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Thinking about Jean Vanier

In my car a few days ago, I heard on 99.1 snippets from an interview with Jean Vanier founder of L’Arche in Trosly-Breuil, France. Of course I knew the name from my days at OCT and considered him a particularly special human being by the work he had done with the disabled. But listening to him, even a few slow thoughtful words held me momentarily in my seat. The quiet reflective quality of his words was wistful, thoughtful and able to pierce my consciousness.

He said “Growth happens in the dark”,that we never SEE when change occurs and he even suggested that pinpointing the actual moment of conception is difficult.Yet we are quite aware once it happens. I concurred in my head that it’s true. We cannot observe our children transition from cherubic babies to gangly adolescents, the process incremental -until one day as we stand back in awe, we wonder, when did that happen? But metaphorically, darkness, unknowingness, confusion most often precedes insight, struggles that push us forward.The cliché of dark before the dawn. Foreplay of questions, queries, back and forth proceeds the eruption of action.

Although Vanier’s strong religious devotion is far from my own, I was interested in his theories, some gleaned once he worked with his challenged crew of people, especially the mentally challenged . Formerly a student, scholar and professor of the mind in his studies into philosophy, he transformed his beliefs into body- based ones, simplified through personal observations. In Becoming Human, Vanier attests that his initial experiences with Raphael, Philippe and others at L’Arche changed him from the hurried, goal-oriented person he was and “brought me into the world of simple relationships of fun and laughter. It has brought me back into my body, because people with disabilities do not delight in intellectual or abstract conversation. They were not very interested in my knowledge or my ability to do things, but rather they needed my heart and my being,” he stated. Further, Vanier was convinced that he needed to be present in a concrete way with those suffering from various mental and emotional disabilities.

I often thought I lived in my head even as a girl, for my feet as I manoeuvred the ledges of sideway curbs on my ramble to school catapulted me onto the road, knees scraped and bleeding.How many times would I return home with scrapes and cuts, my mother bandaging and wondering how a simple walk to school could cause these wounds? My tottering body held/ holds sway over my head, calling out, directing even overpowering my thoughts. Much later, the years of herniated disks filled my being with not much more than the pain of movement, overriding or cancelling out any lofty contemplations or deep discussions. Only with the passage of time and learning how to reroute the pain could I silence the voice of my body that shouted out over my other extremities.

Vanier refers to “ goofing around”, simple antics when he worked with his followers, and who can discount deep laughter or meditation disrupting pain? L’Arche Sudbury here in Canada hosts numerous events such as dances, art programs, laughter yoga, cooking classes and music therapy, all focused on a single goal “to reveal the gifts of persons with intellectual disabilities through mutually transformative relationships.” The focus on doing is foremost in the activities that are structured to produce tangible,feel- good results. I think of that delight of doing, the smiles: as my grandson described the Eggs Benedict prepared for his other grandmother last weekend , even though there was no ham! And as we laughed together, we shared a communion of sorts, entering into each other’s presences, aware of not much more than the sound of one another.

Living in the body includes that laughter, even chortling that can overcome and disrupt pain. Scientifically, there appears to be investigation and support for the idea. Humor in a study entitled” Humor Therapy: Relieving Chronic Pain and Enhancing Happiness for Older Adults” has shown to increase lung capacity, strengthen abdominal muscles ( sure. You feel laughter in your tummy, right?) and increase immunoglobulin A, which is one of the major antibodies produced by the immune system. The researchers found that humor caused reductions in cortisol, growth hormones, and epinephrine. “Following laughter or other humorous encounters, natural killer cell activity, immunoglobulin G and immunoglobulin M levels increase[d] for as long as 12 hours, and these evaluations br[ought] about beneficial health outcomes. The use of humor consistently result[ed]in improvements in pain thresholds. Humor also lead to the release of endorphins in the brain, which help to control pain [30]. In a laboratory study of pain tolerance…, participants in the humor group had a significant increase in pain tolerance as compared to the other groups.” (See ,Mimi M. Y. Tse,1 Anna P. K. Lo,2 Tracy L. Y. Cheng,3 Eva K. K. Chan,4 Annie H. Y. Chan,5 and Helena S. W. Chung6)

Norman Cousins (June 24, 1915 – November 30, 1990) was an American political journalist, author, professor, and world peace advocate who also believed in the healing power of laughter. Researching the biochemistry of human emotions,Cousins maintained he experienced pain relief even as he coped with a sudden-onset case of a crippling connective tissue disease and a diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis.He created his own recovery program by taking massive doses of Vitamin C , and he watching nonstop classic comedic films along with sequences of Candid Camera. Cousins had always possessed a “ robust love of life itself”. He is quoted as saying,”I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep…When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval.”

These thoughts for the need of simplicity, finding a way to deal with bodily needs resonates. Yet not all of us are programmed to laugh away our serious troubles. I focus on my father’s determination to put on foot in front of the other, and trudge along. I think of my father’s body destroyed by polio and wonder at his propensity to move, to struggle, to climb stairs even. Once at the CNE, he climbed three steep flights of stairs to use a bathroom. Back then, I did not think this a heroic act. Now I do, especially when I use Shoppers’ Elevators to access my yoga classes. And my mother’s “ shakes” ,as she called her tremors, that propelled her head to shake no when she meant yes. Yet she did not cease from interacting with people, even offering sweet supportive comments in her daily exchanges with shopkeepers.

Here too in Vanier’s interview a few days ago, he cited his own naïvety and persistence that drove his intuitive responses that lead him on his life’s search. Forever, the dialectic of mind- body has sparked discussion.It is that belief that the body could provide the answer.

Hearing the interchange last week gave me some hope that there are/ were in this world, those whose theories actually improve the state of our being. With Trump and Ford, they disrupt our lives as we ordinary people, both healthy and infirm, challenged and robust are held hostage. And with the perpetual attack yet again on women’s rights, the Vaniers of the world provide some relief from the burden of these politicians who would crush our freedoms.

Maybe they need a way to laugh, empathize, make concrete and experience themselves as real, as feeling , truly know in their bodies the pain of others so that they might walk in the shoes of someone else, step away from their blissful ignorance and arrogance : understanding the true meaning of what it is to be human.

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2 thoughts on “Thinking about Jean Vanier

  1. Did you know that Norman Cousins officiated at the wedding of my uncle David Martin and his first wife Judy who had been Cousins’ personal secretary?

    Sent from my iPhone

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    • No.
      Small world. When I began writing, I remembered Auntie Marion talked about a Norman who watched movies for his pain. At first I thought it was Norman Mailer, but googled
      Speaking of pain, my back is acting up. How quickly we forget…

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