K. Okęcki: Arche communities
13 marca 2004 | 18:45 | Ⓒ Ⓟ
Arche communities that I represent are places where mentally handicapped persons and those who accompany them (we call them assistants) live together. They are both social service institutions that look after people who are unable to live alone, and communities based on Christian philosophy and anthropology.
The first Arche communities, established a few decades ago, attempted primarily to address the problem of loneliness of mentally handicapped people, to create a place that they could one day call their own, their home.
I am convinced that places and initiatives of that kind have their part to play in the society and in the countries of the future. The reason is not just that young people from all over the world meet in Arche communities and in daily life they share for a longer or shorter period of time, but above all because Arche is one of the signs and efforts at finding a place in society for mentally handicapped people, i.e. those who have been cast outside the limits of society more than any other group in our culture and civilisation. We cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that in our society their being different provokes rejection, or even the demands for physical elimination of those merely suspected of disability.
A few years ago I was picking up a visitor from Canada at a train station. As a middle-aged man who had not met disabled people before, he was very concerned about how to behave, what to say, how to say it… His concern increased as we neared the home. In the doorway he was met by Gérard (that’s his favourite place). After customary questions, such as What’s your name?, How long are you here for?, he asked him ‘Haven’t we met before?’, and, when the visitor replied ‘No’, he said: ‘What a pity for both of us that we have never met!’
We can laugh at the situation and the content of the conversation, but: what a pity we have never met! My experience taught me again and again how much we can learn by coming into contact – profound contact – with those people.
Meeting others, opening ourselves to otherness, that radical otherness of persons with mental disabilities, as well as the cultural, linguistic and environmental otherness of assistants that we meet and with whom we live is phenomenally enriching. We perceive people with mental disabilities as radically different not only because their behaviour, but above all their verbal and thinking abilities, especially abstract thinking abilities, seem to put them outside of the criteria that define our identity. It is difficult to identify with someone so different from us in that respect.
On the other hand, on a short-term basis, we experience the cultural and linguistic differences of other assistants as attractive and appealing.
Living together helps us discover the wealth of humanity and maturity of handicapped people. We learn about their ability to make friends, even if they cannot always express it in words, and less so in our social conventions. And even more deeply, we experience their ability to love and the need to be loved. Obviously, my friendship with a mentally handicapped person is not experienced in the same way and does not take the same form as a friendship with a so-called normal person, but I think, and I hope, that it is equally profound, engaging and obliging.
Getting to know each other is the great and true richness of life lived together, of life shared. And Arche communities, where we see one another every day, at times when we would sometimes prefer to hide away and not be seen, are places particularly suited to meeting others, to learning, to listening to what people with mental disabilities have to say to us, to me.
In daily life – which is very commonplace, dull and normal – I can witness the disabled persons’ ability to change. The climate of accepting everyone the way they are and respecting their limitations allows them to open to their personal development and to develop their perception of the world. We have witnessed – not often, but we have – severely handicapped persons, who, as adults, started walking or talking for the first time in their lives. And it was not because we were better educators, but because the atmosphere of love and respect is the best “educational method” for everyone. Small children need that atmosphere, the certainty that their parents love them, so that their intellectual and physical abilities can develop and grow. We all need that attitude from others.
Being in touch and having a relationship with those we live with is not expressed by words alone, but often by gestures, the care and the way we approach the body. This is the way to learn to accept the body which is not always, or even not often, healthy and pretty according to our standards. Taking care of another person’s body when they are unable to establish verbal contact is a very profound experience. We learn to respect the body. We learn how much we are alike despite apparent differences. We learn how much can be expressed by touch, without the aid of words. I spent my first year in Arche in a home for severely disabled people, where my main responsibility was to take care of their very basic needs: washing, eating, physiological needs, daily care. For me, a person who only just graduated from university, raised in a family where intelligence was placed highly in the list of values, that year was when I learned a lot.
We also witness changes in those we call assistants. Often they are young people who come to Arche for a couple of months or one or two years, later to return to their way of life – studies or job. I am sure that for a future university professor, banker or artisan, that experience is not a waste of time. Besides learning housework and how to take care of disabled persons, we discover our own weaknesses and strengths, abilities and difficulties in everyday and extreme situations. First of all, we learn ourselves and by observing others that the need and the desire for love is that which is most profoundly common to all of us, that “to love does not mean to do something for someone else, but to reveal his own significance to himself, to show him that he is beautiful and important, that his life is precious. We discover all of that by the way we look at each other, by touching hands, by the tone of voice, by all everyday gestures” (Jean Vanier – discours à l’occasion de la remise du prix international Paul VI à Jean Vanier, fondateur de l’Arche 19 06 1997).
Living together, the communion in everyday sharing does not mean merging with the other person, it does not mean control, power or possession. It is a relationship based on mutual trust, built not just on the basis of common values, but also on the basis of common weaknesses and limitations. That relationship allows us to change our image of ourselves as hurt and depressed into a positive image (or at least more positive one), it enables us to discover our worth, dignity, and gives us hope and enjoyment of life.
Arche communities are places where we encounter suffering and violent responses to the extent that is sometimes difficult to accept. It is the suffering of the disabled people themselves, aware of their otherness and their unadjustedness to society (I am convinced that even the most severely handicapped persons experience that unadjustedness and the fact that our society has no place for them).
Being rejected both by the family and other people, the fact that we (the society) regard those people as worse, provokes in them the sense of displacement, loss and the sense of guilt that results from those circumstances. Disabled people often feel that their suffering, which is their everyday experience, that the suffering of their parents – is their fault. That situation, psychologically impossible to bear, is the reason for their depression or violent behaviour.
We also encounter the suffering of parents, often manifested by rejection or in overprotectiveness. One of the things I learned through contacts with the families is that they should not be judged – so painful is their suffering and so difficult to accept.
We also encounter our own suffering, when the contact with mentally disabled persons and their psychological disorders, their life story and social problems rekindles and brings to surface our own problems and suffering resulting from our life story.
While I was writing this text, Stefan came to my office (he is a fifty year old man with a slight disability but with family problems, suffering deeply due to his otherness). When I told him what kind of text I was preparing and asked him what he thought about it, he responded right away: life in Arche is suffering and violence – the violence within ourselves and in the relationships between ourselves. Both are related. But it is also the possibility of living together as we are all close to one another and involved with one another.
Both for the disabled people and the carers, our communities are places of enrichment and joy, places where I do not feel alone and where I feel that I belong to a common organism. They are also the places of suffering and of difficult cleansing. Cleansing of that which is just for the show, the façade that would like to represent my false self to those I interact with. For that reason they are places where the young and the not so young can gain valuable experience. They come mostly because someone else told them about his experience, about the things he learned, but also through contacts between various associations, and for student training.
Life in the community, besides suffering and the encounter with suffering, involves the experience and the meeting with resurrection. So many of the people who were once the terror of others and who could not find peace themselves, have found harmony and peace that enables them to talk about their painful past.
Arche is also the place of ecumenism. Numerous communities attract people of different denominations and religions. Our raison d’être in the Arche are the handicapped people – they do not make differences relative, they allow us to work towards the common goal. Our efforts are such that everyone, regardless of their faith, could live his religious life in his church, in his liturgy, surrounded by fellow believers.
Our Arche community – the first Arche community was established 40 years ago as a small group of people willing to live their lives together in a very simple and evangelical way. The moment of a vital decision came very quickly, when our founder – Jean Vanier – agreed to head a small social care institution. Thus we found ourselves on the border between that pure, original form that could remain a small community living on the fringes, and institutional forms of caring for the disabled. Today we receive funding that we have to account for, and we operate within the framework of state law and rationale. It was one of those choices with profound consequences for the future. Because the community is not an end in itself. It is a form that we have adopted so that people in our care could be best provided for, so that we could offer them as many opportunities for personal development as possible, so that they could participate as fully as possible in social life.
Our communities are some of those places, relatively rare, where we are involved in and try to find the balance between various spheres of our life. Arche can only exist when three dimensions: spiritual, professional and that of living together can coexist and remain in balance – in the difficult balance between spirituality that places the poorest and the weakest first, professional competence and the project of community life, shared in everyday trifles. That balance is difficult to preserve, therefore we are often tempted to abandon one of those dimensions of our project, but then we would no longer be Arche.
A handicapped person constantly brings us to see and to consider the smallest and the simplest aspects of our humanity, to ask ourselves the question about its essence. Luckily, in contacts with the disabled people we cannot turn away from those questions.
Saint Innocent a Paulo said that the poor are our masters. I hope that the main task of Arche is the in-depth exploration of that truth.
cieszymy się, że odwiedzasz nasz portal. Jesteśmy tu dla Ciebie!
Każdego dnia publikujemy najważniejsze informacje z życia Kościoła w Polsce i na świecie. Jednak bez Twojej pomocy sprostanie temu zadaniu będzie coraz trudniejsze.
Dlatego prosimy Cię o wsparcie portalu eKAI.pl za pośrednictwem serwisu Patronite.
Dzięki Tobie będziemy mogli realizować naszą misję. Więcej informacji znajdziesz tutaj.