twisted - there is no reaction from her -- another person, Kiku her helper, from Japan, found her very difficult. But I said to keep talking and singing to her -- to touch her with love because of the depression of a child. Three months later, she smiled, and then smiled more and more.

I'd like to talk about the depression of children. (There is a child in each of us). One of the most fundamental pains of people is a very deep lack of trust in self -- to be able to do something worthwhile, to be able to love, to be able to do something in this world in which there is so much pain, fragmentation etc -- are we all so overwhelmed with bad news we forget about the good news? In order to understand what Helen is living, we have to understand little children... back in the womb.. children in the womb can hear.. sing to a preborn, the song is recognized with a smile by the crying child immediately after birth. A child is so weak - it can do nothing -- and that is us -- we all live that. We don't remember it, but the body remembers. When a child is born, it is incapable of anything, no way of getting food, warmth, cleaning. It can only cry out. The mother interprets the cry. I live with people who don't speak -- they cry out -- break a dish! Body language, is something in which we all speak, without lying like our words. When the parent responds to the cry, the child knows that it is loved, that it is safe in their arms. To love someone is not to do things for someone --- we can do that and still hurt them -- but to reveal in your touch that they are beautiful, special -- the love of a mother is a revelation to the child ``You are beautiful''. So what happens to the child when it knows it is not loved? If a child is not loved, then there is an immense amount of pain, an immense loneliness. What do you do when you're lonely, when anguish wells up inside you? we each have an answer, reading, tv, pub whatever. The feeling that ``no-one really wants me''. A little child cannot do these things -- what can it do to escape the pangs of loneliness, the feeling that ``there is no place in the world for me?'' The incredible thing about a child is the incredible fragility. All this develops something which is very deep - guilt. When someone with mental handicap and illness, Jean, went off into a fantasy world, all in the community gathered round, trying to reflect what happened that triggered this going into another world. The psychiatrist said ``I believe Jean feels guilty of existing -- he has always been seen as a nuisance, unwanted; no-one had ever said they wanted him as he was always seen as disturbing. '' Very quickly loneliness and anguish is transformed into guilt. Almost all of us have this, as we have all sensed the feeling of not being wanted at some stage -- parents busy or in depression, for example. We all try to forget this suffering, to put it into the forgotten world within us. We try to forget the pain. I said that the child is defenceless, but does actually have a defence mechanism -- escaping into dreams from the reality that has too much pain. A person with mental handicap said to me: ``You know, I'm happier in my dreams because reality is too painful'' and I said ``Yes, but one day you may have enough fight inside you to look at reality'' -- it is difficult to be alone with your dreams -- in reality maybe you can find others. A child can also cut itself off from relationship -- when pushed out we are wounded deeply -- a response is to say I will not speak any more -- Helen had done this -- her parents could not cope with her and put her in the institution. Anguish is broken communion; that is what happened to Helen - she went inside herself and cut herself off from relationship -- to love someone is to become vulnerable and when they turn their back on me, my heart is broken and I become fragile -- we are all wounded in relationships -- we either cling like crazy or we are too distant and cause hurt In relationship, we open up, let you in, tell the secrets of our hopes and pains, I become vulnerable to you. It is painful and beautiful. It is a painful reality to be really concerned by people and have people concerned by me. So Helen had gone into herself -- no laughter no reaction, just cut off from reality. When I ask young people, who really understand what has happened to Helen -- they go inside themselves and sulk: ``What will bring you out?'' They say `` To trust someone not to judge or condemn me --- receiving unconditional love. '' Not just ``if you do well at school'' etc that most have received -- few have received unconditional love. What many young people need is ``I love you , you are important, you must live''. So what someone like Helen must see is that they are loved, they are OK, that there is beauty in them ... they begin to emerge, then they see more love, and continue to emerge until they have emerged totally. Helen needs Kiku -- weak people need strong people. What I want to tell you tonight is that the strong need the weak. The problem of the strong is that we are in a terribly competitive world, in which some win but many lose.. it is in my flesh. intolerance to weakness and to stupidity. It is a world where we have to have armaments, where things can break into explosion -- it is a world of warfare, don't fool ourselves. Sometimes the warfare is overt, sometimes underhand. But everywhere it is a world of warfare. It is in my flesh, i was taught that. Then I discovered that there was something else -- that I don't have to be a a world of competition. Maybe we can live in a world where we collaborate and forgive. Kiku is discovering that Helen can bring something out of her. Someone's Mum with Alzheimer's disease becomes very little; their Dad refused to let her go into hospital and is looking after her -- and he is transformed from a businessman filled with doing things, he has become someone filled with tenderness , a gentleness and humanity that is growing in him. I could have stayed in the navy and become more efficient but I could have walked on a lot of people, more admiration, more power; but I discovered that there is more -- to build up people, to affirm people, to build relationships. Kiku was led into communion -- which is very different from generosity, which burns people out from giving. Communion is your heart, my heart. We nourish each other, we give freedom to each other -- it is a to-and-fro of love -- you reveal to me my beauty my value, I reveal to you your value, your beauty. There are caricatures of communion in which we close up to ourselves: I own you; or use you to fill my emptiness. But communion does not close us up - it opens us to learn that every person has value.

