Jean Vanier, Man and Woman He Made Them (Ottawa: Novalis, 2007).
Julia Kristeva and Jean Vanier, Leur regard perce nos ombres: Échange (Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2011).
Hans S. Reinders, Ed., The Paradox of Disability: Responses to Jean Vanier and L’Arche Communities from Theology and Science (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2010).
Attitudes towards disability have undergone significant developments in our time. Jean Vanier’s account of the isolation and anguish of the disabled men and women hidden away in desolate psychiatric institutions in northern France in the 1960’s seems like a relic of a bygone age. The dominant stigma at that time was that a disabled child was a punishment by God. While not every child shared the fate of being placed in a state asylum, where the conditions of life in no way enabled their human flourishing, it was the cultural norm that these children would lead hidden lives, away from the schools, main streets and churches that formed the social fabric of the local community.
Since the 1970’s, however, there has been a significant shift in our attitudes towards people with disabilities in Western countries. In the United States, for example, a sharp contrast can be seen between Justice Holmes’ infamous dictum in Buck v. Bell (1927) and the more recent Preface to the Americans with Disabilities Act (1999). Arguing for the mandatory sterilization of the “feeble minded” so that they would not produce “socially inadequate offspring,” the majority decision in Buck v. Bell stated:
We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
The tone of public opinion has since changed dramatically. Fifteen years ago, the U.S. Congress proclaimed the following in the Americans with Disabilities Act:The Congress finds that (1) “physical or mental disabilities in no way diminish a person’s right to fully participate in all aspects of society, yet many people with physical or mental disabilities have been precluded from doing so because of discrimination; (2) historically, society has tended to isolate and segregate individuals with disabilities, and… such forms of discrimination against individuals with disabilities continue to be a serious and pervasive social problem ; [and] (3) the continuing existence of unfair and unnecessary discrimination and prejudice denies people with disabilities the opportunity to compete on an equal basis and to pursue those opportunities for which our free society is justifiably famous.” Many other Western countries have witnessed this progressive movement towards the integration of people with disabilities as equal citizens into their schools and communities. For example, the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (1976) and France’s Etats Généraux du Handicap (2005) reflect this movement.
However, beneath what appears to be a new attitude of acceptance and respect for persons with disabilities, one befitting the modern, liberal citizen, there lurks at the same time the latent attitude that the lives of people with disabilities are actually not acceptable. Beneath the fragile façade of “inclusion” and “integration,” the buzz words driving the change in public opinion and government policy for the last 30 years, there lies a deep seated contrary belief that it would have been better for them if they had never been born. The growing moral pressure for parents to undergo pre-natal screening and the tremendous increase in disability discrimination abortions reflects the attitude that their existence should certainly be avoided at all cost.
Burdened with the knowledge of their child’s future physical or mental disability, parents today often find themselves shouldering the almost inconceivable “responsibility” of deciding what constitutes a worthwhile “quality of life” for their child and for their families. And as many studies show, more often than not these parents are deciding to end the life of their disabled children rather than carry them to term.“Burden of Knowledge: Tracking Prenatal Health; In New Tests for Fetal Defects, Agonizing Choices for Parents” (New York Times, June 20, 2004) and “Dreaded Diseases Dwindle with Gene Testing” (NBC News, February 17, 2010) report the staggering number of such decisions and the stories of the families who make them. The most common reason reported for terminating such a pregnancy is the future “quality of life”: Will our child suffer too much because of his or her disability? Will he or she be too much of a burden on our marriage and family life?
While in some ways we seem to have come very far in our attitudes towards disability, in light of the above we must ask ourselves: Has much changed? The widespread acceptance of a vision of “quality of life” that idolizes ease and success or at least one that excludes suffering, seems to land us back where we began. One thing that has changed is that with the availability of genetic screening and growing acceptance of abortion for genetic reasons, disability is no longer perceived as the fault of God, but the fault of the parents who didn’t intervene to prevent the birth of such a child. We should ask ourselves if this systematic attempt to eradicate disability will result in more shame, rejection and stigma surrounding people who are born with disabilities.
Yet, as many of us know, these attitudes are not the full story. Many of us have witnessed the joy and humanity of a family member or friend with a disability and the richness that an encounter with them has brought to our lives. Many of us know from our experience that the suffering of a child, spouse or friend due to a disability, while it is not willed for its own sake, nonetheless has the capacity to evoke in us a depth of relationship and compassion that we would not have experienced otherwise. The vulnerable and innocent suffering of a child with a disability does put a strain on one’s marriage and family life, but as many families attest,this can bea unique path to enter more deeply into the meaning of marriage and family life, rather than being only an obstacle.
This more profound understanding of disability, however, is something that one seems to discover primarily in an encounter with a person with disabilities or a family who has welcomed him or her. While logical arguments about the nature of personhood and the rights of the unborn are helpful and essential, it is often in the encounter with a person with a disability that a new level of certainty is gained about the value of their life no matter what their level of disability. It is such an encounter that is able to cut through the dominant but deceivingnarrative of what constitutes a respectable “quality of life.”
Such was my experience when I met a young man whose family ran a home for people with disabilities while on a mission trip to Latin America at the end of my sophomore year of college. The contrast between what I perceived as “quality of life” as a hyper-achieving college sophomore (the classic case of success, awards, great grades, popularity, etc.) and the quality of life of the poor yet joyous Mexicans who welcomed me, made the witness of my friend’s human encounter with people with disabilities all the more convincing and attractive. He introduced me to the thought of Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche community, who through his own encounter with people with disabilities discovered, he says, what it means to be human.
With a sincere thirst for meaning, and aware than my previous ideals had been called into question, I returned to my college campus that fall and introduced myself to the local L’Arche community. They happened to have their day program for adults with disabilities on my very campus. I began to drop in to volunteer between my classes, and slowly I was befriended by Margie, then Dorothy and Sam. Through these visits spent playing cards, knitting, enjoying a cup of tea, or sometimes just sitting together, they introduced me to a different “quality of life,” exemplified in spending time together, listening, friendship and celebration.Thus began a long friendship with the L’Arche community. During a yearlong visit to L’Arche in France, I was invited to live in Le Surgeon, a home for 6 adults with severe disabilities, most of whom were unable to speak or conduct their daily lives with any degree of autonomy. Sitting around the dinner table that first night, I remember feeling completely out of my league, uncertain if I would ever learn to communicate with and get to know these people that seemed so completely different from me, physically, mentally and culturally. But little by little, the slow but intense daily rhythm of community life enabled a real encounter.
It is the joyous proclamation of the possibility of such an encounter with persons with disabilities and their unique capacity to reveal the depths of our common humanity that characterizes Jean Vanier’s message and the community of L’Arche which he founded.In 1964, Vanier, who at the time was teaching philosophy at the University of Toronto and searching for his vocation, was invited by Père Thomas Phillippe, his spiritual father, to visit an institution for men with disabilities in a village in northern France where he was serving as a chaplain. Vanier tells the story of his first encounter with this small institution of 30 disabled men, ages 16-40, who, living under lock and key, displayed violence and anger the likes of which he had never seen in his privileged upbringing. Rejected by their families and protected from the local villagers, Vanier intuited that the source of their anguish was a cry for human relationship, for an encounter with someone who showed them love and concern. Through their cries for friendship, Vanier felt the prompting of the Spirit to do something for men in their situation. In dialogue with Père Thomas, he bought a small rundown home in the village and he welcomed two men from the local psychiatric asylum at Clermont to live with him and share a common life based on the spirit of the Beatitudes. And thus began the community of L’Arche which has since grown to be an International Federation of 146 communities in 35 countries.
