A Giant Among Men

While people established institutions, Jean Vanier created homes for adult individuals with disability.

There are giants among us that may pass into the heart of God without us ever knowing about them. Few Malaysians would have heard about one such man, Jean Vanier, who recently died. I have had the pleasure of meeting him once, have read much of what he has written and would like to share a little about this remarkable man.

Others will have more eloquently described his life’s journey and details can be found at the L’ Arche website or the Jean Vanier organisation. Suffice to say that he could have easily taken many other paths in life, ones that would have appeared to the world as more glamorous and ‘successful’. But Vanier took the path not traveled, into the heart of people with disability, and there found much beauty and joy that he wants the world to discover.

Very early in his life he took home, to live with him, two adult men with learning disabilities, rescuing them from an asylum where there was no hope or meaning.

He did this, as he said in his own words “The most important thing is not to do things for people who are poor and in distress, but to enter into relationship with them, to be with them and help them find confidence in themselves and discover their own gifts” (source: L’ Arche). So Jean became their friend, a friendship established forever, until death and beyond.

From this friendship birthed an international movement to accept people with disabilities as human and live with them as a meaningful vocation. Today L’Arche has homes, programmes and support networks with people with disabilities in 154 communities in 38 countries.

While people established institutions, Jean Vanier created homes for adult individuals with disability. A place that those, who are perceived as weak by society, could find a home and a place to be; a home where they could discover themselves and, in so doing, help others, especially those without disabilities, to find themselves.

Jean Vanier lived out of a deep relationship with God; this was his inspiration and source of strength. Amidst a world of violent and aggressive men, Jean Vanier was a strong, gentle man.

While others grasped for power, position and wealth, Jean shared his life with the weak and there discovered immeasurable treasure. He was not one to talk a lot, or ‘blow his trumpet’, but he put his energy into the work and friendship with people who had disabilities. He was present to them.

In this, Jean Vanier was a man who lived in the reality of the wonderful present, not lost in future concerns or past fears. He was full of humour and was constantly sharing stories about others and making them real to us. Jean was a person who could change your heart, who could heal your sadness and loneliness, and bring joy and meaning back to life.

He was a man who truly understood the meaning and power of community; that being together and sharing our weaknesses makes us whole again, makes us human. As Jean said so eloquently “I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes”.

Jean Vanier was instrumental in shaping the lives of many people able and disable; often with a blurring of that distinction. He recognised, lived and shared that people with disabilities had many gifts to give those who ‘appeared able’ but were suffering inside. The communities he established helped many discover themselves and ‘awaken’ from the ‘stupor’ that the present day pursuit of material gain and fame has clouded our hearts with.

A number of people are nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and Jean Vanier was nominated in 2012. Although he was not awarded the Peace Prize, there are few who are as worthy of it, as this Man of Peace.

I leave you to consider listening to Jean Vanier speaking about the ‘rules for life, for becoming human’ in a video recorded before his death. In it Jean Vanier says “Don’t be afraid of not being successful, you are beautiful as you are”.

Dr Amar-Singh HSS is Advisor of the National Early Childhood Intervention Council (NECIC). He was previously a Senior Consultant Paediatrician and Head of the Paediatric Department, Hospital Raja Permaisuri Bainun, Ipoh. Recently retired, he worked in the public healthcare sector for over 36 years.

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