Jean Vanier’s alternative way of looking at conflict

Jean Vanier was the founder of the international L’Arche (“The Ark”) movement in the Sixties. In 1964, Vanier invited two men with mental disabilities, to move into a house and to live in community—together—in Trosly-Breliel, France. Eventually Henri Noumen (author of The Wounded Healer) became involved & lived in one of the communities; since that time ninety-five L’Arche communities have sprung up in twenty-four countries. For twenty-five years, Jean Vanier has lived & worked in communities with residents who have intellectual, physical & mental disabilities.

The source of one of the greatest levels of pain for most of the community members, has been that of rejection. “The feeling you are seen as ugly, dirty, a burden, of no value. That is the pain I have discovered in the hearts of our people” (p.13). A key for people living in such a place like L’Arche is that of living in community. The reason for this is the feeling of bonding and acceptance, and knowing they can be just who they are. When individual members feel this, their minds & bodies reach a sense of peace. “Their tense, angry, fearful, depressed body gradually becomes relaxed, peaceful and trusting” (p. 15).

Make no mistake, living within a specific community isn’t easy and it’s more than some abstract idea. It takes real committed effort to make community work. Most of us don’t have the desire or means to live within some kind of purposeful community. But many of us may be involved in various communities from which we draw joy, strength, dialogue, and social interaction. Some of the same principles may be able to be applied in those groups.

The author felt like it would be helpful to look at conflict & its resolutions from a more alternative, contemplative or meditative point of view. Essentially, Vanier suggests there are four sources: • #1–“Community is a place of conflict: conflict inside each one of us. There is first of all the conflict between the values of the world and the values of community, between togetherness—not just proximity—to make decisions together and not all alone. Loss of independence is painful, particularly in a world where we have been told to be independent and to cultivate the feeling that ‘I don’t need anyone else.’” (p. 30-31). We see, then, that Jean Vanier’s template of conflict resolution has to do with acknowledging our own pain, loss, rejection, thoughts of negative self-esteem. When we are able to do this, we are starting to know about ‘healing brokenness through brokenness.

• #2–“The next source of conflict is in learning to give space to others so that they may grow, rather than competing with them and lording over them. Our world is a world of competition. We have all been taught to live in a competitive world and to win, to be a success, and to move up the ladder of promotion and to get ahead. It is hard then in community to stand back in order to help others grow and exercise their gifts. There is then in community a loss of aggressive competition cultivated in our societies” (p.31). The conflict resolution suggested here is both counter-cultural & counter-intuitive; it means we detach from the ways of power, superiority, dominance, and help others within a relationship, as we are able, to apply some concrete tactics & exercises to our own actions first. Think of ways that you can apply Vanier’s suggestions: are there specific areas concerning conflict that you might be able to apply Vanier’s observations?

• #3–The next conflict Vanier describes is attempting to balance a care for others and a care for ourselves. “It means to discover that our greatest freedom is to help others walk to freedom” (p.31). This is always a difficult one to really practice—balance doesn’t come easy to human beings at all! I suppose we’re just naturally off-balance to begin with. That’s probably because our own personal & interpersonal systems are so complex, and much of the time we’re unaware of the need to consciously do something for our own self-care—we make excuses like ‘I don’t have the time.’ Another area that seems to come with this is one’s religious service to others. We become so attached to our “serving,” acting, & doing that we can end up burning out, while we’re thinking we’re practicing service to others.

• #4—The final source of conflict referenced by Vanier is between being open and closed; in some cultures, the family, extended & beyond, stay connected, meet regularly, & do common rituals together, they still may not be an open system. A part of this is due to culturization and its subsequent conditioning processes. As Vanier writes, …, people can sacrifice their personal growth, freedom and becoming, to the god of belonging—belonging which gives security and power…A community which is called to keep people open is a vulnerable community that takes risks. It does not hang on to its own security and power obliging people to stay” (p.32).

There’s another piece of the story of L’Arche Communities. In the West today, we are in a pandemic of powerlessness (there are many reasons for this, but there isn’t the time in this forum to go into all of those—for another blog!). The powerlessness is pervasive throughout the systems of our culture. Powerlessness leads to the notion that ‘nothing can be done about anything.’ The problems are too big & overwhelming; we’ve been trying for years to affect changes, and mostly things have remained status quo. This is often the reasoning we use with ourselves and it has become exponentially multiplied within our culture.

The brokenness found in L’Arche Communities is first seen in ourselves; in other words, this means we need to find a way to be reconciled, first with ourselves. This “brokenness” expressed in the pain of many people around the world, finds its expression in its own community, and in this fertile soil human beings can fruit, blossom, and bloom in their own power. All their lives they’ve lived in a “hot house” of the Other, but at L’Arche they become one of a community, and the community is a place where one’s personal power can be developed, by looking into other’s mirrors, we are supported by the community & our friends and family, as we transform into a beautiful & powerful picture of change!

© Christopher Bear-Beam September 12, 2014

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