Through the establishment of small houses for these men where they could feel “at home” and places of work, recreation, and worship, Vanier began to witness a slow transformation in them from anguish to joy, from violence to peace. After twenty-five years of life in the community, Vanier wrote Man and Woman He Made Them, in which he shares what he has discovered about the human person through his daily life at L’Arche. Written partly in dialogue with John Paul II’s Wednesday Audiences on the nuptial meaning of the body which were appearing at the same time, the book is “about the importance of relationship and community as the place where people with learning disabilities can grow and develop both humanly and spiritually, where they can grow in faithful love (2).”
In this book, Vanier articulates a Christian anthropology that, while inspired by the experiences of people with disabilities, is universal in its scope. In contrast to the value of a person’s life being based on their predicted “quality of life,” Vanier argues that in the light of Jesus, the disabled person is a herald of a new set of values.
The Word, becoming flesh, came to reveal the great dignity of each person, above all the poorest and the weakest, and to call them to live in communion which is united like a body. The last are first. The values of the Christian vision are neither power, nor social influence, nor riches, nor human glory, not even individual liberty as an end in itself. Its values are those of love exercised in the ‘body’ of community, which is the Church. (53)
Vanier believes with St. Paul that God has chosen the weak and foolish to confound the strong. Thus, persons with disabilities become privileged witnesses to this anthropology because “they live closer to the heart, so they are open to the message of Jesus which is essentially a message of the heart” (3).
Commenting on the contemporary approach to disability within modern liberal societies, which is predominantly to secure their “rights” to jobs, housing, education and health care, Vanier argues that even if all of these rights are guaranteed, they are not enough to secure the happiness of the men and women he lives with. What he has learned through all his years at L’Arche is that “the deepest longing of each one is to create bonds and to live with others in the spirit of family” (57). It is this desire to be loved and welcomed gratuitously, and to discover one’s own capacity for such relationships that Vanier sees as the fundamental human need, disabled or not. Vanier’s emphasis on the centrality of discovering one’s capacity to give and receive love, in a word, to be fruitful, and seeing disability not primarily in the negative terms of limitation but in the positive terms of a capacity for relation is one of Vanier’s unique contributions to our understanding of disability. “When human beings discover they are truly loved by God and that they can live a relationship with God, a change takes place in them. They are no longer disheartened by their limits and disabilities. By this union with Jesus, they can communicate life.” Vanier continues: “Once they find meaning in their lives, they are not just ‘disabled’ but they become fruitful. They can share their unique gifts with others. Each one finds their place” (157).
The outline of this anthropology in Man and Woman He Made Them follows the movement from “brokenness” to “healing” which occurs within the belonging typical of the experience of “home” and “community” and that expresses itself ultimately in “celebration.” The human heart and the experience of childhood are central concepts in Vanier’s theological anthropology. Created in love by God and for God, the human heart is the core of the person.It is the heart that desires to love and to be loved gratuitously. Through original sin and the sufferings incurred in early childhood, when one is most vulnerable and in need of love, this heart has been gravely wounded. Instead of accepting one’s vulnerability within a communion of love, one tends to close himself off from others. “The great suffering and original sin of human beings,” writes Vanier, “is to no longer believe in the innocence of communion and mutual trust which opens us up to others, to the whole world and to God. It is to let ourselves be seduced by efficiency, power, freedom, pleasure and material possessions rather than building one’s life on love and welcome, with all the risks of suffering that entails. It is to close oneself up on oneself” (36). The path from this “fragmentation” of the heart to its healing begins in the encounter with a faithful love through which the person re-discovers his own interior beauty and the gift-character of his existence. Knowing oneself to be loved, one can riskentering into relationship with others.
Vanier and his experience of L’Arche has attracted the attention of many over the years, both within and outside the Christian community. Believers of every stripe and atheists alike are drawn to this community by a common attraction to what they see as a profound humanity and affection for reality that neither ignores the real suffering of the disabled nor idealizes the non-disabled people who choose to stay with them. Two recent books testify to the power of what is being lived at L’Arche.
In the spring of 2009, Julia Kristeva made her first visit to Trosly-Breuil, a little village nestled away in the Compiegne forest in northern France, to meet Vanier and spend the day with the members of the L’Arche community. This visit gave birth to a friendship between Vanier and Kristeva and sparked a yearlong exchange of engaging letters. Published as Leurs regards perce nos ombres (Their Look Pierces our Shadows), Vanier and Kristeva reflect on the nature of disability from the contrasting perspectives of Vanier’s deeply Christian faith and Kristeva’s humanist-atheist philosophy. This vivid, smart and honest exchange of ideas and experiences was published in the original French by Fayard Press in 2011 with Italian and Polish translations soon following.
The friendship between them that we are made privy to in this collection of letters is an unlikely encounter in our own time. On the one hand, Vanier is a devoutly Catholic layman, a former naval officer and philosopher by formation, who has lived for 45 years alongside men and women with disabilities in the spirit of the Gospel Beatitudes. On the other, Kristeva is a French-Bulgarian atheist and a well-known philosopher, literary critic, feminist and psychoanalyst. While Kristeva may be less familiar to audiences outside of France and the academic circles where she is esteemed, her espoused humanist philosophy reached a global audience when she was invited by Pope Benedict XVI to address the Interfaith Meeting for Peace in Assisi in 2011 as a non-believer. Kristeva is also the mother to David, her son who was born with a neurological disability, who she says introduced her to the world of people with disabilities and who deeply transformed all of her thought. A critic of the radical individualism typical of contemporary Western culture, Kristeva argues that a renewal of society will only come about through the promotion of a type of humanism that makes the vulnerability of the human person thematic for the first time in history. In addition to her many academic accolades, Kristeva has been a driving force in the French political arena for the recognition of the rights of people with disabilities and their integration within society.
While their different worldviews characterize and animate their letters, what unites Vanier and Kristeva is their certainty that people with disabilities have something essential to teach us about what it means to be human. In an age that more or less seeks to eradicate any form of disability through early genetic screening or mercy killing at the later stages of life, and where people are caught up in the ideology of “normality” (power, money, success, perfection), they hold that contemporary Western civilization urgently needs an “indispensable mutation” in its understanding of humanity. How are people with disabilities at the forefront of this transformation? They agree that in the encounter with people with disabilities we are confronted head on with the stark fact of human mortality – that is to say with death – and thus, the vulnerability inherent in being human. Since persons with disabilities cannot play the game of “normality,” they call into question the foundations of this ideology and reveal dimensions of ourselves that we would rather not address, such as our mutual dependence, our suffering, and our eventual death. Their lives challenge our own.
The title of the exchange of letters, Their Look Pierces our Shadows, is particularly apt to express their shared understanding of disability. The title is a reference to the play Little Eyolf (1894) by the Swedish dramatist Henrik Ibsen, in which tragedy befalls a family when their disabled son drowns. Grieving the loss of her son, the mother in Ibsen’s play remarks that it is the memory of the look in Eyolf’s eyes that has the capacity to penetrate the depth of her humanity. Kristeva asks Vanier if their mutual understanding of disability could be encapsulated by the mother’s insight into the unique encounter she has had with her son and the capacity of this encounter to reveal her humanity. “These words bring us back to our ambition,” writes Kristeva, “yours and mine, to change the gaze of the non-disabled on persons with disability. Ibsen helps us to do this by reversing the perspective: it is Eyolf who looks at us, it is the look of the little boy with a disability that counts, for it is him who will pierce our shadows” (67).
While Vanier and Kristeva agree that these shadows represent a fear or rejection of vulnerability, which is the basic human condition, the difference in their understanding of vulnerability emerges in their dialogue as well.
How are vulnerability and disability understood outside of the Christian revelation of a God who entered our human condition and made it a path to the encounter with Christ? As a humanist, Kristeva rejects the notion of a transcendent God. The horizon of her thought therefore is the social-political pact among equal citizens. Identifying the origins of her own thought with the French Enlightenment, she argues that in their historical attempt to place man above God, the original humanists failed to properly integrate man’s vulnerability into their philosophy. Thus for hundreds of years humanism has systematically rejected many weak people from the social pact. This is the mistake that Kristeva is striving to rectify through her re-founding of humanism. Why has there been this systematic oversight regarding man’s vulnerability? As a psychoanalyst, Kristeva argues that man has latent fears of death and of weakness.She writes that in front of these fears, we can either attempt to ignore them (as in the history of humanism) or manage them through science (through modern eugenics), or we can learn to accept and live with them (her position). People with disabilities have a privileged place in her attempt to re-found humanism. Their presence evokes our fear of mortality and invites us to confront and incorporate our own death. Only in this way, by accepting our own death, can we enter into a true solidarity with the disabled person, allowing him to be himself and flourish as an equal political subject.
One of the themes running through this exchange of letters is the meaning of Christian charity. Kristeva wonders if the Gospel admonition to love the poor perpetuates the isolation of people with disabilities rather than encourages the recognition of their equal humanity. Kristeva argues that the Beatitudes of Matthew 25 seem to suggest a “philosophy of generosity” which isolates the disabled person as a mere recipient of someone’s good work. Christian charity, argues Kristeva, lacks any real “inter-action” with the disabled, which would recognize their equality with the giver. Thus, instead of integrating disabled people within the social pact, we end up “isolating them with love” (71). Kristeva sees her new modern humanist approach to disability as the positive counterweight to this reading of Christian charity.
Interestingly, what Kristeva sees in Vanier’s experience of L’Arche challenges her negative understanding of Christian charity. In this respect, she thinks that Vanier has brought about something of a revolution in our understanding of disability and possibly also in the Christian tradition of charity and works of mercy. She sees something in Vanier and his community that she desires within her own humanism but is unable to bring about. Kristeva herself seems to be aware of the limits of her assertion of the political rights and social equality of the disabled. She admits that her real concern is to find people who are able to accompany the disabled, such as her son, David, in such a way that they grow in freedom. Struck by the humanity, respect and joy she perceived in the interactions between the handicapped members of the community and those who have freely chosen to share their lives with them, she writes in her first letter to Vanier: “It is not easy to be in an intimate proximity to irreparable physical and mental wounds…Yet the humanity of your L’Arche neither denies nor exalts these irreparable failures and wounds. You are happy to welcome, if I dare say, because this corresponds to the wounds of each one of us.” “How do you do it?” she asks Vanier.
One of the novelties of Vanier’s experience of L’Arche is his understanding that “encounter” must be at the heart of an adequate understanding of Christian charity. Vanier stresses that in the encounter with the disabled, the young volunteers who come to L’Arche begin to discover and respect their own humanity and its vulnerabilities and desires, and with this new awareness of what unites them, are able to “share” life together. His deeply trinitarian understanding of charity brings to the fore such elements as the radical dignity of the person and his call to love, the tension between belonging and freedom, and each one’s desire for fruitfulness that perhaps in the past have been neglected under the guise of doing “good works.” Vanier says that L’Arche does not exist to do good things for people but to participate in the mission of Jesus who says to each person: “I love you as you are, I have confidence in you, I want to help you to discover how beautiful you are, that you are capable of giving your life for others” (203). Animated by the spirit of charity, L’Arche exists “to help each one to welcome people just as they are, to appreciate them, to see their beauty and to respond to their needs for growth and liberation” (34).
Another example of the provocation of the experience of L’Arche was a weekend symposium sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation in 2007 titled “Learning from the Disabled.” The purpose of the symposium was “to explore the value of sharing one’s life with mentally or psychically handicapped people as a way to fulfill the vocation of a human being.” Thirteen investigators – scientists, social scientists, theologians, and ethicists – gathered in Trosly-Breuil “to examine how the experience of caregivers may overturn the classical notion of opera supererogatoria to the extent that, far from being a form of ‘good Samaratinism’ or action beyond the pale of duty, their work with the disabled can sometimes result in their own moral transformation.”[i]
The fruit of this symposium was gathered together and published as The Paradox of Disability: Responses to Jean Vanier and L’Arche Communities from Theology and Science. One of the most interesting contributions to this discussion is from Dr. Xavier Le Pichon, one of the founders of modern plate tectonics and chair of geodynamics at the Collège de France in Aix-en-Provence.Based on evidence from the geological and anthropological records, Le Pichon asks the question if perhaps vulnerability has been part of our human self-understanding since the origin of the species, contra the Darwinian mantra of the survival of the fittest. He brings to our attention the historical evidence of compassion and care for the vulnerable among the Shanidar group of Neanderthals to argue that vulnerability may be more central to our human experience than we sometimes think. He develops this provocative thesis elsewhere in Aux racines de l'homme:de la mort à l'amour (Presses de la Renaissance, 1997) and “Fragility and the Evolution of our Humanity” (Interview with Krista Tippet, August 16, 2012) and the essay “Ecce Homo” (both available online).
For Vanier, the themes of encounter and vulnerability upon which these two books reflect have their foundation in his own encounter with Jesus Christ and the vulnerable face of God that his life, death and resurrection have revealed (Vanier, Jesus, The Gift of Love [New York: Crossroads, 1994]). Without this horizon, we cannot adequately answer Kristeva’s question: “How do you do it?” This horizon is the Kingdom of God where the weak and poor are the privileged teachers of communion and love. In this Kingdom, suffering and pain are not to be shunned tout court but have been transformed within the community of believers into a place where Jesus is present, into sacraments where Jesus abides. Ultimately, this Kingdom is the “ecstasy of love that Jesus is living with the Father before all time” that he offers to us “through communion with and in his flesh.” The understanding of disability that has sustained Vanier’s fifty years at L’Arche is that a person with a disability is above all a person with a vocation to love and a brother or sister called to the Wedding Feast (Rev 19:6-9).
Ellen Roderick recently received her Ph.D. from the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C. Her dissertation was on childhood and its significance for the meaning of human freedom in theological anthropology of Hans Urs von Balthasar.
