Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: humility

Who is Strong and Who is Weak?

This week I was lucky enough to be invited to hear Jean Vanier speak. For those of you who do not know of Vanier, he is the founder of the L’Arche movement that encourages people with and without learning disabilities to live together as equals. He is also a Christian philosopher and he was joined on the platform by Cardinal Vincent Nichols and Archbishop Justin Welby.

The title of the talk was “Living together for the common good: why do the strong need the weak?” and the event was sponsored by Together for the Common Good – an ecumenical movement to advance social justice.

However Vanier’s starting point is not ‘What makes us strong?’ instead he asks ‘What makes us human?”

He reflects on the Enlightenment account of humanity, with its ideal of the rational, competent and goal-achieving human. This ideal is central to modern thinking about the self, morality and politics – it is the all-important ‘rational I’. But he observed how self-defeating this ideal becomes. The more an individual advances, the more he must leave others behind; the more we worship such individual striving, the more people we must condemned to be left behind. We think we are building, while we’re merely destroying.

Instead, for Vanier, we must begin with acceptance and love as St Paul understands it:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” [1 Corinthians 13:4-7]

For me this was one of the most memorable points in the evening, where Vanier – using a text that is so often rushed – points out that what comes first is patience. The modern view of love so often misses this point – it slips into that dangerous Enlightenment mode where all the focus is on what we do in the name of love. Love becomes another badge that we try to award ourselves.

We strive to do, to change, to improve – yet so often we fail to just be with each other, to meet each other and to accept each other. Movingly, Vanier told the story of a male prostitute in Australia, who, dying in the arms of a member of L’Arche, said:

You’ve always wanted to change me; but you’ve never met me.

In the process of fixing others we lose sight of our very humanity – our essential fragility, our need for love, for belonging and contribution. Humanism becomes inhuman.

This reminded me of my first experience of people with learning disabilities, in an institution in the south of England. The place and the behaviour of the staff, struck me with horror, but the more important experience for me was that it offered me a different way of being human. I was a highly competitive young man, with some modest academic abilities, and a raging desire to work, to achieve and to win. Yet, here were people taken out of that rat race, and yet fully human. Here was goodness, calmness, dignity, care, curiosity, play, challenge, suffering, and fear. Here were people who were certainly different, but wonderfully so.

For me this experience challenged my notion of who I was and what was the purpose of my life. However, paradoxically, it also turned into a mission which, for better or worse, has driven most of my decisions over the last 25 years. So I worked to help people leave institutions, take control of their lives, make friends, contribute to community – to become full citizens. It became a project – and in the light of Vanier’s critique I can see that this project is also full of dangers. It can lead one into a feeling of self-importance and it tempts one to see others as the means by which your goals can be achieved.

Vainer’s approach is different. As he put it, the mission of L’Arche is less about what it achieves (although it achieves a lot) but more about the message that is inherent in its way of being – that we must meet together as fellow humans. For in the meeting of the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak’ each are transformed. The weak may be supported, but the strong also get the chance to find out what really matters and who they really are.

In fact nobody is really ‘weak’ or ‘strong’. Instead the desire to be amongst the strong, and to avoid the weak, is just a symptom of a society’s failure to welcome all and to comprehend the true value of each individual. We are like little kids wanting to be picked for the team we think will win – and so we allow ourselves to be judged by the wrong values. We even score ourselves by these distorted values – forgetting what is really important to us, focusing instead on what is important to ‘them’.

The discussion after Vanier’s talk was also fascinating – less for its content, more for the tensions and paradoxes it revealed.

The setting was important. We were tucked away in a corner of the Houses of Parliament, surrounded by images of splendour and power. The room was packed with famous faces – journalists, Lords, politicians and others from amongst the powerful. The discussion was led by Sarah Montague – of Radio 4’s famously combative and Westminster-centric Today Programme – who, revealingly, said she thought she knew most of the people in the room (although she certainly didn’t know me, and I met one Lord who certainly didn’t know her). In other words, we were at home, amongst the strong.

Montague then endeavoured, with minimal success, to play devil’s advocate and to encourage a lively discussion in the normal style. However the Philosopher, Cardinal and Archbishop all refused to play along. Instead they reflected on the need for time, discussion and humility in the political process.

Vanier refused to play ‘political advisor’ or ‘expert’ and in this refusal he lived his principles. Yet for Montague, and I think for some others in this room, this seemed deeply disappointing and frustrating. They wanted answers, solutions and policies. They were the strong and they wanted something to give them more strength – whether it was food they could consume (the latest good idea) or at least a good argument, a test of strength.

For modern politics demands that the powerful are constantly mindful of their appearance in the media and they must, at all times, maintain the illusion that they are competent to solve any problem. The powerful are caught in an impossible trap – for they must present themselves as the answer to any question we might ask. They are the folk who stand atop the crazy pinnacle of the world that Vanier wants us to reject: a world where one can only advance by standing on the back of the other.

It is important to note that Vanier is far from attacking government, the powerful, the professional experts or the policy-makers. He is not saying they are wrong, stupid or evil. Instead he is acting out the very issue he wants people to understand: we must meet each other; we do not need to use each other.

For myself the event also cast some light on my own dilemmas. I set up The Centre for Welfare Reform in 2009 with the goal of creating an independent community to develop positive and just solutions for the problems of the welfare state. I wanted to protect and support the social innovators who were often squeezed and abused by a political system that doesn’t know how to respect the integrity of things. Yet, it has been much harder to do this than I expected.

Instead, since 2010, my work has been dominated by a goal that I certainly didn’t want – to campaign against the injustice of the current UK Government. I expected others to do this – yet I’ve found that there has been no significant defence against cuts and policy changes that target and abuse disabled people – including people with learning disabilities – even though disabled people are the number one target for cuts by Government. I wanted to be developing better solutions; instead I’ve found myself more often simply defending basic rights.

I’m not sure what this means for me personally, but the image of Vanier reminded me that the world is not a puzzle to be solved. We must live and act with integrity and love. We cannot hope to be the answer to every question. We must be true to our own gifts and find the role that is right for us.

If I had one frustration in all of this it was simply that it was so hard to challenge the rather strange assumption in the home of the powerful that that it was they – the powerful – who could be trusted to act in the best interests of people with learning disabilities.

Does it makes sense to assume the abuser will reform himself?

Today I am working as hard as I can to develop Learning Disability Alliance England – a campaigning group that brings together all the key organisations for people with learning disabilities. I do this because I feel that it is not enough to offer Government good ideas. It is not enough to wait for the powerful to want to do what is right.

I do not have enough faith that the powerful, on their own, can learn the necessary humility to transform themselves. I feel that those of us who are weak must organise ourselves to demonstrate that we are not irrelevant, redundant or unworthy. I remember the words of Rebbe Shmelke who said:

The rich need the poor more than the poor need the rich. Unfortunately, neither is conscious of it.

I do believe the ‘strong’ need the weak, but I also believe the weak need to find and express their strength – a strength which is greater than the strength of the strong if it is a strength founded in love, community and justice.

I think that Vanier’s challenge is right – his thinking and his actions maintain integrity in their humility and their orientation to the actual meeting of humans. But I also feel that the ‘weak’ cannot afford to wait for the ‘strong’ to wake up to their true needs. Mental handicap ‘hospitals’, like the one I visited, and which as Vanier rightly said “crush disabled people” had to be closed. The reason they were closed was because families, disabled people and their allies came together to work and to lobby to bring about their closure. It did not happen by accident or because of some politician.

Sometimes we do need to lobby, to organise and to join the political process. It may be dysfunctional and confused – but unless disabled people and families are present in that process too – just as they should be present at every other level of community life – then they will not be able to defend their rights or interests. The presence of people with learning disabilities within the political process may even bring some honesty and humility to that strange world.

One final thought: if you read this before 11th February 2015 please complete our survey to Quality Check Government. [Now closed]

Living Forever

The patriarch Ching of Ch’i was with his companions on Mount Ox. As he looked northward out over his capital, tears rose in his eyes. “Such a splendid land,” he said, “swarming, burgeoning; if only I didn’t have to die and leave it as the waters pass! What if from from eldest times there were no death: would I ever have to leave here?”

His companions joined him in weeping. “Even for the simple fare we eat,” they said, “for the nag and plank wagon we have to ride, we depend upon our lord’s generosity. If we have no wish to die, how much less must our lord.”

Yen Tzu was the only one smiling, somewhat apart. The patriarch wiped away his tears and looked hard at Yen Tzu. “These two who weep with me share the sadness I feel on today’s venture,” said the patriarch. “Why do you alone smile, sir?”

“What is the worthiest ruled forever?” asked Yen Tzu. “Then T’ai or Huan would be patriarch forever. What if the bravest? Then Chuang or Ling would be patriarch forever. With such as those in power, my lord, you would now be in the rice fields, wearing a straw cape and bamboo hat, careworn from digging, with no time to brood over death. And then, my lord, how could you have reached the position you now hold? It was through the succession of your predecessors, who held and vacated the throne each in his turn, that you came to be lord over this land. For you to lament this is selfish. Seeing a selfish lord and his fawning, flattering subjects, I presumed to smile.”

The patriarch was embarrassed, raised his flagon, and penalised his companions two drafts of wine apiece.

Lieh Tzu

Sometimes I hear scientists or others express great excitement at the thought that we might use science to extend our lives for many years beyond our natural span. Then I hear others express great concern that the planet is becoming too full and that human numbers must be curtailed.  I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Life of course (by which I also mean death) is designed to balance things out. To allow the new to replace the old. To offer us each a time under the sun and on the planet. We cannot have our cake (longer and longer lives) and eat it too (no overcrowding, no change, no rebirth); unless, like the patriarch Ching of Ch’i we suddenly become myopic and imagine that only our life matters.

Of course the reality of our limits – our mortality – an awareness of which is a moral obligation – raises fundamental theological questions. What does life or time mean in heaven? What of our life now could be ‘transplanted’ into heaven? How is the idea of heaven reconcilable with what we know of our own requirements and essential limitations? Some will say that this provides good reason to doubt the reasonableness of heaven, others will argue that this just demonstrates the limits of human rationality and imagination.

