Appreciate Everyday Goodness All Around Us
Brandon Sun, March 16, 2020 –
My wife and I happened to hear Vanier speak at a public event in the 1970s. We were blown away by the atmosphere in the hall. On paper, Vanier was a Roman Catholic theologian and humanitarian. In person, he was a charismatic rock star, generating an electric presence that enveloped the audience. The memory of that event was burned into us; we recalled it warmly last year when we read in the news that Vanier had died at age 90.
Vanier led a charmed life. His father, Georges Vanier, was a Canadian military officer and diplomat who served as governor general from 1959 to 1967. Jean Vanier was born in Switzerland in 1928 and grew up internationally. He served in the navy and then became a university professor – his doctorate was on Aristotle and ethics. At home in French and English, at ease among people from the highest station to the most marginalized, Vanier was like Canadian royalty.
In the 1960s, Vanier was moved after seeing the shoddy treatment of people with intellectual disabilities. He devoted the rest of his life to creating communities where people with disabilities could live with dignity. The organization that Vanier founded, L’Arche, grew to 154 communities in 38 countries. He was honoured with the Order of Canada and other accolades. Vanier was regarded as saint-like; destined after his death for actual sainthood by the Catholic Church.
But now the bombshell. A report commissioned by L’Arche found that Vanier sexually abused at least half a dozen women. (The women were not part of a disabled community.) The report noted that Vanier had great psychological sway over his victims. One victim said she felt “frozen,” conscious that Vanier was widely “adored” and viewed as a “living saint.”
Vanier's sexually abusive behaviour was deeply religious. “This is not us, this is Mary and Jesus,” a victim reported Vanier told her. “You are chosen, you are special, this is secret.”
We are left asking: how a man who had every advantage in life – and even had a PhD in ethics – could act so immorally? Despicable behaviour of men has been called “toxic masculinity.” And some of the blame can be attributed to human nature: millions of years of evolution have left us as a rather complicated mess. But some of the blame must also be attributed to the toxic patriarchal Catholic theology that Vanier endorsed.
And that brings us to faith. The Vanier story is a cautionary tale. We should be careful before putting our faith in any charismatic person. We should also be careful before putting our faith in any religious doctrine that does not respect women – or does not respect human dignity in general.
I realize that this caution can be hard to exercise. There seems to be something in our nature that wants to entrust our faith – and our fate – to a beguiling individual or ideology.
A related concern: I wonder if we pay too much attention to famous people, to celebrities, to heroes we feel drawn to worship. I wonder if we laud too much their great deeds, while we ignore the everyday good deeds of ordinary people. I wonder if many people living ordinary lives are in fact living exemplary lives. They may be doing more good than well-known people who achieve greatness but leave behind a hidden trail of destruction.
Temptations are always around us; desires are always welling up inside us. Given our reality, I am in awe at the virtue exhibited by most people most of the time. Despite the accusation of “toxic masculinity,” I think the great majority of men act honourably. But too often this goodness is overlooked and underappreciated.
Only occasionally do we celebrate ordinary virtue. One time can be during a funeral eulogy. But to notice the good, do we have to wait until someone is dead?
Take a look around. To everyday virtue, we could pay more attention, give more recognition and express more gratitude.
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