[i] The Templeton Foundation, available at http://humbleapproach.templeton.org/Learning_from_the_Disabled/vanier.html.
by Xavier Le Pichon
To welcome the suffering is the sign of our humanity
The home for dying destitutes in Calcutta: a founding experience
How old is the small boy lying on the pallet? Five, eight, ten? Misery and suffering are ageless. Emaciated, coiled up like a fetus, all his life has taken refuge in his eyes, immense eyes that look at me without any blink. He was picked up in the street two weeks ago. The sister thinks that he will soon die. “Try to give him something to eat.”
This is the only task that I can fill in this home for dying destitutes of mother Teresa of Calcutta. With my children, I have learned how to spoon feed a baby. From the motions of the lips, of the tongue, I detect when it is possible to delicately introduce a tiny bit of food in the mouth. The infants are so fragile that the only food they can accept is one that is given with tenderness. The proximity of death has brought back this child to his infancy.
In the position he has taken, lying on his side, it is not easy to get the grains of rice in his mouth. He would like to help in order to please me. But he does not have this strength any more. The grains of rice fall on the napkin that I have spread below his chin. Small windows through the upper part of the walls diffuse a peaceful translucent light that envelops the rows of bodies from which groans are rising. The street noise that comes from the outside strangely appears to come from far away. Yet this peace islet is in the heart of one of the most life teeming quarters of Calcutta. Above the child, against a pillar, a statue of the Virgin Mary is presiding over the exchange between the child and me, exchange that penetrates in the deepest part of my heart.
Who is this child that the tidal wave of human misery has deposited among the dozens of other “dying destitutes,” as announced on the board at the entrance: “Home for dying destitutes.” Why did I have to travel over ten thousand kilometers to meet him so that he would completely reorient my life?
Suffering has suddenly swept my soul: It has washed away everything in me. How so much suffering that I had not even noticed could be present next to me? As I had been standing on the crest of the advancing wave of our scientific and technologic civilization, I did not even glance at the debris left over by its flow. I was looking ahead. And suddenly, among the debris of my civilization, this child becomes for me a person, the most important person in my life.
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”1
In the eyes of this child, it is Jesus on his cross, in the mystery of his abandonment, who reveals himself to me. I never felt him to be so close. Jesus alive, taking upon himself the pain of the whole world, revealing to me that I had abandoned him.
“For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was a stranger and you did not receive me as a guest, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”2
Mary, his mother, is there, also present. I now understand why she is always there, next to the cross. How is it possible without her to live this suffering without revolt? The peace that comes from this child, in the middle of his pain, I know that it comes from the presence of Mary.”3
This happened in Calcutta in 1973. It is at this instant that I suddenly discovered that my life would never be the same: I could not go back to my lab and continue to live as before. The “poor” had knocked at my door. I had opened it. He had entered and was now with me forever. Borrowing the words of Isaiah4, I had recognized in this child my own flesh and I could not escape any more. I did not know his name and yet he had given me a new name that I had been expecting for years. Within his suffering, my new friend had a mysterious power of presence that had enlightened my own self. In exchange for the small amount of love that I had been manifesting in my own poor way, I had received the gift of the Spirit of God who was dwelling in him. Through this gift I had been confirmed in the depth of my living being, that is of my loving being, who needs presence and who needs at the same time to give himself and to be received fully within a unique relationship.
What had been for me a founding experience has been a founding experience for humans throughout the ages since the beginning of our human race. Throughout the ages we have to rediscover that our community is not only made of the highly motivated competing individuals as in my own scientific world, but that it includes fragile, vulnerable, suffering individuals who reveal to ourselves our own fragility, our own vulnerability, who actually lay bare our own sufferings that have been hidden in our deepest self. This fundamental discovery is at the heart of our humanity. And it is this discovery that I would like to share in this paper.
The importance of weaknesses
As I knew from my own scientific experience, the weaknesses, the imperfections, the faults facilitate the evolution of a system. A system which is too perfect is also too rigid because it does not need to evolve.
This is true in politics; it is true within a society, within families, within nature. A perfectly, smoothly running system without any default is a closed system that can only evolve through a major commotion: The evolution occurs through revolutions. An example from my own geological domain illustrates this very important point: Most of the earthquakes occur within the upper 15 to 20 kilometers of the Earth.
Let us take the example of California. The western portion glides toward the northwest at about four centimeters per year along a major fracture, which is called the San Andreas Fault. Yet during about 100 years, the two lips of the fault stay in contact and the corresponding four meters of motion are absorbed by elastic deformation over a width of about 100 kilometers on both sides of the fault. Then suddenly there is a break: This is the earthquake. The two sides jump back to their equilibrium position with a corresponding quasi-instantaneous relative motion of four meters (100 x 4 cm) of the two lips of the fault. Yet below 15 to 20 kilometers, instead of these discontinuous, abrupt motions, there is a continuous creep at four centimeters per year without any earthquake. Why?
This is because at this depth, the small defaults of the crystals within the rocks have been activated by the increase in temperature and relax the rigidity, allowing a continuous creep to release the plate tectonic forces and thus avoiding the necessity for periodic disasters. Above this depth, on the contrary, the defaults are “frozen in” because of the colder temperatures. The rocks keep their rigidity until they are fractured, thus producing the earthquake. One moves from rigid and brittle rocks, within the upper layer, to ductile rocks below that can deform in a continuous fashion under the action of tectonic forces.
The same thing is true for all systems that need to evolve. Contrarily to what is often assumed, the weak and imperfect parts are often those that allow the evolution to occur without any revolution. This is true for the evolution of life, which is in great part based on the occurrence of coding errors during the duplication of the genetic information.
One can ask whether it is not also true of our societies. We tend to dissociate the individuals who are well adapted to our social life from those that have difficulties to follow the pace that is imposed on them by our lifestyle. Yet a society that separates the producers from the others considered as dead weight, even as marginal or excluded individuals, is a hard society, characterized by conflicts and often by complete rejection of minorities. It is sad and pessimistic. On the contrary a society where all are well integrated has a much more adaptable structure, with a different, easier and more conciliatory mode of life. It is often happier and more optimistic.
One probably needs to go farther. A society which is composed exclusively of uniform individuals without any heterogeneity is a more rigid, harder society. I have experienced such communities when living on oceanographic vessels, which I have done for a good part of my life. Most of the time, we only had young and middle-aged men on board: The crew then formed a community, which was rather rough. The presence of a single woman oceanographer was often sufficient to completely change the atmosphere.
When examining any system, it is thus necessary to study it as a whole. Its working is determined by the interaction of all the parts. The elimination of parts that may appear as less efficient may significantly change the overall functioning and may actually completely prevent it from working!
Fragility and vulnerability within our human societies
In the following, I would like to discuss the fundamental place occupied by fragility and vulnerability within our own human societies. Note that my main objective is not to compare our Homo sapiens species with others, such as the great apes. A lot of very interesting debate occurs on this subject. But being a human, I simply want to better understand what I believe to be fundamental characters of my own species. I would certainly have a different point of view if I were a great ape, but I am not.
Our human species is situated within the lineage of sexed animal societies, which throughout their evolution have invested a lot of energy in the reorganization of the society around their offspring in order to preserve them, to educate them, and to bring them to adulthood. An essential aspect of the evolution that leads to humans is the prolongation of the initial phase of growth and consequently of learning, with a concomitant reduction of the innate comportments. But the prolongation of the phase of fetal and infantile growth results in newborn infants who are quite immature, totally powerless. Their very long phase of growth and learning puts them under the complete dependence of their parents during many long years in spite of the fact that their mental capacities are especially developed.
