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.