Becoming Human by Jean Vanier

Becoming Human by Jean Vanier, Anashi Press Ltd: Toronto, ON 
1998. Print

My notes from the book:


This book is essentially 5 talks that Jean Vanier gave on the CBC radio program Ideas, the 1998 Massey Lectures. This book is more about anthropology – Vanier’s experience of humanness – that lays the foundation for spirituality, wholeness, and holiness.

“Is this not the life undertaking of us all… to become human? It can be a long and sometimes painful process. It involves a growth to freedom, an opening up of our hearts to others, no longer hiding behind masks or behind the walls of fear and prejudice. It means discovering our common humanity” (1).

Chapter 1: Loneliness

In August 1964, Jean Vanier founded l’Arche: a network of small homes and communities where people live together, men and women with intellectual disabilities and those who feel called to share their lives with them. Through l’Arche, Vanier discovered what loneliness is and the terrible feeling of chaos that comes from extreme loneliness.

Loneliness is part of being human because there is nothing in existence that can completely fulfill the needs of the human heart” (7).

There are two directions that loneliness can take us.

  • On the one hand, it can “push us into escapes and addictions in the need to forget our inner pain and emptiness” (8).
  • On the other hand, it can become a source of creative energy to seek the truth, justice, and deeper union with God (8).

“Change of one sort or another is the essence of life, so there will always be the loneliness and insecurity that come with change…Loneliness and insecurity are part of life, they are the price of change” (12).

The fundamental meaning of loneliness: a cry, often a painful cry of anguish, for more respect and love of others, to be even enfolded in truth, held in God. Such a cry could bring a new wholeness to humanity” (17).

“So here is the paradox: as humans we are caught between competing drives, the drive to belong, to fit in and be a 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 on anguish (and loneliness). 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” (18-19).

7 aspects of love that seem necessary for the transformation of the heart in those who are profoundly lonely:

  1. To reveal – We must reveal the inner beauty of others by giving them time, attention, and tenderness.
  2. To understand – To love is to truly understand why others behave the way they do.
  3. To communicate – Communication is at the heart of love. To name something is to bring it out of chaos, out of confusion, and to render it understandable.
  4. To celebrate – To love people is also to celebrate life with them and manifest their joy of being with them through laughter and play. Every child, every person, needs to know that they are a source of joy.
  5. To empower – To love means to empower others to do things for themselves and discover the meaning of their lives.
  6. To be in communion – To love means to be mutually vulnerable and open to each other in the security and insecurity of trust. Communion of hearts is a beautiful but also a dangerous thing.
  7. To forgive – Vanier considers this the most crucial aspect of love.

Chapter 2: Belonging

Belonging is essential to becoming human. Belonging is the place where we grow to maturity and discover what it means to be human and to act in a human way. Each of us needs to belong, not just to one person but to a family, friends, a group, and a culture. It is in belonging that people discover what it means to be human (66).

Belonging helps us to “break out of the shell of individualism and self-centredness that both protects and isolates us” (35).

“Belonging should be at the heart of a fundamental discovery: that we… human beings are all fundamentally the same. We all belong to a common, broken humanity. We all have wounded, vulnerable hearts. Each one of us needs to feel appreciated and understood; we all need help” (36-7).

Weakness is at the heart of belonging (46).

“Our lives are a mystery of growth from weakness to weakness, from the weakness of the little baby to the weakness of the aged. Throughout our lives, we are prone to fatigue, sickness, and accidents. Weakness is at the heart of each one of us. Weakness becomes a place of chaos and confusion if in our weakness we are not wanted; it becomes a place of peace and joy if we are accepted, listened to, appreciated, and loved… To deny weakness as a part of life is to deny death, because weakness speaks to us of the ultimate powerlessness, of death itself” (39).

“To be human is to accept who we are, this mixture of strength and weakness. To be human is to accept and love others just as they are. To be human is to be bonded together, each with our weaknesses and strengths, because we need each other. Weakness, recognized, accepted, and offered, is at the heart of belonging, so it is at the heart of communion with another” (40).

