In the week following the death of Jean Vanier on May 7, the focus has been on his temporal accomplishments, his spiritual richness and his humble demeanour.
At age 90, he left a community of homes called L’Arche around the world and a legacy of loving, living and working with developmentally delayed people that has been fulsomely lauded.
But there is a larger lesson to be learned from this giant of a man before we forget him — and history is replete with human forgetfulness, especially of people who are soft and kind. The lesson is that a better world is possible. Simple. Some will snort and dismiss this notion as maudlin sentimentality.
Those will be the loudest voices. They are the ones who dominate our lives today in a world full of rage, hatred and mistrust; a world dominated by bullies, narcissists, racists, nationalists, populists, corrupt puppet governments, liars, cheats, thieves, pederasts and predators. And that’s just my list of the world’s sinners and the guilty. But, as the late Rabbi Abraham Heschel said: “Some are guilty; all are responsible.”
It’s clearly not enough to blame the very men and women we have elected to office for the angry tone of politics. We accept it. (The Conservative attack ad on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that he’s “not as advertised” offends me because of its tenor, not its subject. If Andrew Scheer believes he’s a better choice, tell me why.)
Vanier and others like him — few as they are — show all of us there is a better way to live. In Alberta, we are not two generations removed from warehousing (and sterilizing) the mentally disabled and believing it a “progressive step,” according to government propaganda.
We still warehouse those we deem unloved and unwanted although they’re called psychiatric hospitals for the mentally disturbed or prisons and penitentiaries for criminals. There’s a lot to be said about how one regards that last statement, although I’m not suggesting they aren’t necessary, just that shoving people away should not render them less human or out of mind.
While Vanier’s work was among the so-called “least of our brethren,” his message is universal. One does not have to be, as Vanier was, a Roman Catholic, or even a Christian to take his message of how to be truly human and humane.
Nobody expects immediate change, but the thought that change is possible is powerful.
Just one act of kindness can make a difference. As Dr. Brian Goldman writes in his book, The Power of Kindness — Why Empathy is Essential in Everyday Life: “Why not seek out someone you can’t stand and do something for them that is both kind and unexpected? … There’s no guarantee the other person will reciprocate. Who cares if they don’t? You’re unleashing some goodwill on the world.”
Vaclav Havel, the man who led what would become the Czech Republic out from under the tyranny of communism in 1989, said: “It is largely up to the politicians which social forces they choose to liberate and which they choose to suppress, whether they rely on the good in each citizen or the bad.”
I do not believe our politicians are purposefully evil, stupid or ignorant. (I know too many to think that way.) I do not believe they like hurting people. I must only presume they are completely unaware of the devastating effect they are having on people who are the least of their brethren.
I know that’s a biblical reference. But who will speak out for the poor, the lonely, the unwanted, unloved and desperate?
All of us have that responsibility and each individual bears an equal share of the weight.
Many Albertans believe the “new order of things” in North America is a welcome shift to the right, to a kind of conservatism that believes the only poor people are lazy people.
It’s a conservatism that believes the only homeless people are drunks and addicts; that young people on the streets are miscreants and layabouts.
This is the kind of conservatism that believes you must be “deserving” in order to be worthy of consideration. That you must be heterosexual to be welcome in our communities, that “family values” means there is only one kind of family worthy of concern.
Such thinking ignores the “least” of our brethren.
It is never too late to voice an opinion on matters that affect all of us. There is always another election; always another chance. We need to take it, as citizens. And if it would help to remind people we have an innate ability to think and articulate and ponder and produce, then we need to do it.
That’s the lasting lesson from Jean Vanier.
Catherine Ford is a regular columnist for Postmedia's Calgary Herald.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019