This long period of dependence would not have been possible without the development of privileged affective relations between children and parents. Sigmund Freud has helped us realize the importance of these parent-children relations in the build up of our personalities, importance which is so crucial that it conditions our survival. One should not forget that a significant portion of our brain is devoted to the treatment of our emotions. The very large growth of the brain from our pre-human ancestors to Homo sapiens reflects for a good part the increased place taken by this type of process. The infancy thus constitutes an obvious pole of fragility and vulnerability about which human societies have been restructured.
But this pole is not the only one because the human societies devote a large effort to take into account within their organization suffering and death, thus constituting a second pole of fragility and vulnerability. Physical pain, like fear, are mechanisms of alarm that play a decisive role in the process of decision necessary for the survival of the individual, among animals as well as humans. They also play an important role at the community level. Beyond physical pain, there is the inner suffering. For example, the rupture, due to death or departure, of a relation of very strong dependence between two individuals, may lead to grief consumption or even death. Human societies integrate in their structure in an organic way the fragility and vulnerability manifested in this whole vast world of suffering and death. This is why they are called humane. In the French language the word “humain” is used to denote someone who is both human and humane. That is, he is sensitive to the suffering of his neighbor and tries to alleviate that suffering. In the same way, a society is humane in the degree that it takes care of the lives of those who suffer most without either rejecting or marginalizing them.
Humane behavior in prehistoric societies
To illustrate this point, it is best to consider signs of humane behavior among prehistoric societies. The most extraordinary example is probably the 100,000-year-old Shanidar 1 skeleton. This skeleton belonged to a Neanderthal man about 40 years old discovered by Ralph Solecki in the 1950s in a cave of the Zagros mountains in Iraq. This man was so severely handicapped that he could not have lived to this age without the support of the group to which he belonged. According to Trinkaus and Shipman5,
“Careful study of his bones revealed a plethora of serious but healed fractures. There had been a crushing blow to the left side of the head, fracturing the eye socket, displacing the left eye, and probably causing blindness on that side. He also sustained a massive blow to the right side of the body that so badly damaged the right arm that he became withered and useless; the bones of the shoulder blade, collarbone, and the upper arm are much thinner than those on the left. The right lower arm and hand are missing, probably not because of poor preservation as fossils but because they either atrophied and dropped off or because they were amputated. The right foot and lower right leg were also damaged, possibly also at the same time. There is a healed fracture of one of the bones in the arch of the foot associated with advanced degenerative disease of various bones of the ankle and big toe. These problems would have left the foot with little, and very painful mobility. The right knee and various parts of the left leg also show signs of pathological damage; these may have been either further consequences of the same traumatic injury or lesions that developed in reaction to the abnormal limping gait that must have resulted from the damage to the right leg and foot.”
As Solecki argued,
“Someone so devastatingly injured could not possibly have survived without care and sustenance. Whether the right arm was severed intentionally, accidentally, or as a result of physical deterioration, a one-armed, partially blind, crippled man could have made no pretense of hunting and gathering his own food. That he survived for years after his trauma was a testament to Neanderthal compassion and humanity.”
When Ralph Solecki popularized his findings in a book entitled Shanidar, The First Flower People, because the skeletons discovered in the Shanidar cave appeared to have been buried below a bed of flowers, many scientists expressed strong doubts about his conclusions.
Since then, it has been well established that Shanidar 1 was not an exception and that Neanderthalers “fed and looked after severely handicapped members of their communities who were too disabled to contribute to the food quest.”6 Actually the skepticism of the scientists appears to me to be a demonstration of how difficult it is for us to face this apparent contradiction with straightforward Darwinian theory. In order to be able to continue to live for many years (as the healed bones show) it would have been necessary for him to be entirely taken care of by his community. What was this community?
It would have consisted of perhaps twenty or thirty people living by hunting and gathering, without a permanent camp. Every day the community would have moved on in search of new resources. We can only imagine the considerable effort which this group had to make for many years in order to transport this person from camp to camp, in order to feed him and in order to simply allow him to live. Why did a small group of nomads, having each day to look for their food through hunting and plant gathering, decide to radically reorganize their life so that a severely handicapped man would become the center of their efforts and attention? What did they receive from him to continue doing this during forty years? Why did they decide to bury him? In the past, the fact of being buried showed the great respect shown by the community for that person. Not everyone was given a burial during this era — interment only becoming general about 10,000 years ago.
What did they discover about their own humanity through this long and arduous process of sharing their life with a severely disabled man? Was this their way of facing death and suffering? Why did this person become the new focus of society?
The Shanidar 1 individual demonstrates to me that this experience of welcoming the suffering of our neighbor is at the very heart of our identity as humans since the origin. Actually I have argued elsewhere7 that when humans enter into the type of relationship that was lived within the Shanidar group of Neanderthalians, the gift they receive from each other is the discovery of their own humanity. Our humanity is not an attribute that we have received once and forever with our conception. It is a potentiality that we have to discover within us and progressively develop or destroy through our confrontation with the different experiences of suffering that will meet us throughout our life.
We are therefore faced with a phenomenon as old as man himself: In the face of the utilitarian logic which dominates the world of living things, man came up with a way to put someone who no longer had any “utility” at the center of his community thus allowing him to live and to continue to occupy his place in society. This choice inevitably leads to a reorganization of society. As soon as this seemingly foolish choice is made, everything must be reorganized around the person who suffers the most, who is the most wounded and handicapped. It is the only way. That person becomes the center of everyone’s attention. Something completely new is created: This person becomes the new focus of society.
We are dealing with the emergence of the human par excellence, as he discovers the true and full meaning of his humanity. And in a way one can say that since his origins/beginnings, the human has not ceased to re-invent this humanity. When faced with the suffering of a sick, wounded, aging, or handicapped person, we are confronted with an extremely difficult and painful choice: We may say, “I cannot” or “I don’t want to,” or “ I don’t want this any more.” This is rejection. Either society becomes hard by concentrating only on those who are productive or who will be in the future, or it opens out by refocusing on new avenues, new dialogue, and a new way of life. In this way of life people will invent new goods for society like the goods of communication, openness, and sharing: The person who is no longer capable of direct contribution to the survival of society discovers moreover that he is welcomed as a full contributor. And this welcome profoundly changes the community that practices it.
The radical novelty of the pole of fragility and vulnerability
I wish now to explore further the radical novelty of this pole of fragility and vulnerability within human societies. Why did we humans have to “invent” our humanity as we discovered that we were fragile and vulnerable? Why does human society take into account sick, aged, handicapped persons? Why does it try at all to integrate them, even if it is often in an imperfect way? By not excluding them, or letting them disappear, humans give up at least partially the law of survival through efficiency that prevails in the world governed by the harsh laws of evolution. Is not the fact that a sacred character, whether positive or negative, has often been attributed to mentally handicapped or psychologically disturbed persons the indication of this attitude of questioning, deference, and fear of humans when confronted with the mystery of psychic suffering?
