One Heart at a Time

When my friend Gary was dying last year, he looked back on his teaching career as a failure because he was dismayed by recent trends in society. It was hard to argue that this was the society we hoped to create when we became teachers. The best I could do was to argue that we had helped some students become the kinds of adults we had hoped they would become. I think Vanier is right in arguing that the only way to transform the world is “One Heart at a Time” and perhaps he is right in believing that change can only take place if the individual sees himself for who he really is:

As we have already said, there are things that are predetermined in human beings and things that are not. Identity and human growth are arrived at through choices: choices of friends and of the values we want to live by, the choice of where we put down roots, the choice to accept responsibility.


The first choice, at the root of all human growth, is the choice to accept ourselves; to accept ourselves as we are, with our gifts and abilities, but also our shortcomings, inner wounds, darkness, faults, mortality; to accept our past and family and environment, but equally our capacity for growth; to accept the universe with its laws, and our place at the heart of this universe. Growth begins when we give up dreaming about ourselves and accept our humanity as it is, limited and poor but also beautiful. Sometimes, the refusal to accept ourselves hides real gifts and abilities. The dangerous thing for human beings
is to want to be other than they are, to want to be someone else, or even to want to be God. We need to be ourselves, with our gifts and abilities, our capacity for communion and co—operation. This is the way to be happy.

It’s a natural tendency to want to see yourself as better than you really are, to deny your weaknesses and to overemphasize your strengths, but it’s hard to change what you are unwilling to accept. As a child I’m sure I wanted to appear “tougher” than I really was. Like many boys of my generation, John Wayne was my role model. Vietnam changed all that. Though I might actually have been tougher after my experiences, I no longer dreamed of being the “strong, silent type.” Instead, I realized that what I most enjoyed doing in life was helping others. To do that required being in touch with my own weaknesses and doubts, to empathize with students who were struggling with school and life in general.

The last section of Jean Vanier: Essential Writings entitled “The Christian Life” was less interesting to me, but it, too, contained ideas I could easily identify with:

Many of us are not aware of the sacred space within us,
the place where we can reflect and contemplate,
the space from which wonderment can flow
as we look at the mountains, the sky,
the flowers, the fruits and all that is beautiful in our universe,
the space where we can contemplate works of art.
This place, which is the deepest in us all,
is the place of our very personhood,
the place of inner peace where God dwells
and where we receive the light of life and the murmurings
of the Spirit of God.
It is the place in which we make life choices
and from which flows our love for others

Discovering and exploring this “sacred space” has been the greatest joy of my life. It remains a constant source of inspiration for me.

I’ll have to admit that Jean Vanier: Essential Writings far exceeded my expectations. I wouldn’t have bought it if I wasn’t intrigued by Lax’s recommendation, but I never suspected I would be so enamored with it. I’ve already added another of his books to my Amazon Wish List.

Change the World with Love One Heart at a Time

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.

Jean Vanier: Essential Writings

In The Way of the Dreamcatcher Robert Lax highly recommended Jean Vanier: Essential Writings. Since I’d never heard of Vanier, I was intrigued by the recommendation. Also, I’m generally of the opinion that what we read says a lot about who we are, so I thought reading the book might also give me more insight into Lax’s poetry. As it turned out, I got so caught up in Jean Vanier’s book that I never tried to relate it directly to Lax. i don’t really believe in “Saints,” but if I did I think Vanier comes about as close to being a Saint as anyone I’ve ever read about.

I was hooked by Carolyn Whitney-Brown’s Introduction where she briefly describes Vanier’s life and introduces major themes in his works. He served as an officer in both the British and Canadian Navy, left the navy to become a college professor, and left that profession to found the L’Arche Communities.

One of the first themes she introduces is Vanier’s love of Aristotle, the subject of his PhD thesis by quoting from his works:

Aristotle is one of the great witnesses to this quest for happiness. His thinking was not that of an ideologue, but based on human facts and personal experience. That was what led him to propound his ethics of happiness in order to help people to look more clearly into themselves and to find their own fulfillment. He did so twenty-four hundred years ago, but his thinking spans the centuries and is still relevant to us today. . . .

Aristotle does not, however, seek merely to reiterate moral axioms. Nor does he wish to prompt people by external means to be just, to seek the truth, and to obey laws. What he wants to do is lay the foundations of a moral science with thinking that stems from humanity’s deep desires. His fundamental question is not “What ought we to do?” but “What do we really want?” His ethics are not those of law. Rather, they look closely at humanity’s deepest inclinations in order to bring them to their ultimate fulfilment. Aristotle's ethics are not therefore based on an idea but on the desire for fullness of life inscribed in every human being.

Considering my recent interest in the subject of “happiness” I couldn’t resist putting Vanier’s Made for Happiness: Discovering the Meaning of Life with Aristotle on my Amazon wish list, though it will probably be a while before I can get to it.

Although Vanier nearly became a Catholic priest and is commonly associated with Catholicism, his discovery of Mahatma Gandhi also seemed to play a critical part in his development:

In India, I also discovered the vision and work of Mahatma Gandhi, especially his spirituality. In him I found a prophet for our times, a man of God, a man of prayer, a man deeply concerned about the life of the poor who saw the “untouchables” as harijans, children of God. Gandhi was concerned with peace and unity, a man ready to risk his life in nonviolence, which for him was a spiritual reality rather than a political one. This man had a whole vision of the land, of villages, life, and manual work which was quite different from that of our modem society. Gandhi marked my life deeply: he opened my mind and enlarged my consciousness.

Vanier’s work with the retarded and mentally ill seems to me to clearly parallel Ghandi’s concern for the “untouchables” particularly since during his lifetime retarded and mentally ill people were treated as “untouchables” in Western society.

Even more remarkable than Vanier’s concern for such people is his belief that those who are willing to help them gain more from the relationship than those who are “helped.”

To love is to reveal the hidden beauty in the hearts of all people, to trust them and to call them forth to greater trust. To love is a way of looking, of touching, of listening to all: taking time with them, especially with those who are broken, depressed, and insecure, revealing to them their importance. As we take time with them and enter into communion with them, they in turn reveal to us our beauty. Communion is a to-and-fro of love; we give and receive mutually. We give our hearts bonded in gentle unity as words flow into silence and inner voice, as movement flows into quiet peace and inner rest. Life flows from one to another. . . . As we approach people in pain, they reveal to us our pain and brokenness. We are not an elite. We need help. We need the help of Jesus and of sisters and brothers in community; we need to talk to wise, listening, and compassionate hearts who can help us to assume all that is broken within us and to find wholeness. We become free when we accept ourselves as we are, cry out for help, and use wisely all that we are to build peace.

Even more remarkable than Vanier’s concern for these untouchables is his absolute belief that those who are willing to help them gain more from the relationship than those who are “helped.”

I’ve taken a long time to savor Vanier’s ideas and ended up underlining far more passages than I could ever discuss, but I agree with Robert Lax that the book is well worth reading.