To be Fully Human*
By Conor Friedersdorf
Each year, the Templeton Foundation gives a large monetary prize to someone who excels in life’s spiritual dimensions. This year’s winner, Jean Vanier, received $1.7 million.
The Independent sketched the beginnings of his life’s work:
Mr Vanier left the Navy in 1960 after almost drowning. He went to live in Paris to think, and write, about the meaning of life. A Dominican priest, Thomas Philippe, took him to see a mental institution near Meaux, east of the French capital.
“I was horrified,” he recalled.
“There were 80 people living in a building meant for 40. They were subjected to terrible violence.”
Mr Vanier bought a house in the village of Trosly-Breuil near Compiègne and invited two men from the institution to live with him.
“People with mental disabilities have been among the most oppressed and humiliated,” he said.
“They were called idiots. But these are beautiful people.”
He went on to found an organization that pairs healthy people and mentally disabled people to live together in homes. It now spans the globe. In a video recorded in conjunction with the prize, Vanier took up a profound question: “What does it mean to be fully human?” His answer is worthy of our attention. His delivery in this video is quite good. I’ve also pasted text of his remarks below it.
To be fully human is really to discover who I am. And who am I? I’m a member of the huge human family, where we’re all brothers and sisters wherever we come from, whatever our culture, whatever our religion. We were born in weakness. We will grow. And we will die. So the story of each one of us is a story of accepting that we are fragile.
To discover who I am is also to discover a unity between my head and my heart. The head we are called to grow, to understand, and to work through things. But the heart is something else. It is about concern by others. We are born into a relationship. And that relationship that we all lived is a relationship with our mom. We were so small. So weak. So fragile. And we heard the words which are the most important, and maybe the words we need to hear all our life: I love you as you are. You are my beloved son or my beloved daughter. And this is what gives consistency to people. They know they are loved. And that’s what they’re seeking, maybe for the rest of their lives.
So there’s the head, where we are called to understand and to deepen the laws of the world, of nature, and so on. But there’s also the heart. The heart is a very fragile part of us.
And terribly fragile in the little child. If the little child is not loved at the moment of his birth or the few months after there’s a deep, deep inner wound. And from that wound comes up anguish, from anguish comes fighting and wanting to win, and to prove that I am someone.
Fundamentally, to develop the heart is to see that in each person you are beautiful. You see, the whole thing with human beings is to learn to love. And to love is not to do things for people. It’s not to tell people what to do. It’s to reveal. What do we reveal? ‘You’re important.’ You might be important in the things you do. But there’s something even more important than what you do. It’s who you are. And who you are is something about your heart by being open to others. A heart that is not filled with fear.
The problem today is that many people are filled with fear. They are frightened of people, frightened of losing. And because people are filled with fear they can no longer be open to others. They’re protecting themselves, protecting their class, protecting their group, protecting their religion. We’re all in a state of protection. To become fully human is to let down the barriers, to open up. And to discover that every person is beautiful. Under all the jobs they’re doing, their responsibilities, there is you. And you, at the heart of who you are, you’re somebody also crying out, “Does somebody love me not just for what I can do, but for who I am?”
So to be fully human is the development of the heart and the head, and then we can become one. One inside of us. Becoming one inside of us we can little by little let down the ego, the need to prove that I am better than you. And then I can begin to see in other people, other groups, other religions, other cultures, that people are wonderful. And then we can come and we can work for peace together.