Not only do humans care for those who do not have any direct biological utility, but they care for those who have disappeared and want to keep their memory, as demonstrated by our Neanderthal ancestors of the Shanidar cave 100,000 years ago. They may actually spend an incredible energy to keep the memory of the dead. The construction of dolmens and pyramids must have mobilized whole populations during tens of years. Was not art in its infancy an attempt to alleviate the two major concerns of humans, fecundity and death? To overcome death through this double strategy — have descendants and keep the memory of the deceased — was an explicit preoccupation of humans since their origin.
Thus human societies have reorganized themselves about a new pole governed by the presence of suffering and death, which is related to the realization of the fragility and vulnerability of its members. Actually, we tend to judge the degree of humanity of a society through the way in which it takes into account in its organization the presence of suffering and death.
Jane Goodall, in her book Through a Window8 notes the emotion that seized her team when they discovered that the chimpanzees they observed were carrying extermination wars and that “cannibalism” with respect to the infants was not rare. Their team could watch as a female chimpanzee and her son attacked a physically handicapped mother to grab her newborn, kill him, and eat him with obvious satisfaction. This happened a second time and the mother chimpanzee that had tried to defend her baby was gravely wounded and died shortly after. What I find most significant in these observations is not the violent comportment of the chimpanzees but rather that this comportment had disturbed so much the team of observers. As stated by Jane Goodall,
“Although the basic aggressive patterns of the chimpanzees are remarkably similar to some of our own, their comprehension of the suffering they inflict on their victims is very different from ours. Chimpanzees, it is true, are able to empathize, to understand at least to some extent the wants and needs of their companions. But only humans, I believe, are capable of deliberate cruelty — acting with the intention of causing pain and suffering.”
Indeed, this feeling of horror that fills most humans when they watch such apparently unjustified violence does not appear to exist in other species. It testifies that a sense of “good” and “bad” has appeared in humans.
In Genesis, when God creates Adam and presents to him the different living creatures, Adam realizes that none of them resembles him.9 Pope John Paul II has commented about the discovery by Adam of what he called “his metaphysical solitude.” What is the origin of this solitude? Is it possible to identify it with precision? Is it not related to the discovery made by Cain after the murder of his brother Abel when he hears an inner voice ask him: “Where is your brother Abel?”10 “What did you do to your brother?” is the question that haunts humans and that has created the metaphysical solitude discussed by John Paul II.
One can then ask: “What did trigger the development of such new capacities that do not appear to fit the request for efficiency of evolution?” As has often been said, humans are the living beings who know that they are going to die. This is not only because they have a reflexive capacity. Great apes also have a reflexive capacity: Gordon Gallup had already shown in 1979 that a chimpanzee was able to recognize himself in a mirror! But humans have also developed a remarkable capacity to remember the past and anticipate the future. And this capacity is most probably the source of their existential distress that may be so intense as to become a real agony. Humans know that their aging will ineluctably lead to death.
“Men fear death, as children fear to go in the dark,” mentioned Francis Bacon11. In a beautiful book on palliative care, Michael Kearney12 writes that “we all share that primal and instinctive fear of the dark which Bacon speaks of and I believe that it is this existential and primal fear of the unknown that can generate that particular form of human suffering I call ‘soul pain.’” He adds:
“The prime mover is … the ego which is happiest when in control of a familiar and predictable world…, but which is profoundly threatened by the approach of death which it sees as utter chaos and the ultimate unknown.”
The effort accomplished by humans to escape the chaos that he believes to be present beyond death is the backdrop of the process of humanization.
Since Freud and even more Jung, the role played by the discovery of death in the formation of the personality during the adolescence has been widely discussed. A human knows that he has been an infant, a child. He knows that he will become aged and will finally die. When confronted with an infant, a child, or a handicapped or aged person at the end of his life, he recognizes himself. He knows that he has been, he will be, or could be the person with whom he is confronted. The exclusion of the other would then be the exclusion of part of himself, of “his own flesh” using the expression of Isaiah that I mentioned earlier. The one who excludes is as much and perhaps even more excluded. In summary, a human is indeed affected by the suffering or the death of someone with whom he has developed a strong relation of dependence. But a more important fact is that the encounter with somebody plunged within a deep pain and whom he has never met before may provoke as much empathy in him.
Thus, the most revealing character of human societies seems to me to be that they take care of those who, when considered on the sole basis of immediate efficiency, appear to be debris that should be eliminated. Taking care of fragile and vulnerable individuals has revealed to humans their own fragility and vulnerability. It has forced them to enter this dark world of fear in order to learn to live with it. They have realized that the human individual is a unique reality that keeps its unity under widely changing aspects from the fetus to the aged person at the end of his life. This process must have played a decisive role in the psychological mutation of humans and their acquisition of an artistic and metaphysical capacity. As a result, the social presence of an individual within a human society is related to the tight network of relations, of emotions, and more deeply, of love that has been progressively woven throughout his life, and not primarily to its immediate material usefulness.
Antonio Damasio, specialist of neurosciences, arrived to a conclusion that is not similar but that goes at least partly in the same direction. Considering that “the most elaborate social conventions and ethical structures by which we live must have arisen culturally and be transmitted likewise.., it is likely that they evolved as a means to cope with the suffering experienced by individuals whose capacity to remember the past and anticipate the future had attained a remarkable development.”
He adds later on:
“Pain and pleasure are not twins or mirror images of each other, at least not as far as their roles in leveraging survival. Somehow, more often than not, it is the pain related signal that steers us away from impending trouble, both at the moment and in the anticipated future. It is difficult to imagine that individuals and societies governed by the seeking of pleasure, as much as or more than by the avoidance of pain, can survive at all.”13
The suffering person, source of our humanization
The story of life on Earth shows that man is inserted within the flow of life and that there is no radical rupture either in the genetic structure or in the behavior when passing from primates to humans.14 Aristotle wrote that all that is common to man and animal is not specific to man. With the discoveries of science, the domain of what is common to humans and animals is growing all the time. Threatened in his identity the human tries to establish a separation between himself and the rest of the living beings by defining himself, following Descartes, as being able to reason.
As stated by Damasio,13 to define the existence on the basis of thinking was the error of Descartes. “I think, therefore I am.” Modern scientific studies lead us to state on the contrary: “I am, therefore I think.” All that we are and the way in which we think and react to the surrounding world depends from our feelings and emotions in which those that are related to pain and suffering play a major role. Reason is not an autonomous entity separated from our body. It can only be understood within the complex system of interaction of our body within its environment.
John-Paul II in his book Varcare la Soglia Della Speranza (“Cross the threshold of hope”)15 criticizes in the same way the pure rationalism of Descartes “who has in a way detached thought from the existence in its integrality and has identified it with reason.” John-Paul II adds: “How different he is from saint Thomas Aquinas for whom it is not thought that determines existence but on the contrary existence, the fact of being, that determines thought. I think as I think, because I am as I am.”
To discover who he is, the human should not fear to replace himself within the flow of life and to recognize the common inheritance that he shares with the contemporary living beings. It is in the measure that he recognizes the similarities that he will be able to identify his specificities. A great deal of research today tries to evaluate the role of the altruistic capacity in the workings of the human societies. Most of the theories proposed view benevolence as self-interest in disguise.
