But the Normal has some cracks in it. There are ways in which, even in this world that’s driven by Normal values, there are reminders, hints, that all is not well with the Normal. One of these hints is in the vocabulary of unhumility. In English, we have a fairly long list of words that describe aspects of unhumility, and the terms are pretty consistently terms of abuse. People whose actions, desires, and emotions are most characteristically formed by Normal values are described as haughty, arrogant, envious, vain, pretentious, self-righteous, grandiose, conceited, snobbish, domineering, and the like; and the vast majority of us don’t want to think of ourselves in these terms. So even if we do look down on people in the slums, even if we feel twinges of envy toward peers who are more “successful” than we, even if we subtly boast about our accomplishments and hunger to be admired and to have the limelight, we rationalize our unhumility: slum dwellers are lazy, we don’t really resent those more successful peers, and putting ourselves in the limelight is really necessary for the successful prosecution of the good work we do for humanity. The abusiveness of unhumility’s vocabulary and our discomfort with owning our unhumility suggest that we glimpse a better world than that of the Normal. It’s the world of fundamental human equality and the kingdom of universal love and respect.
In a letter to Julia Kristeva, Vanier raises a question that signals another crack in the Normal: Why have L’Arche communities existed for more than 50 years, now numbering 150 or so? And what motivates some people to remain members of a L’Arche community for decades, serving human beings who may hardly be able to talk, who can’t follow complex thoughts, who can’t carry on an “interesting” conversation, and who may make terrible messes? It might seem that a normally intelligent person could manage to stick it out in such an environment only if he or she had an extraordinarily strong sense of duty and an iron will to do good deeds. But are there really enough such people to populate all those communities? Vanier’s answer to his own question is surprising:
It’s true that each community is as vulnerable as the persons we welcome. So what is the secret that allows L’Arche to remain in existence? I’m going to tell you: it’s pleasure.…If people come to live at L’Arche and stay a month, a year, or forty years, it’s because they’re happy and experience pleasure. No assistant stays here from duty, because he ‘ought to.’ None stays for the purpose of doing a ‘good deed.’
But this pleasure is countercultural—so powerful is the grip of “the tyranny of the Normal” that even those who have experienced the joy of living in a L’Arche community and serving the disabled find it hard to believe that their pleasure is real:
People think that, to stay at L’Arche, one has to be a sort of hero, a saint. But that’s not true: one stays at L’Arche because it pleases to do so. Many assistants depart despite the pleasure they’ve known because they’ve been formed…by a society governed by the desire for achievement, competition, and consumption that today carries away the planet and that moderns are crazy about. This ‘tyranny of the Normal’ is taught in the family (though not to the newborn), then at school, and finally everywhere in the world of work and the media. This desire ravages the lives of the disabled, the aged, and many poor people. The ‘tyranny of the Normal’ [in their own hearts?] weakens them further. The assistants who leave cannot believe that the pleasure they’ve known has any weight against this tyranny. Their pleasure seems unreal, received from another, too fragile, world; it tastes of heaven, a beatitude, a utopia.
In other words, Jean Vanier thinks that what, according to the philosophy of the Normal, is high and first class is actually low and third class; and he insists that what the philosophy of the Normal takes to be the highest and first class of things human—achievements, knowledge, cleverness, money, power, being admired by the smartest and most important people—is actually second class at best.
Learning What Is Important
Repeatedly, Vanier and people who know the inner dynamics of the L’Arche communities refer to the core—mentally disabled—members as the “teachers.” What do they teach, and how do they teach it? The answer seems to be that they teach priorities. They help the assistants to learn what’s up, and it’s not achievement, success, strength, skill, cleverness, and beating your rivals. What’s up is openness, tenderness, communion, grace, and freedom. The rest is down, and the core members show the way out from under its tyranny.“What is the meaning of life, if it isn’t being on top of one’s game? L’Arche’s answer is that it’s grace.”
The L’Arche experience, where “normal” assistants are brought into sustained intimate human contact with people who are “different” (and by the reckoning of the Normal, of very little human importance), opens up a human world that many assistants have hardly glimpsed before. It is as though the tyranny of the Normal has imprisoned them within the high walls of its police state of mind, preventing them from seeing out into a wide and beautiful world of the diversity of the human family. The beauty is in all those precious souls who were hidden from view by the invidious walls. The pleasure we mentioned earlier is a pleasure, not just of noticing the existence of these lovely persons, but of meeting them face-to-face, person-to-person, soul-to-soul, enjoying their company and rejoicing in their enjoyment of being loved, rejoicing in the humanity blooming in them.
Vanier likens what happens to the mentally disabled when they meet someone who reliably cares about them, and to the assistants when they see the response to their tenderness, to the mutual responsiveness of an infant and his mother:
Young children are perhaps the only people who are loved for their weakness and vulnerability. Because the baby is loved, he isn’t afraid; he doesn’t need to hide himself, but is exposed, completely naked in all his vulnerability, and is happy. The mother’s love, her tenderness, her sweet words, show the baby who he is: he’s precious, he has value, he is somebody. At the same time, his trust touches the mother’s heart, and she learns from him who she is.
The mentally disabled “make us discover, little by little, that disabled people have the gift of helping us to enter into a relational world, constituted of communion, that leads us to a transformation of our hearts.” The result of the ongoing encounter is that the hearts of both assistants and core members are revealed: assistants find that their validity doesn’t depend on winning in the competitions of life, and the core members discover that they exist as full members of the human community.“The L’Arche communities beautifully illustrate the paradox of up and down that peppers the New Testament.”
The core members are the most important teachers of the L’Arche communities. They teach the assistants who the assistants really are, both that they are made for love and that they are not yet very good at it. Vanier tells about his own learning from core members:
L’Arche has been for me a school for learning to love, to regard those who are different with respect, listening to them carefully, all the while seeking to disencumber myself of my prejudices and my desire for power. I know that progress in this attitude begins with becoming aware of my hang-ups, the knots in myself, and with the conviction that I need help in pursuing this path.…L’Arche has been for me the discovery of having breathed into me energies of wisdom and love, awakened by the weakest people. My tendencies to violence have also been revealed to me there.
Vanier recounts the story of taking Lucien, a severely autistic man who was subject to bouts of intolerable screaming, into L’Arche and caring for him. Vanier tells of discovering his own tendencies to violence and hatred, and his learning both to accept them and to control them. He tells of giving a lecture to some future officers of the French army and showing them a video of L’Arche that illustrated how at L’Arche members learn to “welcome their weaknesses.” Afterwards, he had misgivings about having shown such a video to people who are all supposed to be trained in courage, and apologized to the general in charge of the school. The general responded that at the school they had been discussing what happened with the American soldiers who tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq, and he said they were convinced that the Americans resorted to torture because they hadn’t learned to acknowledge their own weaknesses.
What is the meaning of life, if it isn’t being on top of one’s game? L’Arche’s answer is that it’s grace
. And what is grace? The center of grace is the idea of a gift. And what is a gift? A gift is a good thing that you receive from another who, moved by love, offers it voluntarily and without strings attached. (Strings pollute it with the spirit of justice and reciprocity.) Gift giving contrasts with selling or trading. It contrasts with merit and deserving; it contrasts with justice as tit for tat. Unlike justice and commerce, the proper response to grace is gratitude, and gratitude, unlike the satisfactions of commerce and justice, binds you in friendship and love with the giver. Gratitude’s impulse is to give back, to give thanks, to give affection and glad acknowledgment, not in the mode of payment, but in the spirit of mutual generosity. The central virtues of grace are generosity and gratitude; other virtues that belong in the grace family are hospitality and forgiveness.
I know young couples who, tired of life and of the stress experienced in business, join L’Arche. They seek communities like ours where they can live a more humane life, with an approach to liberation from the tyranny of the Normal. They find there a life shared with disabled persons. They learn from them what is essential to life: receiving and giving, and this implies disciplining themselves to welcome the other who is at the same time so different and so near to themselves.
Humility in L’Arche Communities
The L’Arche communities beautifully illustrate the paradox of up and down that peppers the New Testament. They turn upside down and downside up the Normal order of rank. Those who turn their backs on life in the spirit of envy and rivalry, of arrogance and self-importance, of snobbery and competition, of superiority and superciliousness, of pretentiousness and domination and self-righteousness, of vanity and grandiosity and power, and learn to love humbly and give themselves for “the least of these,” do often find that their lives are higher, better, more exalted, more human, richer, and happier than all the former striving after elevation could achieve. They find their lives fulfilled, raised up, in formerly unimaginable ways.