On Jan. 31, there was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch a presentation by Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, and Dr Balfour Mount, the founder of palliative care in Canada. The title of the presentation was A Journey to Personal & Social Transformation.

Mount, who has cared for dying Canadians for more than 30 years, presented first. He stated that he is privileged to be working with the most vulnerable members of society, as he described his work as being the “harrowing business of rescuing joy from heartbreak.” He stated that we, as human persons, are truly grown up when we “stop trying to fix people.”

Mount explained that quality of life is not something to be judged based on our health, but rather our wholeness. He stated that two-thirds of cancer patients assessed their quality of life as excellent and people with serious disabilities have life satisfaction ratios similar to the general population.

He related a story about a patient he had named Chip. Chip had been an athlete who, in general terms, had everything life could offer. Just days before Chip’s death, he told Mount that the last year of his life had been the best year of his life. This was astounding, considering that Chip experienced great loss during that final year of his life. Chip said that during his last year, he had a chance to come to know himself and the true meaning of life.

Mount said suffering is subjective and personal. Suffering is experienced by whole persons, not simply by bodies. Suffering can present a paradox. A person may have pain, but no suffering, or no pain but incredible suffering. Suffering is often existential or connected to spiritual pain.

Mount believes the need to feel connected lies at the centre of the human person. Therefore, how we relate to ourselves and others determines our ability to heal. Healing is not simply the healing of the physical body, but the healing of a whole person.

Mount stated that healing the whole person involves being present, accepting what is, having humility and accepting our limitations. Healing involves letting go and connecting the unity that exists between all things.

He concluded his talk by stating that the real teacher is experience. We learn the features of wholeness in our experiences with others. When we learn to be healers of the whole person, this begets further healing. Our culture is in need of tremendous healing.

Jean Vanier began his talk by stating he has lived for 41 years with people who live with rejection. These people have been put aside by society and, throughout the 1960s and 70s, were institutionalized. Vanier said people with disabilities today live in garbage cans or they are aborted.

When parents learn of their child’s disability, they suffer. They fear having a child with a disability. What is the source of their fear?

People with disabilities have the ability to change us. Vanier stated: “I am on a journey of healing and transformation.”
He spoke about the growing gap between the rich and the poor. He asked: How is it that there are people who are starving?

Vanier stated we are a society that has lost the meaning of suffering. He argued that the greatest suffering today is among the elderly who are institutionalized and ignored. They are abandoned. We have become a culture of individuality that has stopped caring about others.

Vanier said he fears his vulnerability and his poverty. We are all poor. But death is not a light going out; it is the beginning of the dawn.

He stated he understands the suffering of a parent who learns his child has a disability. The reality of rejection, the fear of living, the fear of not being loved or not being loveable. These parents need presence.

Living is liberating. Many people have difficulties walking, talking, etc. But simply say, “I am happy living with you. Live life, don’t just submit to it.”

People are changed by a quality of presence, a quality of love. We all need to be transformed, even those who already live in community.

Vanier stated his real value is not in power, but in being fruitful. To be fruitful is to transmit life and to communicate hope.

He said his capacity to love is what is beautiful in him. We are called to be together, to love each other, to be in community. This is what makes us human.

Vanier concluded by stating that to be human is to live compassion, beauty, and goodness and to become loving. We need community. Community is a place where we learn to love. The opposite of community is loneliness. Loneliness is more painful that living with others’ difficulties. Our world needs us to become a community, where we are together. We must reject individualism.

The evening was concluded with remarks by retired senator Al Graham, the national patron of L’Arche Canada.

Alex Schadenberg is the executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition.