living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Posts Tagged ‘Jean Vanier

A Hug from God (and Leo Buscaglia)

leave a comment »

Last week I wrote about Jean Vanier and his call for us to embrace those who are weak and different from ourselves. Along the way I brought up the work of Leo Buscaglia, a man who was known to stand for hours after his speaking engagements so that everyone who wanted to give him a hug could have the opportunity. Then, just yesterday, I began writing my dissertation chapter on Sebastian Moore. As I was collecting quotes for the section I’m currently working on I came across a quote that beautifully tied all these threads together. Spend some time with the connections Moore makes here. Are you the sort of person that people would stand in line for hours to hug?

We open ourselves to God, the ultimate cause of desire, “through the extension of intimacy, after the manner of Leo Buscaglia, to many people, especially to those disturbingly unlike ourselves in culture, etc. The basis of Buscaglia’s thought is this fact: the way to extend intimacy is to take initiates with people, to approach the stranger. What deters us from doing this is a poor self image and consequent expectation of rejection. What motivates us to take these initiatives is a good (that is, a true) sense of ourselves, which is the basis of my whole theology. (Let This Mind Be in You, 55.)

Leo Buscaglia

Written by Alex

March 24, 2015 at 11:57 am

Jean Vanier: What does it mean to be fully human?

with 3 comments

What does it mean to be fully human? Everything I have ever written has in some way been aimed at this question. The paradoxical title of this blog points toward the answer. The same goes for the quote I highlight at the top of this page by Leo Buscaglia (If you don’t know who Leo is, do yourself a favor and watch some of his old talks on YouTube). Unlike the animal world which moves according to the relative ease of instinct, humanity lives by way of freedom in thought and action. But with the loss of instinct’s prepackaged game-plan comes the question: What does it mean to be human? What are we doing here? How should we spend this brief miracle of self-aware existence?

For a creature of instinct the question cannot arise, but for humanity, the question forms our very essence. To be human is to ask the question of what it means to be human. And with this question comes anxiety. Instinctual life has the character of unreflective security. Here thought, desire, and action are a unified whole. You can see this clearly in the lives of little children. For children, thought does not restrain desire and action (which makes them both delightful and maddening, depending on how much one must be exposed to them!). Anxiety emerges as this child-like unity is transcended.

Adult life is both reflective and insecure. In his classic book, The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm points to this separation from an original unity as the central problem of human existence. We long to return to this unity and have come upon many solutions that are only partially adequate. Of these solutions, he lists the temporary but intense induction of orgiastic states (either sexual or trance types), the surrender of the thrill and danger of freedom by way of conformity to a group, and the gratifying but impersonal immersion of the self in productive work. All of these solutions address the human problem, but they are all limited by the fact that they embody a sort of return to a past unity. As Ernest Becker put it, “The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, so we must shrink from being fully alive.”

Jean Vanier

Only with a new unity is it possible for humanity to be “fully alive,” to be “fully human.” This new unity is a love beyond fear. It is fear that limits our capacity for love, and it is our limited capacity for love that keeps us separated from each other, from the world we live in, and even from ourselves. This insight stands behind my attempt to make a connection between the idea of adventure and salvation in a paper I presented in Oxford last year. Love tears down the walls that we have carefully maintained to keep ourselves safe. For this reason, I am delighted to hear that Jean Vanier has been awarded the 2015 Templeton Prize. He is the author of Becoming Human and is the founder of L’Arche, an international federation of communities for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. His message is simple: By inviting in those who are vulnerable and different, we can develop the capacity to embrace our own vulnerability, and in so doing enlarge our capacity for love, for being fully alive. I’ve taken my own swing at articulating similar ideas, but first, listen to his own words. They have the authority of a remarkable life behind them!

Update: I went on to write a bit more about this here.