Becoming Human by Jean Vanier

Tue, May 25, 2010


Becoming Human by Jean VanierJean Vanier’s Becoming Human serves as an excellent companion piece to Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget which I reviewed earlier this month.  You may recall Lanier’s thesis:  in creating software that facilitates online interaction, designers often contribute to alienating experiences because they fail to give prior thought to the question of what it means to be human.  While, at some level, the question of what it means to be human is unanswerable, that does not make asking the question a fruitless exercise.  The question is more like a koan, where the simple fact of contemplating it yields insights.  Vanier contemplates it deeply, not to give an answer, but to share the insights that seventy years of experience have offered him.

Jean Vanier is the founder of l’Arche which now has 130 communities throughout the world serving the needs of people who struggle with developmental disabilities.  Vanier began his career in the navy, signing up when he was only thirteen, but quit to study philosophy and theology in Paris.  Along the way, a spiritual mentor named Father Thomas Philippe introduced him to some disabled people under his care and this was the seed that flowered as l’Arche.  Although religious belief lies at the foundation of all Vanier’s work, his is not an overtly religious voice.  Doing and living are more important than the particulars of religious belief.  Indeed, he notes:  “It is my belief that it is not religion or culture at the root of human conflict but the way in which groups use religion or culture to dominate one another.”  Absent religious pride, it is entirely possible to apply Vanier’s approach from within any religious context.  Not surprisingly, he writes with a simplicity that sounds much like Thich Naht Hanh‘s and he refers to metta, the Buddhist practice of loving kindness.

Published in 1998, Becoming Human is part of the CBC Massey Lectures and had originally been presented as five talks titled:

  1. Loneliness
  2. Belonging
  3. From Exclusion to Inclusion: A Path of Healing
  4. The Path to Freedom
  5. Forgiveness

At the outset of the first lecture, Vanier tells us exactly what to expect:

“This book is about the liberation of the human heart from the tentacles of chaos and loneliness, and from those fears that provoke us to exclude and reject others.  It is a liberation that opens us up and leads us to the discovery of our common humanity.  I want to show that this discovery is a journey from loneliness to a love that transforms, a love that grows in and through belonging, a belonging that can include as well as exclude.  The discovery of our common humanity liberates us from self-centred compulsions and inner hurts; it is the discovery that ultimately finds its fulfillment in forgiveness and in loving those who are our enemies.  It is the process of truly becoming human.”

The first two chapters set out a tension which is central to the emotional development of each one of us.  On the one hand, there is loneliness.  In the West we celebrate individuality and enshrine this in both our Darwinian economics and our rights-based language of public engagement.  But this has a dark underside.  Too much of an emphasis on personal freedom and individual achievement leads to loneliness.

On the other hand, there is belonging.  Each of us needs the affirmation that comes from belonging to social groups like family and community.  Like individual achievement, a sense of belonging contributes to our personal identity.  However, belonging also has a dark side.  Belonging can be overvalued at the expense of personhood.  What’s more, belonging can produce community that works to undermine the personhood of those excluded from the community.

Vanier’s writing is prescient and could be used to analyze the current manifestation of belonging called nationalism which has engendered extreme forms of xenophobia that have resulted in labeling all Muslims terrorists and all Mexicans illegal aliens.  It is in the tension between individuality and belonging that we foster the conditions for becoming human.  Vanier calls this a “place of mediation.”

While there is no neatly drawn map for locating this place, Vanier offers some guide posts.  The most important of these is his focus on weakness.  Most of his life has been devoted to those marginalized because of developmental disabilities.  In a survival-of-the-fittest world that values strength and competence, these people seem to have nothing to contribute.  But Vanier’s experience contradicts this.  If we let them, the “poor in spirit” draw us out of ourselves, they break open our hearts, they elicit from us a love our world so desperately needs.  “It is not just a question of performing good deeds for those who are excluded but of being open and vulnerable to them in order to receive the life that they can offer; it is to become their friends.”  Another of Vanier’s guide posts is forgiveness.  The power of forgiveness is liberative.  It frees us from the power of hatred and from the paralyzing power of fear.

Returning to my opening paragraph, how can Vanier’s meditation on what it means to be human help us in meeting Lanier’s challenge to make the internet a more human and humane environment?

I think it’s worth noting that many of the issues Lanier identifies with respect to the internet are the same issues we find in the wider world.  Social networks demonstrate many of the same dynamics.  They tend to be Darwinian in nature and create situations in which people and groups can (often unwittingly) manifest their fears through behaviour that excludes and marginalizes.  The major difference, perhaps, is that things happen more quickly online and so this tends to intensify encounters while reducing opportunities for the moderation that comes from reflection.

An effective approach to life online might incorporate many of Vanier’s paths to freedom and steps towards forgiveness.  So, for example, an effective user might deliberately seek out marginalized voices – videos from Kenya or blogs by people suffering from mental health issues.  Another approach is to read deeply.  Or, to put it differently:  you must work to recontextualize the fragments you encounter online.  For example, if you stumble upon a blog post or an article that seems outrageous in tone, read around the post.  Learn more about the author.  See if you can discern a story underneath that is pushing the author to an extreme perspective.  This becomes an act of forgiveness.  It’s far easier to let go of someone else’s extreme views when you understand the painful experiences which may have given rise to those views.

How can these habits be “forced” on users through better design?  I have no immediate answer to this last question.  Part of the problem is that approaches to online interaction have become so ubiquitous that it’s hard to imagine other ways to interact.  Maybe we begin, as Vanier did, by creating small communities like l’Arche which pair voices – the vulnerable and the privileged – in safe settings.  I have no idea what that might look like, but I throw it out there for others to chew on.

books, justice, philosophy, religion, reviews

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