Full Circles

Reflections on Living

Tag: wisdom

Tenderness is Not Weakness: What I’ve Learned from Jean Vanier

Today, a spiritual and intellectual hero of mine has passed away.  Catholic innovator and philosopher, Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arch and Faith and Light communities

Listen to an interview with Vanier on the Podcast, OnBeing

Vanier had also inspired another one of my favorite authors, Henri Nouwen. 

Here’s some critical lesson’s I’ve learned Vanier:


Protective Systems:

“We all have a deep fear of our own weaknesses because my weakness is what makes it possible for someone else to crush me. So I create mechanisms of defense and compulsion to protect myself. We all have protective systems designed to prevent people from seeing who we are.”[1]

What I could do:

“Recently a father asked me to go and see his wife. She was forty years old and eight months pregnant. She was in tears and a bit hysterical–this was her first baby and she knew that the child had a disability. I saw immediately that I couldn’t say a word to her. There are times when you must not say nice words. What I could do was send her to visit another mother who’d had a child a year previously with similar disablities to the child she was going to have. The two women got together and wept.” [1]


On Love:

“If you discover that somebody really loves you, listens to you, then you begin to change. You come out from behind the barriers of fear that you have erected around your heart.” [2]

We seek security in life, but truly how insecure if really is…”[3]

“If God is love, then how vulnerable God must be.”[3]

On Culture:

“It’s the realization of how to create a culture which is no longer a culture just of competition, but a culture of welcoming, where tenderness, where touch is important, and it’s not — neither sexualized nor aggressive. It has become human. And I think that this is what people with disabilities are teaching us. It’s, it’s something about what it means to be human and to relate and to celebrate life together.” [3]


On Community:

“Some people say that communities start in mystery and end in bureaucracy…”[4] “True community is defined by how we treat the weakest.[3]

L’Arche is not a solution but a sign…You see, once I was speaking to a man in a big city in the United States. He said, ‘Give me the formula and I’ll create 300 L’Arches in the next two years.’ I said, ‘It doesn’t work like that. It’s a transmission of a vision and it’s counter culture. But that’s OK.” [5]


Dedication to Psychiatrist Dr Gwee Kok Peng, who also passed away today. May you continue to dance.


[1] Jean Vanier, “Living Gently in a Violent World,” p. 68

[2] Jean Vanier, Encountering ‘the Other’ p 38

[3] https://onbeing.org/programs/jean-vanier-the-wisdom-of-tenderness/ 

[4] Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, p. 114.

[5] Meaningful Work, by Shawn Askinosie and Lawren Askinosie, Location  2156

Older vs. Elder: Who We Can Become

Everyone becomes older. Not everyone becomes an elder.[1]

We get older by the passage of time. We do not necessarily become an elder. We get to become an elder by joining the realm of conversation, which entails deep listening and wonder.

If you are someone in the first half of life, we must invite people who are older than us into a space of being treated like an elder. This is not about naive reverence, but this type of mentoring relationship requires an earnest perspective that eventually, we will also become older one day.

If you are someone in the second half of life, make room to enter into conversation, not preach, and to listen to someone into speech. Question in order to listen, not listen in order to question.

To be the best teacher, we need to become great students.

The ultimate touchstone of our lives is not self-improvement. Ultimately, any form of self-improvement is for the benefit of others. Otherwise, self-improvement becomes a self-indulgent enterprise, purely for its own sake. The ultimate act is to grow the ability to be a witness (I prefer the word with-ness) to another.

To become an elder, we must be warmly invitational. To help the older person be treated as an elder, we must suspend what we think we know, and appreciate the lived experience of the other through sharing of stories.

Holding our ideas lightly—as if to pray not with clasped hands, but with open arms—invites others into a space that helps others see themselves in a truer light, either as an elder, or a to-be elder.



[1] I first learned about this distinction from author and mythologist, Michael Meade.

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