Jean Vanier

Ten Rules for Life: The wisdom of Jean Vanier

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

Last September, Jean Vanier turned 90. Vanier is the son of a former Governor General of Canada, a Rhodes scholar, a philosopher and theologian. He is best known as the founder of the L’Arche communities in 1964. He became aware of the plight of thousands of people who were institutionalized because of developmental disabilities and decided that he would invite two men to leave their institution and live with him. That became the foundation of L’Arche, a community in which people with disabilities lived with those who cared for them.

Since then, L’Arche communities have been established in countries around the world. A governing philosophy of the communities is Vanier’s belief that people with disabilities are teachers, rather than burdens bestowed upon families.

To commemorate his 90th birthday, Vanier released a YouTube video laying out his “ten rules for life to become more human”. Notice that last phrase—“to become more human”. In this video, Vanier speaks about success, vulnerability, listening, fear and love.

1. Accept the reality of your body. “For a man to become a man he has to be at ease with his body. That body is fragile, like all bodies. We are born in weakness (as a little child); we will die in weakness. And when we get to a certain age — ninety — we begin to get weaker. We forget. We become more fragile. I need more rest. I have to accept that I’m ninety. I’m not fifty, or forty, or thirty. I can’t do all I would have liked to have done.”

2. Talk about your emotions and difficulties. “Men, in particular, have difficulty expressing their emotions. The biggest difficulty for men is that when they’re upset, they get angry quickly; anger very quickly becomes violence. When they don’t feel successful, men will compensate by using alcohol, or drugs, because reality is difficult. So they tuck themselves away from reality. But being human is to love, and we must learn to speak about our emotions.”

3. Don’t be afraid of not being successful. “We judge quickly because the need to win is so powerful. But you have to discover you are beautiful as you are regardless of whether or not you are successful.”

4. In a relationship, take the time to ask ‘How are you?’ “Love is linked to weakness. Frequently men don’t see the tyranny of normality.” Vanier goes on to ask, “Has he married his success in work, or has he married his wife? What is the most important? Is it to grow up the ladder in promotion?” Take the time to ask how others are, what they need, and try to listen.

5. Stop looking at your phone. Be present! “In a world where we’re being more controlled by television and the internet, where we are more fascinated by technology,” he says to young people, “remember that you are people of communication.” He goes on to ask, “Are you people of presence? Are you able to listen?”

6. Ask people ‘What is your story?’ Vanier emphasises the importance of relating to people and listening to them. He says, “To be human is to know how to relate. To relate is to listen: Tell me your story. Tell me where your pain is. Tell me where your heart is. What are the things you desire? To be human is to know how to listen, how to meet people, how to work with people, how to love people.” He adds, “I need to listen to you because your story is different to my story.”

7. Be aware of your own story. “You are precious. You have your own ideas: political, religious, non-religious, you have your own vision of the world. Your vision for yourself.” He acknowledges that when we fear our identities, worldviews, and cherished opinions are being taken away from us we are liable to become angry. He adds, “we have to discover where our fears are because that is the fundamental problem.” He asks, “Maybe in your story there is a story about fear.”

8. Stop prejudice: meet people. “This is the big thing about being human — to meet people.” We need to “meet people who are different, not just people who are like us, who are part of my culture, my world, my tribe. We can discover that the other person is beautiful.”

9. Listen to your deepest desire and follow it. “We are very different from birds and dogs. Animals are very different. We human beings are not just here to eat and make babies. We are different … we are not satisfied with the finite. There is a sort of cry of the infinite within us.” He asks, “Where is your greatest desire?”

10. Remember that you’ll die one day. “I’m not the one who’s the king of the world and I’m certainly not God. I’m just somebody who was born ninety years ago and will die in a few years time and then everybody will have forgotten me. This is reality. We’re all here, but we are just local people, passengers in a journey. We get into the train, we get out of the train, the train goes on.”

Words of wisdom, spoken from a life of wisdom.

Rev. Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook

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