Thursday, September 17, 2009

Jean Vanier Is a Genius, Part Three

Community & Growth was published in 1979, the same year as Christopher Lasch's Culture of Narcissism. Sociologist Lasch was pointing out the societal trends that reflected a turn inward and its deadening effect on culture. Vanier's Community & Growth had a different function, a sort of justification for his at that time twenty-five-year project of bringing together able-bodied and disabled people in committed relationships of mutuality and gratuity. Lasch was pointing out that we'd allowed "normal" to become something dysfunctional and self-defeating; Vanier was showing that what appears abnormal to the broader society offers a prophetic vision of what could be.

Thirty years later the gulf between Lasch's culture of narcissism and Vanier's vision for community has widened. Social psychologist Jean Twenge recently reported that contemporary college students today openly acknowledge that they're the most narcissistic generation ever. I think you could argue that some other generation still holds the title, but it is nevertheless interesting that (a) people would say such a thing about themselves and (b) not be moved to repentance by it.

Meanwhile Vanier's notion that people can commit to one another in healing relationships has been embraced and experimented with more and more broadly, to the point where one of the more interesting stories in contemporary religion is the New Monasticism, where young people commit to living together in consecrated relationships with each other and the neighborhood surrounding them. I don't know that all of them would point to Vanier as their spiritual fountainhead, but they're certainly all playing in similar waters.

The contrast between these two portraits, I think, hints at their interconnectedness: a big slide from what we were meant to be calls for a big vision of the same. Late in his book Vanier suggests the following shift in missional priorities for the church:

There are so many people who live alone, crushed by their loneliness. It is obvious that too much solitude can drive people off the rails, to depression or alcoholism. More and more people seem to have lost their balance because their family life has been unhappy. There are so many who are lost, taking drugs, turning to delinquency; there are so many who are looking for a family and a meaning to their lives. In the years to come, we are going to need so many small communities which welcome lost and lonely people, offering them a family and a sense of belonging. At other times, Christians who wanted to follow Jesus opened hospitals and schools. Now that there are so many of these, Christians must commit themselves to the new communities of welcome, to live with people who have no other family and to show them that they are loved.


It's occasionally interesting to me how much shame we assign to narcissism; when I've discussed Deliver Us from Me-Ville with people who are parents and grandparents, they almost to a person cluck their tongues and wish their children and grandchildren would read the book--even though in the book I argue that this narcissism is part of the human condition, something that we each contend with and are never entirely free of, which means that parents and grandparents have their own narcissism to face up to. I also contend, however--and I think Vanier would agree--that this plague is at its root a reflection of insecurity, that we are narcissistic at least in part because we feel alone and unprotected in the universe, and that one way of contending with inordinate self-love when we encounter it is to remind people that there is other love available to them, that the love of God for them is purer and more enduring than the self-absorption they've so often settled for. You don't cure a pandemic of narcissism by quarantine; you cure it with love, and lots of it.

1 comment:

David A. Zimmerman said...

Make that "at that time fifteen-year project." Math is tough!

My word verification: chunsips