Becoming Human

by Jean Vanier, Anansi Press, 1998, 166pp.
Reviewed by Jack Heppner.

“Becoming Human” is the kind of book I return to repeatedly, each time finding a new level of relevance for my quest to become all I was created to be. Vanier’s thesis is that if we open ourselves to outsiders, especially those we think of as weak, different or inferior, we begin to discover ourselves. And as we do, we find true personal and societal freedom, which inevitably transforms our communities and relationships. To live in this way is to be counter-cultural since society more readily glorifies strength. But, argues Vanier, if we want to discover greater compassion, trust and understanding, we must be prepared to embrace weakness – both within ourselves and those around us.

One of my greatest temptations is to embrace only those who are like me – leaving those who are dissimilar to fend for themselves in their own little worlds. However Vanier states that “the discovery of our common humanity liberates us from self-centered compulsions and inner hurts; it is the discovery that ultimately finds its fulfillment in forgiveness and in loving those who are our enemies. It is the process of truly becoming human” (5).

The book basically consists of five lectures Vanier prepared for the 1998 Massey Lecture Series which were presented on the CBC radio program Ideas. Throughout these lectures, Vanier draws on his many rich and varied experiences living with men and women with intellectual and physical disabilities. He claims that by relating to such persons he found his head and his heart coming together, because invariably they proved to be “people of heart, people of trust”.

In one sense, Vanier says, these lectures are not rooted in a quest for greater spirituality. Rather they are an attempt to understand what it means to be human. His view is that if we do not come to understand ourselves as humans in the context of fellow humans, we can not really grow spiritually. So in these lectures he attempts to lay down some basic human foundations that are the soil in which spirituality, wholeness and holiness can flourish.

The focal points of these lectures center around the topics of loneliness, belonging, inclusion, freedom and forgiveness. Each of these chapters is filled with remarkable insights too numerous to outline here. But I will share a few of the nuggets that I keep thinking about.

“We need to strive to live in truth, because the truth sets us free, even if it means living in loneliness and anguish at certain moments. Perhaps this search for truth is a process of letting ourselves be enfolded in truth rather than possessing truth, as if it were an object that we could possess, that we could use against others” (15).

“So here is the paradox: as humans we are caught between competing drives, the drive to belong, to fit in and be part of something bigger than ourselves, and the drive to let our deepest selves rise up, to walk alone, to refuse the accepted and the comfortable, and this can mean, at least for a time, the acceptance of anguish. It is in the group that we discover what we have in common. It is as individuals that we discover a personal relationship with God. We must find a way to balance our two opposing impulses” (18).

Enough said. Don’t borrow this one. Buy it, because you will want to return to it frequently.