Jean Vanier: Essential Writings is a collection of short, probing insights from the Canadian ex-naval officer who founded L’Arche, a network of inclusive communities for people with intellectual disabilities. This is from a section called “Reality”:

41XN0szjLVL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I have always wanted to write a book called ‘The Right to Be a Rotter.’ A fairer title is perhaps ‘The Right to Be Oneself.’

One of the great difficulties of community life is that we sometimes force people to be what they are not: we stick an ideal image on them to which they are obliged to conform. We then expect too much of them and are quick to judge or to label. If they don’t manage to live up to this image or ideal, then they become afraid they won’t be loved or that they will disappoint others. So they feel obliged to hide behind a mask. Sometimes they succeed in living up to the image; they are able to follow all the rules of the community. Superficially this may give them a feeling of being perfect, but this is an illusion.

In any case, community is not about perfect people. It is about people who are bonded to each other, each of whom is a mixture of good and bad, darkness and light, love and hate. And community is the only earth in which each can grow without fear toward the liberation of the forces of love which are hidden in them. But there can be growth only if we recognize the potential, and this will never unfold if we prevent people from discovering and accepting themselves as they are, with their gifts and their wounds. They have the right to be rotters, to have their own dark places, and corners of envy and even hatred in their hearts. These jealousies and insecurities are part of our wounded nature. That is our reality.

Vanier writes extensively–and from personal experience–about the how, in any community, we tend to place idealized visions and expectations on others. In Mockingbird terms, the little-l law strikes again: it’s the set of vague and perhaps unspoken rules about who our neighbors (loose term) ought to be and how they should live. We also place these ideals on ourselves, calling them “Christian.”


There is before us the ideal presented by Jesus, which is a great ideal, and at the same time we try to accept the reality that we are terribly weak and unable to reach the ideal.

Not only are we weak, but we are continually hiding our own weakness. In our civilization we cannot say we are weak. If one admits to weakness, he admits death. We have a need to be right, to be conscious of our capacity and even more to convince others of our capacity, and to prove that we are someone. […]

It is difficult to accept that we make mistakes. When for example, we as cook burn something, we become angry or we find it difficult to accept, whereas in reality, the cook should be allowed to burn things from time to time. Instead of being able to say simply, ‘Well, today I’m not a good cook,’ we cut ourselves off from other people. The fact is, maybe we aren’t very good cooks, but we can take the cookbook and grow in cooking.

We must try to look at reality, the reality of our own weakness and then allow each other to make mistakes, trying with the help of the Holy Spirit to accept each other.

Vanier maintains an especially delicate take on the human potential for transformation: obviously, for example, intellectual disabilities cannot be cured away; we will not simply outgrow them. These displays of weakness are parts of reality, not necessarily weights to lift from our shoulders or nasty bugs to wipe off the windshield. If we expect the chaos of inherent humanity to become ordered and perfect, we might just pull our hair out—or flood the earth. In the words of Vanier’s fellow Canadian, Celine Dion, “On ne change pas…” We might one day become a stellar cook, but we don’t outrun OCD, autism, or original sin.

For Vanier, real transformation is not plotting the marginal decrease in the number of toast-burnings per week. Transformation might look more like receiving the ability to accept the occasional burn, and also that we might become angry about it, especially if it’s the last few pieces we have. It might look like learning to set a timer on the toaster, or asking for help.

In a talk given for Ontario Psychotherapy and Counseling, Vanier says:

You know, as we get weaker, it can bring people together.

So, it’s really beautiful to grow older. But as long as you have belonging. Because, if you get older and you have no belonging, there’s no one to say, ‘I’m with you in your weakness.’

So weakness is something that can bring us together. It becomes the cement of friendship, the cement of community. I need you, I love you. It brings us together. Not any weakness, but the fragility of life.