Yet the fundamental truth, which is captured in this story, is that any mortal desire for immortality is the highest form of vanity – imagining that it is we who are somehow worthy of such a state, unwilling to recognise how much we have relied on the passing away of others, and unwilling to pass on our inheritance to our children and grand-children.

There is Humility in Us

We do not have to acquire humility. There is humility in us – only we humiliate ourselves before false gods.

 Simone Weil from Gravity and Grace

How well this point is put. We worship what we lower ourselves to obtain:

  • Money – doing a job we dislike, but which pays well.
  • Power – pandering to our political bosses, even when they ask us to do things that are dishonest.
  • Fame – drinking in the successes and failures of celebrities, even when we know its all empty.

We are creatures who pride ourselves on our autonomy, our creativity and our many gifts. We resent the thought that all those gifts are simply gifts from God and that they can only be respected by being returned to God in service.

The Prince and the Rooster

Once, in an ancient kingdom, there lived a fine and handsome and intelligent prince. But one day he got it into his head that he was a rooster. At first the king believed this was simply a passing thought, a phase his son was going through. But when the prince took off all his clothes and began flapping his arms and crowing like a rooster, the king knew he had a real problem. The prince took up residence under the dining-room table and would eat only kernels of corn dropped onto the royal carpet. The king was sad to see his son in such a state. He called in his best doctors, his miracle workers, his magicians. One by one they talked to the prince, tried medicine and magic. But he remained convinced that he was a rooster. One by one they filed out.

Each time, the rooster crowed. The king fell into a deep depression, convinced that no one could cure his son of his tragic malady. He told his servants to allow no more medicine men or fortune seekers into the palace. He had had enough. One day an unknown sage approached the palace and loudly knocked upon the palace gate. The king’s chief servant cracked open the wooden door and saw an old man with piercing eyes staring at him. “I understand the king’s son believes he is a rooster. Well, I am here to convince him otherwise.” The servant slammed the large wooden door. “So many have tried and failed. Go away, old man!” The next day, the servant heard once again a loud knock upon the gate. Again he cracked open the door. “I have a message for the king,” said the unknown sage. “What is it?” said the servant. “Give it and be gone.” “Tell the king these words exactly: ‘To pull a man out of the mud, sometimes a friend must set foot into that mud.’ The servant had no idea what it meant, but he left the sage waiting outside the gate and took the message to the king.

Slumped on his throne, the king listened to the cryptic message. “To pull a man out of the mud, a friend must set foot into that mud.” Hmm, what did he mean by that? But as he thought about it, the words began to make sense. He sat straight up and said, “Yes, bring him in. I will give him a chance!”

To everyone’s amazement, the wise man began by taking off all his clothes. The king shook his head. Now there were two naked men under the dining-room table, crowing like roosters. Soon the prince said to the wise man, “Who are you, and what are you doing here?” “Can’t you see?” said the sage. “I’m a rooster, just like you.” The prince was happy to have found a friend, and the palace resounded with flapping and crowing. But the next day, the wise man got out from under the table, straightened his back, and stretched. “What? What are you doing?” asked the prince. “Not to worry,” said the sage. “Just because you are a rooster doesn’t mean you have to live under a table.” The prince admired his friend, so he tried it. It was true. A rooster can stand and stretch, and still be a rooster. The next day, the sage actually put on a shirt and a pair of pants. “Have you lost your mind?” asked the prince. “I was a little chilly,” said the sage. “Besides, just because you are a rooster doesn’t mean that you can’t put on a man’s clothing. You still remain a rooster.”

Puzzled, the prince reluctantly tried on some clothes. The sage then asked for a meal to be served on the golden platters of the king. He sat down with the prince, and without realising it, the prince began to eat. The sage engaged him in a lively conversation about the affairs of the kingdom. Suddenly the prince jumped up from the table and cried, “Don’t you realise that we are roosters? How can we be sitting at this table eating and talking as if we were men?” “Aha!” cried the sage. “I will now tell you a great secret. You can dress like a man, eat like a man, and talk like a man, but still remain a rooster.” “Hmm,” said the prince. And from that day forward, he behaved just like a man. In a few years, he assumed the throne. He led his kingdom to great glory. But every once in a while, the thought occurred to him that he was, in fact, still a rooster-and when he was all alone he would crow a little bit, just to make sure.

Rabbi Nachman from Nina Jaffe & Steve Zeitlin (1993). While standing on one foot. Puzzle stories & wisdom tales from the Jewish tradition. NY: Henry Hot. 70-75. Prince Rooster

I first heard this story from that great promoter of Hasidic Wisdom, John O’Brien. This story also reminds me of the work of Womencentre in Halifax. What is magical about their work is the way in which each woman sees herself as working alongside the woman who is in need. And as an equal they can help, enable and challenge within a relationship based upon trust – focusing on the real issues facing the woman – not their labels or reputations.

The best support is always paradoxical in this way – it lifts people up as equals – not from above, not from below – but alongside.

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