what people with mental handicap like is to relate to people -- for those who have felt that they were a disappointment to their parents, there is a pain -- it is painful to them. When there is too much pain, too much lack of love, too much depression -- they don't want to live. What is important is to change a broken self image to a positive self-image: To discover that they are beautiful, that they can do things. The basic principle in the communities is to reveal to each other ``It is good that you exist''. Then people learn that their presence is not a pain to everyone, but a source of joy. So communion is very gentle -- through the eyes, the hands, the body. In order to change someones self-image from suffering for so long in a mental hospital, who could not see or hear, with limb problems, contact was with hands -- it was pleasure for him to be given a bath -- to learn to trust, that he could trust the hands that were holding him. It was with him that I discovered the words of St. Paul: ``Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Holy Spirit lives in you?'' It is a deep experience to be in contact with peoples bodies -- the smiles, the peace of that touch. We all have experience of our intelligence, of our hands, of our emotion -- but very few have had the experience that they can give life to people. But I don't want to go too much into that inner experience, but into the discovery in myself; that of inner darkness. I did not want to be conscious of what is broken with in me -- always doing things, planning projects, going always upward. But in a world in which there is only relationship, we all find we are broken - there is fear, for example. For Example Lucien had lived with Mum for 30 years; he was always at peace with her; she became ill and he went into hospital and there he went into a terrible world of anguish, separated from the only person who helped him. When he was OK, I was OK; when he went into anguish he would scream, and that went inside me, and he became tense if touched; and I found angers and violence coming up inside me as I could not stand that screeching going into me and I saw that I could hurt him, that I had violence inside me. There is a lot of violence inside us -- we can all become torturers, don't be fooled. At Auschwitz 2, there were hundreds of thousands of people who were killed. with a small group of people we walked through silently; stopping sometimes to pray -- that God would cure us in our violence so that we do not hurt weak people, we would not run away from weak people. It is in all of us, and we must not think we are an elite. The truth will set you free -- get to know yourself -- discover the hatred in yourself -- discover what is deeper than all the prejudices, discover our common humanity -- we are all broken people, but beautiful people. We are all people with hearts, that are wounded, hoping for peace; frightened of love -- hearts that can grow. It is our common humanity. Jung said: ``I admire you Christians -- when you see someone hungry and thirsty you see Jesus. I find that great, but I what don't understand is why you don't see Jesus in your own brokenness. Why are you hiding in your own poverty -- see what you are hungry and thirsty for; that you are sick and in the prison of your own fears and your own projects. There is a stranger inside of you -- why can't you see that God is present in *you*. '' Then I began to see the common humanity in myself -- with the brokenness and with the gifts within me; to be human is to open myself up to others, not to enclose myself in my projects, ideas, distractions but to open --- but I have to see where the frightedness about people is coming from -- and also the Power to give life to others -- and then to become human, to grow human beings, to build a world in which we have hope and don't hide behind our own power. To discover the capacity in each one of to build community, to build hope - and that is what we are going to talk about tomorrow night.

Questions, day 2

(Question lost, sorry!)

A: For example a conflict between an able-bodied helper having to feed people quickly versus someone disabled for whom feeding was the moment of the day; at the same time, how could she discover what to do. She could have said : ``I'm sorry I have to go quickly as there are other people, but I'll arrange to take time with you some other day.''

Q: What happens to Helen when Kiku decides to go somewhere else -- how do you handle commitment in such relationships?

A: There is theory and reality. We hope there are enough permanent assistants for stability for residents who are there indefinitely. It could be dangerous for someone to leave just as they are helping to get someone out of their shell -- like when a child goes from opening to just the mother to opening to others. Sometimes there is too much of a turnover, and that is painful. Sometimes there is violence in the communities, when a person someone loves leaves.

Q: Love is a joy even when it is not reciprocated. The question for a Christian is how can you find that joy in purely agape love -- how is it possible for someone who finds joy in erotic or romantic love, to find that same joy in serving others?

A: It seems to be difficult; if you in love, surely you want the person to be happy; otherwise we are in a dream and are lonely, in love with love... eros will necessarily flow to entering into a relationship of tenderness and reciprocity -- we must break out of our shell to see others having broken hearts and needs the same as I have -- the growth of compassion.

Q: The question of incompatibility -- do you get to the point where you know you just can't work with someone, or do you keep on trying?