Chapter 3: From Exclusion to Inclusion: A Path of Healing

The path from exclusion to inclusion is a journey from fear to trust.

“Fear is at the root of all forms of exclusion, just as trust is at the root of all forms of inclusion” (71).


Fear prevents us from becoming human, that is, it prevents us from growing and changing. Our fears originated in childhood experiences of having to prove our worth, rather than being acknowledged to have intrinsic value (81).

“We all have vulnerable hearts and need to be loved and appreciated. We have all been wounded in our hearts and have lost trust in what is deepest in us. We all want to be valued and to be able to develop our capacities and grow to greater freedom” (82).

The heart

The heart is the place where this transformation from fear into trust happens. The way of the heart is the path to healing our deepest affectivity and needs, through communion and the gift of self.

“We have disregarded the heart, seeing it only as a symbol of weakness, the centre of sentimentality and emotion, instead of as a powerhouse of love that can reorient us from our self-centredness, revealing to us and to others the basic beauty of humanity, empowering us to grow” (78).

“How do we move from exclusion to inclusion? We must be open and vulnerable to them in order to receive the life that they can offer; it is to become their friends. If we start to include the disadvantaged in our lives and enter into heartfelt relationships with them, they will change things in us. They will call us to be people of mutual trust, to take time to listen and be with each other. They will call us out from our individualism and need for power into belonging to each other and being open to others” (84).

“The way of the heart implies a choice. We can choose to take this path and to treat people as people and not just as machines. We can see the cook in a hotel simply as somebody who is paid to cook well or as a person with a heart, who has children, and who might be living painful relationships and is in need of understanding and kindness. To treat each person as a person means that we are concerned for them, that we listen to them, and love them and want them to become more whole, free, truthful, and responsible” (86).

We must be vulnerable with others. Listen to them. See their beauty and value. Challenge them if need be. Accept others just as they are. Believe that they can grow to greater beauty.

“The mature heart listens for what another’s heart is called to be. It no longer judges or condemns. It is a heart of forgiveness. It sees God in others. It lets itself be led by them into uncharted land. It is the heart that calls us to grow, to change, to evolve, and to become more fully human” (88).

People with disabilities paradoxically teach us what it truly means to be human.

“We must open our heart to a few people who are different and become their friends, receive life from them. This is the way of the heart” (85).

People with disabilities are people of the present moment.

We must believe that each person is important, unique, sacred, in fact (95).

“Becoming a friend to a marginalized, excluded person is an act of self-imposed exile from most of the world. It is liberating, an act of freedom. It is a path to personal growth where one proclaims a new set of values. It is the first step towards living new values but it does not in itself constitute a transformation” (96).

Chapter 4: The Path to Freedom

The path to freedom involves putting “truth, justice, and charity over and above our own personal gain or our need for recognition, power, honor, and success” (108).

The path to freedom involves a real struggle in which we can experience inner pain, distress, grief, and feelings of inner emptiness.

“The path to freedom is the path of knowing who we are, with all that is beautiful, with all that is broken in us. Freedom lies in discovering that the truth is not a set of fixed certitudes but a mystery we enter into, one step at a time. It is a process of going deeper and deeper into an unfathomable reality” (117).

“We must make a leap of trust: trust in the sacredness of every human heart, trust in the beauty of the universe, trust than in working for peace and unity, and in purging our false self, we will find a treasure” (123).