Whatever the motivations of this altruistic comportment, the recognition of the “neighbor,” within his suffering, within his death, as another “oneself” may lead us to the rejection of the other, rejection which accentuates our isolation by increasing our fear of the other. Or it may lead us to welcome him with his injuries, thus allowing us to transcend our suffering, to transcend death. Transcending our fear of pain as we welcome the suffering person and put him in the heart of our community, and transcending our fear of death as we keep the memories of our deceased were in my opinion major factors in our humanization. As humans are confronted to suffering and death, as mirrors of their own suffering and death, they are confronted to their own fragility and vulnerability and this confrontation forces them to go beyond themselves by entering into a transcendent world that can be metaphysical, artistic, and/or poetic. This has probably been the origin of metaphysics, of art and poetry, which give us the capacity to project ourselves beyond the immediate reality of the difficulties of our life.
But what is the source of this prodigious effort? It is non other than the injured, suffering, handicapped, dying, or even deceased person. This suffering person is the ferment for the transformation of men and women, and beyond them of the whole human society. One is touching there the deep mystery that surrounds suffering and death. Everything happens as if the humanization appeared with the progressive discovery by humans of their own fragility and vulnerability as their reflexive conscience and their capacity to project themselves in the past and the future were growing. Humans were becoming more human in the measure in which they were discovering their suffering neighbor as “their own flesh.”
Physiologic factors such as the progressive backward tilt of the skull or technologic factors such as the tool making capacity are often privileged when considering the evolution leading to the apparition of Homo Sapiens whereas psychological factors are generally not even considered. Yet is it possible to doubt that psychological factors have played a major role in this evolution? Living in a heterogeneous society, with those who precede him and announce his future as well as with those who follow him and whom he will have to quit, hurt by the pain and the disappearance of those with whom he shares his life, the human has a vital necessity to transcend this brutal confrontation with the fragility and vulnerability of others that send him back to his own existential distress as he is plunged in the dark world of his own fears.
This does not mean that human societies become more and more humane with time. To be humane a society should take into account the unique value of each of its members, and more particularly of those who are too weak to defend themselves. Clearly, human societies have never perfectly realized this objective. Some have been especially harsh and the evolution of humanization is not linear. There are highs and lows throughout the long history of Homo Sapiens, highs and lows that can be identified by considering how these two poles of fragility, related to the infancy and to disease, handicap, aging and death, were taken into account.
The prophets: the extraordinary sixth century B.C.
As humans increased their capacity of transformation of the world and consequently increased their power, they also increased the abuses they made of this power through unjustified violence. But these massive abuses pushed some of the members of the societies to act as “prophets” of the human dignity who react to violence and intolerance by increased benevolence, tolerance, respect and love for the weakest and most suffering members. Everything happened as if these surges in violence were actually “forcing” humans to discover ever more the nature of their eminent dignity. These extraordinary “inspired” men had an enormous influence on the evolution of human culture. Humanity had been constructed by the daily struggles of men and women confronted to their own fragility and vulnerability. Among them, there must have been myriads of people who acted as innovators but history has not kept trace of them. With these prophets, men appeared who had an immense influence on their contemporaries as well as generations to come and who permanently affected the human culture through the growth of our common human heritage. This new phenomenon asks in a new way the question of the nature of the “inspiration,” the personal capacity by humans to transcend their confrontation with suffering and death within a personal unique experience.
I will take as an example the sixth century B.C., or rather the century, which goes from the second half of the sixth century to the first half of the fifth one, following the philosopher Karl Jaspers who could not help but marvel when evoking the men who enriched this remarkable century. This is the time of Buddha, of Lao Tzu, the legendary founder of Taoism, of Confucius, of the Second Isaiah, with the four poems of the Suffering Servant which mark the summit of the reflections of the Bible on suffering. They all dealt with the problem of suffering. The first three tried to answer the question: “What do we know about life?” starting from the evidence of the central place occupied by suffering. In a way, all three tried to answer the question “What can we do with our own suffering and with the suffering of others?” The first truth that the enlightened man discovers, said Buddha, is that everything is suffering. “Birth is suffering, ageing is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, … the union with what we do not like is suffering, not to obtain what we like is suffering.” Actually, all that composes our being is suffering. This intuition of the universal suffering was central in the evolution of the thinking of Buddha. Buddha, Lao Tzu and Confucius all three aimed at the suppression, or at least the attenuation of suffering.
Buddha is assumed to have lived between 556 and 480 B.C., and Confucius, between 551 and 479. As for Lao Tzu, tradition reports that he lived at the time of Confucius and that he might have been his master. Was this a coincidence? Is it a coincidence too that brahmanism was progressively formulated in India during approximately the same period and that the second Isaiah that marks the summit of the reflection of the Bible on suffering was written near 540. Actually the following century is also quite astounding. In China there is the extraordinary master Mo, Mo Tzu between 479 and 390 and Mencius, slightly later, between 370 and 290. One could also mention Zarathustra whom Plato called Zoroaster, who reformed the old Iranian religion and that tradition reports as living between 660 and 583. And is it possible to ignore Greece with Socrates (469-399), Plato (428-348) and Aristotle (384-322) but also Eschyles (525-456), Sophocles (496-406) and Euripides (480-406)? Between 600 and 300 before our era, with a summit during the second half of the sixth century, the reflection of humans on their nature, reflection that revolved implicitly or explicitly about the mystery of suffering and death, greatly progressed simultaneously and independently in regions that had no or very few communications.
This was the time of the generalization of the iron age and the systematic use of horses in the regions where these great thinkers lived. These new discoveries allowed great progress in agriculture but also in the techniques of war. As a result large empires were built through a series of conquest wars, with consequent society upheavals and utmost suffering. It is thus not surprising that prophets were inspired to speak up as they were watching over the collapse of whole communities and the annihilation of their members. It is not surprising either that they contributed so much to the establishment of the notion of the dignity of humans. It is consequently important to better understand the nature of the philosophical and religious answers that these men proposed when confronted to a flood of new suffering due to the brutality and perversity of men.
In India and China, the preoccupation then was to give an answer to the two types of suffering that affect humans, those that come from nature and our own body and those that are provoked by men. Among these great inspired men, Siddharta Gautama Sakyamuni, the solitary from Sakya, who will become the Buddha, is certainly the one who illustrated best the role played by suffering and death in the discovery by men of their humanity. A Catholic, cardinal Henri de Lubac stated: “If I except the unique fact of the Incarnation, where we adore the trace and actual presence of God, Buddhism is probably the great spiritual event in history.”17 He quoted the words of Romano Guardini18: “The founder of Buddhism has not only wanted to become a better man and to find peace within the world: he attempted to do something unprecedented which was to put the human existence off its hinges while still dwelling within it. No Christian has understood in a Christian way what he calls nirväna, the enlightenment, the annihilation of the illusive being. Any Christian who would attempt to do it should have been completely liberated by the love of Christ and at the same time should be very respectably united to the mysterious man of the sixth century B.C.”18
“The person and the life of the Buddha can only be seen through a thick fog of legends”19 wrote André Bareau who tried with emotion to evoke the figure of this man “who tirelessly practiced and taught the renouncement to the pleasures of the world, demonstrating their vanity, and who led a very ascetic life, being insensible to praise as well as to insults so as not to disturb the serenity that he had acquired through a long fight.” Siddharta Gautama was born on the hills at the foot of the Himalaya. According to André Bareau, he was probably the son of a modest lord from the brahmanic clan of the Gautama who belonged to the cast of warriors. He left his family after the birth of a son, probably following a deep affliction which led him to the intuition of the universality of suffering. From then on, he would lead the life of a wandering religious mendicant in search of the Truth.
