I liked the way Carolyn Whitney-Brown divided most of Vanier’s quotations into three main sections: 1. “Change the World...” 2. “...With Love...” and 3. “One Heart at a Time.” Considering the selections come from 26 different sources, it’s a remarkable collation of Vanier’s ideas.
There are subsections within each chapter, and it seems nearly impossible to summarize a summary in any meaningful way, but this selection from “Change the World...” gives an indication of how Vanier’s ideas are presented.
I am becoming more and more aware of the vast divisions our world and of the prejudices and hatred which cultivate them. Groups tend to look down upon one another, feeling they are the best, the wisest, and the strongest. In every continent and country there are oppressed and minority groups: Aborigines in Australia, the tinkers in Ireland, the untouchables in India, immigrants in England, Puerto Ricans in the States, and so on. It seems that every group, in order to feel it exists, must relate to another group that it considers inferior.
The same is true of each person. Very quickly each one wants to prove that he or she is right and the other wrong. A whole system of competition and success, so deeply ingrained in Western civilization, is based on the need to prove that I am better than you. But alas, if one person or group has the elation of victory, the other has the depression of defeat. For everyone that wins a prize there are many losers. And this brings much depression, for the losers are left with the feeling of inferiority. So it is that our world becomes quickly divided into those who have power and success and those who feel broken. Some have too much, others very little. Those who have quickly condemn those who have little; these in turn are left with a broken self-image; they tend to condemn themselves.
One of the serious needs in our world today is to learn to walk with our aggression. So often instead of dealing with our negative feelings directly we direct them toward others who are innocent. . . .
Our modern world has fantastic power and knowledge. Man has conquered the moon, delved into the secret of matter, and discovered immense energies. Yes, we have amazing knowledge. But the only real knowledge necessary for the survival of the human race is lacking: the knowledge of how to transform violence and hatred into tenderness and forgiveness; how to stop the chain of aggression against the weak; how to see differences as a value rather than as a threat; how to stop people from envying those who have more and incite them to share with those who have less. The real question of today is disarmament, not only on the international scale but in terms of our own personal aggression. ls it possible for men and women to break down the barriers of prejudice and fear that separates groups and races and to create one people? Are we condemned to war, or is peace possible?
This is the length of a typical entry and focuses tightly on an essential idea. In other words, it’s not always an easy book to read. I found it even slower going than most poetry books I read because of the density of the book, but well worth the effort.
I was particularly interested by the way Vanier links the causes of the world’s problems to flaws in human nature itself in this entry, at least as human nature has manifested itself so far in history. Most intelligent people would agree discrimination against minorities seems a universal problem, but many might well reject the idea that “The same is true in every person” — at least in themselves.
Unfortunately, one merely had to follow our last presidential election to realize that “Some have too much, others very little. Those who have quickly condemn those who have little; these in turn are left with a broken self-image; they tend to condemn themselves.” I found it amazing that such a large percentage of the population would accept the idea that those who voted for Obama, the majority, it seems, did so because they wanted “entitlements” they didn’t deserve.
It is, indeed, ironic that a world overwhelmed with “knowledge” lacks the wisdom “to break down the barriers of prejudice and fear that separates groups and races and to create one people.” Without that wisdom it does seem likely we will always be “condemned to war.” One can only wonder what that says about The United States, a country that seems to have been mired in war since my birthday in late 1941.
“...With Love...” suggests the many forms of love that are required if we are ever to change our world. Not surprisingly it is not the kind of love our media is obsessed with, not romantic love; Vanier emphasizes the kind of Christian love that Jesus professes in The Beatitudes. It’s the kind of love that, according to Vanier, resides within all of us. We discover happiness when we cultivate this love.
Happiness is accepting and choosing life, not just submitting grudgingly to it. It comes when we choose to be who we are; to be ourselves, at this present moment of our lives; we choose life as it is, with all its joys, pain, and conflicts. Happiness is living and seeking the truth, together with others in community, and assuming responsibility for our lives and the lives of others. It is accepting the fact that we are not infinite but can enter into a personal relationship with the Infinite, discovering the universal truth and justice that transcends all cultures: each person is unique and sacred. We are not just seeking to be what others want us to be or to conform to the expectations of family, friends, or local ways of being. We have chosen to be who‚ we are, with all that is beautiful and broken in us. We do not slip away from life and live in a world of illusions, dreams, or, nightmares. We become present to reality and to life so that we are free to live according to our personal conscience, our sacred sanctuary, where love resides within us and we see others as they are in the depth of their being. We are not letting the light of life within us be crushed, and we are not crushing it in others. On the contrary, all we want is for the light of others to shine.
I doubt many people define happiness as Vanier does; it’s certainly not the kind of happiness promoted by the general culture, despite our societal claims of being a “Christian” nation. It may owe something to Aristotle’s definition of “happiness,” but owes much more to Jesus’s teachings. Vanier’s emphasis on the importance of the Catholic Beatitudes is a constant theme in his works.
Interestingly, a recent psychological essay I read suggested that altruism, right after optimism, was one of the most important factors in determining how well Vietnam veterans who were held prisoner dealt with the experience after their release. Prisoners who were both optimistic and altruistic fared far better than those who were pessimistic and concerned more about themselves than their fellow-man. In fact, concern for others seems to consistently show up in psychological studies of happiness.