What was I thinking, reading a book on the plane to ASLE and then not commenting on it before filing my head with three days of earnest conversation, interesting presentations (mostly), and assorted goings-on most pleasant? Ah well.
Jean Vanier's 1998 Becoming Human is another of the Massey Lectures collections. (I've already commented here on both Thomas King's and Ronald Wright's, and I read Douglas Coupland's on the flight home from ASLE - more on that soon.) Unlike some of the other collections, it ended up with a special note on the front cover: "The #1 National Bestseller." What was it about this book that touched the reading public in such numbers, and does it still stand up in 2011?
Vanier founded L'Arche, an organization committed to providing intimate, small-scale housing for those with intellectual disabilities. From a modest beginning in 1964, a year after Vanier had been introduced by Father Thomas Philippe to several men with such disabilities, L'Arche now has multi-residence communities in 34 counties on six continents, including more than 200 homes, workshops, or day programs in Canada. Basically, the program does all it can to provide support and encouragement to these very vulnerable people, so that they can find peace and comfort in their lives: so many people with intellectual disabilities live in poverty and suffering, are unable to help themselves, and have for many reasons not found support from their own families or in their communities. It's not all that easy to find critiques of this faith-based organization, and Vanier is regularly described as a possible saint. I wouldn't go that far, even if I had any faith of my own, but my experiences of individuals with such disabilities suggests that the L'Arche model just might be incredibly valuable.
Becoming Human, though, isn't really about L'Arche, but about compassion, forgiveness, and community. In brief, Vanier believes that if we don't open our hearts and minds to those who differ from us, especially those we would much rather continue to see as different, we cannot be fully human. The connection to L'Arche comes in his searching analysis of why it can be so very difficult to spend time with an adult with an intellectual disability: since we prize reason and shared values, we're confounded utterly by another adult seemingly without reason and seemingly incapable of understanding or sharing our values. We fear them, we fear being or becoming them, we turn away from them: we fail to live out our common humanity. The same situation applies in facing someone of a different faith, a different politics, a different social class, but the question of intellect haunts the book's most evocative, affecting passages.
There's more to it than that, but at heart, Vanier's arguing that we can only be ourselves if we know those least like ourselves. I found myself wondering how one might go about expanding his circle of community, such as to the nonhuman world, but Vanier doesn't offer any help with that.
Even though Vanier tries to reduce the presence of faith-based discussion in the book, there's plenty of it for those who like that sort of thing (or like to resist it). Faith isn't the only part of his argument, and you should be able to get there from a rigorous ethics, but still: it's hard to separate it out, or to read around it. Still, this atheist found himself close to tears a few times, flying across the continent to spend four days with several hundred people very like him talking mostly about the nonhuman from which we separate ourselves at our cost. There is another world of humans, too, that we mostly ignore - and they both need and deserve our attention and our caring.