Cyrus had just conquered part of the Indus valley and the first kingdoms had been established in northern India which was entering into the iron age. The people there believed in transmigrations. Ascetics were discussing how to be delivered from the endless succession of these lives dominated by suffering. The future Buddha also believed that these reincarnations were determined by the nature of the acts made during previous existences, good acts leading to happiness while bad acts lead to unhappiness. Any act made by a responsible agent ineluctably produces its good or bad consequences in a future existence. Thus there is an immanent justice that ties us within the succession of reincarnations and makes us slaves of time. It is actually a solution to the problem of the innocent suffering.
But how then could one be completely freed from the suffering inherent to our existence? How could one be freed from the slavery of time? After years of research, he obtained the Enlightenment to the Truth, after a night of meditation, reaching the inalterable peace of the Extinction of passions and of errors and the definitive deliverance from the succession of lives and associated suffering. From then on the Buddha would spend his life teaching the way to deliverance. In his teaching, I would like to highlight the fundamental attitude of benevolence toward any human as well as any living being. It is a disposition of the soul that is unpretending and gentle but warm. The ideal monk “should only speak to create union.”
This evolution within Buddhism toward benevolence and care for the other reached a summit later on in the teaching of what is called the Great Vehicle, at the end of the first century A.C. “If all is suffering, then all must be compassion.”“All the means employed to obtain a religious merit do not have the value of one sixteenth of benevolence” would have said the Buddha “who had mercy for armor.” The great Vehicle actually goes even farther in presenting what is called the Great Compassion, that is at the root of all the virtues and must inspire them. The compassion then should push one to self-sacrifice for the deliverance of others.
“Rather than entering oneself into nirväna, it is better to conduct others to it.” “By putting their joy in the soothing of the suffering of the others, the bodhisattva plunge in hell as swans in a bunch of lotus. The deliverance of creatures is for them an ocean of joy that drowns everything.. Have a single passion, the passion of the well being of others. One should exchange one’s own well being against the pain of the other.”
The multiplication of “kamikazes” who voluntarily kill themselves to destroy those they consider to be their enemies has increased the great suspicion of our contemporaries for the notion of sacrifice. But the sacrifice praised by the Great Vehicle is neither masochistic nor sadistic. It is the fruit of pure love. Compassion for the others pushes one toward the complete oblivion of oneself. It was first independently advocated in the four songs of the Suffering Servant in the second Isaiah written during the exile of the Jewish people in Babylon. It will become the keystone of Christianism.
But I need first to briefly discuss the very different approach of Confucianism in China to the confrontation with suffering.20 It is important to realize that humans have indeed explored many different ways to fight the vital struggle related to the discovery of their deep fragility. Until the fall of the Chinese empire, in 1911, the throne of the emperors was surmounted by a shellac panel on which was inscribed “Wu Wei,” which literally means “do not act” but can be interpreted in a more exact way as “do not inappropriately interfere with the action.” To Confucius, the sovereign who governs using his virtue can be compared to the polestar which stays fixed as all the other stars salute it. He does not need to reprimand nor to punish. His virtue alone will enable a favorable evolution of the events as well as of the men.
This is because for the Chinese, the universe is an immense organism. It is vain to seek its origin or its cause. In it nothing is stable nor fixed in a definitive way. Man is an integral part of it. It is thus useless to try to understand things and phenomena. These happen because they happen. What we need to know is how they evolve, in what direction they are moving; one needs to show the rythms, to identify the variations which are the actual reality. The Chinese is consequently prompted to be careful and humble with the nature to which he should learn how to conform himself. The aim is to restore harmony between humans and cosmos and this will enable the establishment of peace and justice.
Confucius wanted to save man by freeing him from the weight of his suffering. The greatest suffering for him would have been to be unable to do anything to prevent the human suffering. His first aim was to allow men to become “ren,” benevolent men, to restore harmony between men and cosmos teaching them filial piety and the virtue of humanity, of benevolence. The key to the virtue of humanity is :“Do not do to the other what you do not want to be done to yourself.”
Mo Tzu, one century later, was a true beacon in the history of this discovery by humans of their humanity. He fought injustice and tried to help oppressed people through both his teaching and his actions. He had founded a sect to serve oppressed people in which members had to pronounce a poverty vow. The second half of the fifth century was a period of rapid demographic growth. China had fifty seven millions inhabitants in year 2, more than the Roman Empire. It was also a period of long and bloody wars. Revolted by this state of grave injustice, master Mo did not believe that destiny is blind and predetermined and he attributed the injustice to men. He condemned war: “If a man robs a dog or a pig, he is accused of crime against humanity; but if he robs a state or a town, he is considered to be virtuous.” Not only did he condemn wars, but he tried to stop them and went to the help of besieged towns. He condemned excessive expenses, including sumptuous funerals.
He proclaimed a universal love. If love makes distinctions, it is not a virtue any more.“If a universal mutual love existed throughout the world, if men loved each other like themselves, would there be a single person who would not respect filial piety?” It is very interesting to note that Mencius, a disciple of Confucius, replied to that: “To love anybody in the same way does not recognize the special affection that one owes to the king or the father. This is living like an animal.” But the universal love that preached Mo Tzu was not a way to evade obligations with respect to the sovereign or the parents. Mo Tzu loved in a concrete way those who were most oppressed and most needed his love. He was even going farther as he requested self-sacrifice: “Kill a man to save the world is not an action for the good of the world. But to kill oneself to save the world is an action for the good of the world.”
But this concept of voluntary self-sacrifice was deeply foreign to Confucianism and Taoism. As a consequence the teachings of Mo Tzu have not left any significant traces in the Chinese culture in spite of the fact that they were very well received during his life. This is not a peculiarity of Chinese society. When prophets like Mo Tzu, seized by a sort of folly of human love that goes to the extremity of self-sacrifice, try to transmit their burning desire to followers, they give rise to controversies and rebuttals: reasonable men want to keep the just middle way that the excess of love seems to ignore. Mao Tse Tung tried to revive this idea of Mo Tzu, promoting self-sacrifice to free the future humanity, thus contributing even more to the devaluation of this notion of self-sacrifice.
The Suffering Servant and sacrifice
I want to come back to the poems of the Suffering Servant who suddenly appear out of nowhere within the Second Isaiah, toward the end of the Babylon exile between 550 and 539 B.C. René Girard has specially noted their great originality, interpreting the Suffering Servant as the “victime émissaire,” the religious scapegoat. The exegetes have recognized the unity of these four poems, inserted separately within the Second Isaiah, the “Book of the Consolation of Israel.” They have the same vocabulary, the same style and the same thinking. They note their extraordinary originality, unique within the Bible. This servant who is chosen and loved by God is not only sent to Israel but to all the nations to expiate the sins of others and take over him their suffering in humility, kindness and mercy. It is through his suffering and death freely accepted that he saves them. The songs of the Servant are a climax in the discovery by man of his own dignity as he appears to be submerged by suffering. It is so important that I wish below to quote significant excerpts of the fourth song.