A: When you're working in community, you have to depend on each other, and help each other a lot. You see other people don't have difficulties with those you do, and others have difficulties with those you don't ... some pains trigger pain in some and compassion in others... we must be realistic about who we are, know that we can't do anything -- living with people with disabilities we learn about our own disabilities.

Q: What when we fear repeating a pattern of rejection when we can't work with someone?

A: We have to accept there are some situations we can't get through well.

Q: Your communities are non-competitive, unlike universities -- but surely your points about brokenness and love are everywhere - how can the university world deal with that?

A: I can't talk about this context! But how to be sensitive to students in pain, those in mental sickness, fragile, not able to work well? What is the sensitivity of teachers and other students? How to create schools that are based more on community than on competition? In Calcutta, they are creating a school system where the weak and the strong are working together. It'll be a matter where the individual professor and students support each other. It's also important to find activities outside -- I have learnt more through people than through reading books. I am now caring for the carers -- if you don't love them, how can they care for people with disabilities? -- my job in the communities is now listening to the assistants. One of the values of university is for people to learn to trust their experience, not books which you can't verify the truth of. For me, education is to trust yourself, to trust your intuitions, learning to trust your experience of reality.

Q: You went through a radical change from a student of philosophy to starting the communities.

A: I left my profession to follow Jesus, and then there was a journey and I went through Aristotle, but I sensed there was something else .. Aristotle made me love reality; and taught me to put order, priority, into my ideas. So am not an anti-intellectual -- we have to develop our intelligence, but how are we going to use it?

Q: There has been a lot of controversy about patients in persistent vegetative state. Have you worked with them and do you consider it possible to build communication, do you consider it possible to withdraw food etc.?

A: We have welcomed people with whom some said there was no communication; they don't want to live and have cut themselves from the body; I don't want to go beyond what I have experience of. There are some who appear not to be able to communicate, but who do come out of themselves if you take the time. You find people coming out.

Q What do you do when you are drained by giving?

A: You must be fit to give, not to give a mess... none of us are God... we can't give to everyone. If we are to love other people, we must love ourselves.

Q: What about learning to love reality when reality is dreadful, such a that half the world is starving?

A: Go somewhere and give the food... do something about your concerns, don't sit around. We can't do everything... but we can do something. I took some people out of an institution, and it grew.

Q: what happens when someone wants to retreat from reality, into distortions, as a defence mechanism... should we let them, or draw them back to reality?

A: How can we know? We have to be able to size up how we can really help someone. If they don't want to be in reality... sometimes we have to change reality, to ask less of them, to avoiding bringing them into mental sickness... but don't do it by yourself.

Q: Given your thoughts on people who are helpless what do you think about euthanasia?

A: There was a girl in our community, an assistant, who wanted to commit suicide by fasting and overdose. The psychiatrist said ``what would you do if she was your daughter?'' So I told her I would annoy her until she eats... She was furious, I was furious, but it revealed to her that she mattered to someone, that someone wanted her to live. And she did eat (although she committed suicide soon after leaving the community). I would always fight, I believe in them.

Q: What about someone in great pain, who is going to die?

A I would control the pain; but I don't know, we can't have the answers to everything... I hope to be inspired, I can't answer it as a theoretical question.

Q: I saw people with mental handicap and depression, not eating, not speaking, improve, through taking tablets daily... what role do the psychiatrists have in the communities where you rely on this power of human interation?

A: There are some people in the home I live in, where if you lower the medication even slightly, they go crazy.. don't fool ourselves. We need the good psychiatrists, to medicate, to interpret mad people, to support the assistants when they can't take it any more. We often say that what is important is that the seed of the Spirit must enter into the flesh of someone for them to grow but first the flesh must be ploughed, by psychotherapy, medication etc, and we need competence in that.

Q: In your communities do you accept mentally ill people who have committed crimes?

A: We normally welcome people with handicaps, which have usually appeared soon after birth. Sometimes we welcome people who have had crises to come and help as assistants but this often did not work well when those who are handicapped become aggressive, angry etc.

Q: You say the power of the community is essential to transformation of individuals. Why is l'Arche so successful in this when other communities such as families and neighbourhoods have fallen apart... what is it holds l'Arche communities together?

A: We have four strengths: a charter that specifies our goals in all fields; we have a clear spirituality, even though we are different religions, in that we discover that the weak person is a vision of God (when you give a meal, don't invite your neighbours etc but the poor), that this eating together with the poor is a source of benediction; our people have become mature and are very anchored, and very needy and we are drawn by them -- there is such a joy when we come back; our structures, our support system, with leaders, retreats etc. and a certain amount of wisdom in front of very complex situations.

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Last modified: Thu Dec 16 14:53:28 GMT 2004