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.
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