Jean Vanier inspires me. He started the L’Arche communities. They bring people who are marginalized and restless from lack of community and care, together with those who learn to care for them. They especially create small caring communities for those who have developmental disabilities.
I met Jean Vanier over 30 years ago while living in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A small room of about 20 people had gathered to hear him speak and talk with him. Meeting him made a strong impression on me, and I followed up by reading anything by him I could get my hands on. He was from an important political family in Canada, had served in the Navy in WWII, and then pursued a PhD in philosophy. It was after this that he came to establish the L’Arche communities. As he spoke of the gift that those who had mental developmental disabilities were to him in his life, it helped me to see that what I had most valued in myself up to that time, my intellectual abilities, were not the most important thing in my life. The communities he started were based on mutual respect – those with developmental disabilities have things to share with us, things they can teach us, things they can give us. His life demonstrated how he really valued all people. We all have different gifts, and discovering those is an opportunity for each of us.
In addition to his writings on disability and community, he has also described human freedom in ways that I have found worth pondering. In his book, Being Human, he wrote: “Aristotle talks of our passions as being like a horse which has a life of its own. We are riders who have to take into account the life of the horse in order to guide it where we want it to go. We are not called to suppress our passions or compulsions, nor to confront them head on, nor to be governed by them, but to orient them in the direction we want to go….We set out on the road to freedom when we no longer let our compulsions or passions govern us. We are freed when we begin to put justice, heartfelt relationships, and the service of others and of truth over and above our own needs for love and success or our fears of failure….”