Excerpts from "Becoming Human" by Jean Vanier

Here are some thoughts from "Becoming Human" from chapter 1, "Loneliness." The section is headed, "Order and Disorder." I chose this piece to share because it hits at the level of change and emergence from the heart places, the place of our own insecurity and brokeness.

"In human beings there is a constant tension between order and disorder, connectedness and loneliness, evolution and revolution, security and insecurity. Our universe is constantly evolving: the old order gives way to a new order and this in its turn crumbles when the next order appears. It is no different in our lives in the movement from birth to death.

"Change of one sort or another is the essence of life... when we try to prevent the forward movement of life, we may succeed for a while... but inevitably there is an explosion..

"And so empires of ideas, as well as empires of wealth and power, come and go. To live well is to observe in today's apparent order the tiny anomalies that are the seeds of change, the harbingers of the order of tomorrow. This means living in a state of a certain insecurity, in anguish and loneliness, which, at its best, can push us towards the new. Too much security and the refusal to evolve, to embrace change, leds to a kind of death. Too much insecurity, however, can also mean death. To be human is to create sufficient order so that we can move on into insecurity and seeming disorder. In this way we discover the new."

"How do we learn to read the signs of evolution and to see where it is going? Here are five principles that have helped me.

"First: all humans are sacred... each of us (even the weakest) has an instrument to bring to the vast orchestra of humanity.

"Second: our world and our individual lives are in the process of evolving... it is not always easy to determine the good and the bad in something that is evolving... it is a question of loving the essential values of the past and reflecting on how they are to be lived in the new.

"Third: maturity comes through working with others, through dialogue, and through a sense of belonging and searching together.

"Fourth: human beings need to be encouraged to make choices, and to become responsible for their own lives and the lives of others.

"Fifth: in order to make such choices we need to reflect and to seek truth and meaning. Reality is the first principle of truth... It means to abandon the loneliness of being closed up in illusions, dreams, and ideologies, frightened of reality, and to choose to move towards connectedness. To be human is to accept ourselves just as we are, with our own history, and to accept others as they are...." (p.13-15)

* * * * *

"As humans we crave belonging, we need the connectedness to others that brings security, but this connectedness can prevent the natural movement and evolution that we need in our lives. It can also get in the way of creativity and stifle the natural loneliness that pushes us to discover something new, that pushes us closer to God. This loneliness is the loneliness of the individual who steps out from the group, who takes a chance on what can be discovered and done outside of the norm.

"So here is the paradox: as humans we are caught between competing drives, the drive to belong, to fit in and be a part of something bigger than ourselves, and the drive to let our deepest selves rise up, to walk alone, to refuse the accepted and the comfortable, and this can mean, at least for a time, the acceptance of anguish. It is in the group that we discover what we have in common. It is as individuals that we discover a personal relationship with God. We must find a way to balance our two opposing impulses." p. 18-19

Love Transforms Chaos

"There are seven aspects of love that seem necessary for the transformation of the heart that is profoundly alone. They are: to reveal, to understand, to communicate, to celebrate, to empower, to be in communication with another, and to forgive.

"The first and key aspect is to reveal. To reveal someone's beauty is to reveal their value by giving them time, attention and tenderness. To love is not just to do something for them but to reveal to them their own uniqueness.. the revelation that heals takes time.

"The second aspect is to understand. If no one understands us, how can we find our own inner peace? [In particular, those who have lived in chaos need the security of order].

"The third aspect is communication. Just as we need to be understood, we need to understand ourselves and for that we need help. People who are disturbed need someone to help them name the disturbance, or else confusion and anguish will grow. To name something is to call it out of chaos. It is a terrible thing when certain realities are unspoken, unnamed and hidden. This process of teaching and learning involves movement back and forth; the one who is healed and the one who is being healed are constantly changing places.. And here is a profound truth: understanding, as well as truth, come not only from the intellect but from the body.

"The fourth aspect of love is celebration. It is not enough to reveal to people their value, to understand and care for them, we must also celebrate them. Every person needs to also be a source of joy. Only when all our weaknesses are accepted as part of our humanity can our negative, broken self images be transformed.

"The fifth aspect of love is empowerment. It is not just a question of doing things for others, but of helping people do things for themselves, helping them to discover the meaning of their lives. To love means to empower. With a sense of personal responsibility grows respect for others. When we are empowered we begin to observe the fabric of community and make the effort to love and respect others. Empowerment is much like the role of the midwife.

"Love flows into communion, the sixth aspect of love. Communion is mutual trust, mutual belonging; it is the to and fro movement of love between two people when each one gives and each one receives. Communion is mutual vulnerability and openness one to the other; it is liberation for both where both are allowed to be themselves and grow in greater freedom and openness to others and to the universe.

"Communion is at the heart of the mystery of our humanity. It means accepting the presence of another inside oneself, as well as accepting the reciprocal call to enter into another. Communion implies the security and insecurity of trust, a constant struggle against all the powers of fear and selfishness in us, as well as the resilient human need to control another."

Beloved, let us love one another
for love is of God
and whoever loves
is born of God and knows God.

"The seventh and final aspect of love is to forgive. In order to make the journey out of chaos, we need unconditional love. But no human being can fully respond to that need.

"All of us carry within ourselves brokenness, as well as shadow areas, dark corners of the spirit where uncomfortable things are hidden. Human beings cannot be constantly attentive, loving and nonviolent. There are times when we allow ourselves to be governed by our pain. At those times we need someone to confront us with a firm, unflinching manner. But we will only accept that confrontation if we trust the person. Authority is based on this fundamental trust, and where it is not, it can only become oppressive, destructive of personal freedom and growth.

"When we confront from this place of love and respect, we reveal our subjection to a higher, more profound laaw, one that we do not construct but that is given to us, hidden in the heart of every person, to reveal that life is about growth and that it is possible for each of us to move beyond darkness and chaos into light and into a new world of love."

Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, 1998 (pp.21-31) paraphrase mine.

When Jean Vanier talks about that place [of safety and intimacy] he often stretches out his arm and cups his hand as if it holds a small, wounded bird. He asks: "What will happen if I open my hand fully?" We say: "The bird will try to flutter its wings, and it will fall and die." Then he asks again: "But what will happen if I close my hand?" We say: "The bird will be crushed and die." Then he smiles and says, "An intimate place is like my cupped hand, neither totally open nor totally closed. It is the space where growth can take place." Henri Nouwen in "Lifesigns"

"Community is a place of conflict.. the first conflict is between the values of the world and the values of community, between togetherness and independence. The next source of conflict is in learning to give space to others so that they may grown, rather than competing with them and lording over them.

"The third source of conflict is similar to the second. It is the conflict between caring for people and caring only for oneself.

"The fourth source of conflict is between being open and being closed. [Too often] the extended family is closed... people may sacrifice their personal growth, freedom and becoming to the god of belonging.. a death to personal growth. A community which is called to keep people open is a vulnerable community that takes risks. It does not hang on to its own security and power, obliging people to stay.

"There is a myth about community, just as there is a myth about marriage. The reality of marriage is that it is a place where a man and a woman are called to sacrifice their own egos on the altar in order to create one body..."

Jean Vanier, "From Brokenness to Community"

"To live in community is to discover and love the secret of what is unique in ourselves. This is how we become free. Then we no longer live according to the desires of others, or by an image of ourselves; we become free, free to love others as they are and not as we would like them to be." Jean Vanier, "Community and Growth"


"The mission of a community is to give life to others, that is to say, to transmit new hope and new meaning to them. Mission is revealing to others their fundamental beauty, value and importance in the universe, their capacity to love, to grow and to do beautiful things and to meet God. Mission is transmitting to people a new inner freedom and hope; it is unlocking the doors of their being so that new energies can flow; it is taking away from their shoulders the terrible yoke of guilt and fear. To give life to people is to reveal to them that they are loved just as they are by God, with the mixture of good and evil, light and darkness that is in them; that the stone in front of their tomb in which all the dirt of their lives has been hidden can be rolled away. They are forgiven; they can live in freedom."
Jean Vanier, "Community and Growth"


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