Steps to freedom:

  1. To learn that fear can be a good counselor (125). Fear can make us reflect and change course in a quest for freedom.
  2. Becoming aware of our own limits and blockages. We must discover what is broken in ourselves, our religions, our families, our cultures. We must accept an inner poverty and uncertainty to find a new freedom.
  3. To look for wisdom that comes from unexpected events: the death of a friend, sickness, an accident that creates a severe disability, or an apparent misfortune that breaks the pattern of our life and obliges us to reevaluate our lives, to find new values (128). This can lead us from a world of power and competition into a world of tenderness and compassion.
  4. Accompaniment – We need someone to stand beside us on the road to freedom, someone who loves us and understands our life, someone who can put a name on our inner pains and feelings and point towards the meaning of it all, to reveal what is most beautiful and valuable in us. Accompaniment is at the heart of all human growth.
  5. Role models – we need people who are witnesses to truth and love and have a clear vision to make the world a better place. They show us how to live in peace and unity amidst a world of chaos.
  6. To recognize that the road to freedom is also a struggle.
  7. The recognition that the liberation of the heart comes about when we live in communion with God who is Love. God ultimately reveals the uniqueness and preciousness of our being just as we are. This union with God allows us to see everything and everyone from God’s perspective.

Chapter 5: Forgiveness

Forgiveness, in Greek asphesis, means to liberate, to release from bondage.

“To forgive is to offer a transforming love that liberates people from the powers of moral and psychological guilt. It is the supreme gift, the greatest of gifts, because it is a gift of liberation from all the hurts of the past, hurts that prevent us from living fully and loving others” (139).

Forgiveness is the process of removing barriers; it is the process by which we start to accept and to love those who have hurt us. We are imprisoned in our likes and dislikes. We categorize others and put up barriers (142). All of these various dislikes have one thing in common: they spring from the perception of danger to our sense of self (142).

To be truly liberated, we have to make an effort to communicate with those we dislike, to try to understand and accept them as they are, and to experience our mutual humanity. This is forgiveness (142).

Forgiveness is to have hope for the oppressors, to believe in their humanity hidden under all their brokenness. It becomes reconciliation and a moment of communion of hearts if and when they seek forgiveness (144-5).

An enemy is someone who stands in the way of our freedom, dignity, and capacity to grow and to love, someone whom we avoid or with whom we refuse to communicate (148).

“To love one’s enemy is not just a spiritual reality, but something essentially human” (149).

3 basic principles underlying forgiveness in the move towards reconciliation:

  1. There can be no forgiveness of ourselves or of others unless we believe that we are all part of a common humanity” (153). We may be different in race, culture, religion, and capacities, but we are all the same, with vulnerable hearts, the need to love and be loved, the need to grow, to develop our capacities, and to find our place in the world. We must lose our feelings of both superiority and inferiority.
  2. To forgive means to believe that each of us can evolve and change, that human redemption is possible” (153).
  3. “To forgive means to yearn for unity and peace” (154). Unity is the ultimate treasure. It is the place where, in the garden of humanity, each one of us can grow, bear fruit, and give life. That is what we all yearn for.

5 steps in the process of forgiveness:

  1. Refuse to seek revenge.
  2. Have a genuine, heartfelt hope that the oppressor be liberated.
  3. The desire to understand the oppressor: how and why their indifference or hardness of heart has developed, and how they might be liberated.
  4. Recognition of our own darkness. We, too, have hurt people and perhaps have contributed to the hardness of the oppressors.
  5. Patience. It takes time for a victim to be freed from blockage and hatred; it takes time for an oppressor to evolve and to change.

Forgiveness is a unilateral affair.

Reconciliation is a bilateral affair. It is the completion of the forgiveness process, the coming together of the oppressed and the oppressor, each one accepting the other, each acknowledging their fears and hatreds, each accepting that the path of mutual love is the only way out of a world of conflict (155).

“Forgiveness of ourselves implies an acceptance of our true value… Seeing our own brokenness and beauty allows us to recognize, hidden under the brokenness and self-centredness of others, their beauty, their value, and their sacredness” (158-9).

To forgive is to break down the walls of hostility that separate us, and to bring each other out of the anguish of loneliness, fear, and chaos into communion and oneness (162).

“We do not have to be saviors of the world! We are simply human beings, enfolded in weakness and in hope, called together to change our world one heart at a time” (163).


  1. […] reading: Video interview with Jean Vanier, on the background of L'Arche Becoming Human, Summarized Vanier: There is something more important than what you do…it is who you […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: