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The Table Video

Lynn Underwood& Array Array

How Suffering Reveals Who We Are

Senior Research Scholar, Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence at Case Western Reserve University
Professor of Psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University
June 9, 2017

How Suffering Reveals Who We Are


There’s this quality of dire circumstances and perhaps the suffering that emerges from it that reveals, it reveals something about the human condition in the abstract, but it also reveals something about particular individuals and the way they experience the world.

You can see this in some of the life and thought of Jean Vanier, the found of L’Arche. L’Arche communities being those communities for the disabled, sometimes very severely disabled, where there’re communities of people living together, some disabled, some not and it’s this opportunity for the human condition to be revealed.

And that’s kind of this language that you find in Jean Vanier. Lynn, I wonder if you could just comment on in what ways have you seen dire circumstances reveal more of what we are, who we are?

I actually met Jean Vanier many years ago in Belfast and it was lovely to have met him. And it kind of inspired me, his work inspired me. The whole idea that those who I would think are suffering, maybe aren’t suffering as much as the people we don’t think of as us, people who are not disabled.

And I think one of the things he, you know, how do we think of suffering? Sometimes we think, oh this person is doing poorly and they must be suffering. One of the things about Jean Vanier’s communities is that everybody is suffering and it kind of starts out, we’re all suffering. And, of course, the person with the intellectual disabilities is having some particular problems.

I had an opportunity recently to actually spend some time actually doing interviews with people in the L’Arche community in Cleveland. And both the people who are in the community and the assistants, the people who were living together with people and the people who were in the community were being cared for in a way that acknowledged the fact that they had something to give. I think that was just a really powerful thing. How do we envision disability?

One of the things that gets revealed is our deep vulnerability. So many of us cover that vulnerability and we find ourselves enclosed, sheltered, but it doesn’t take much for that shelter to become a prison.

Well, this is it. And one of the things that we think of, I mean, I remember when I met Vanier, I thought of myself being really intrinsically linked with my intellectual prowess. Whatever that was at the time. I thought I didn’t really have a lot of value outside of what I could do intellectually. And yet, here he was reaching out to these people who did not have great intellectual prowess and also seeing the value in them. It made me re-envision my own situation. I think one of the things that happens when you are in dire circumstances, is you can’t rely on your functional abilities as well.

Let’s say you have a spinal cord injury or you have a stroke, what defined you can no longer define you and that may be a good thing. Being defined. I know I had a friend who was a college professor and he had a stroke and he could no longer speak. Well, speaking was his thing. He was a college professor. How did he then re-envision himself in that. I think sometimes dire circumstances can call us to a deeper level of who we really are and what’s important in terms of who we are in the world.

Man: Yeah.