In 1964, after a visit to an institution in France where disabled men were kept locked up, Jean Vanier (1928-2019) gave up teaching philosophy at the University of Toronto and bought a small house in northern France, where he lived with two disabled men from the local psychiatric asylum. That was the beginning of L’Arche—named for Noah’s Ark—which now has communities in 35 countries.
Vanier believed that the violence and anger at the lockdown institutions for the disabled was the result of their living situation and not part of the characters of ‘inmates’. He devoted himself to creating meaningful lives for persons in the situation of disability by creating homes where they were loved through relations of tenderness.
In his writings, Vanier recounts how his experience living with disabled people is transformative for all involved. As for himself, he says, he had to learn communion rather than competition; he had to learn to simply be with others, especially those who cannot speak. As for the disabled people who moved from institutions into homes, he describes the transformation from anguish and depression to relaxation and trust. “This shows through the expressions on their faces and through all their flesh. As they discover a sense of belonging, that they are part of a ‘family’, the will to live begins to emerge.” His experience has taught him that living with others and a sense of home are essential to well-being.
Given her own experience of living with the “neurological difficulties” of her son David and his resulting motor, sensory, mental and psychic disabilities, Julia Kristeva has been an active advocate for disability rights in France, where she co-founded Conseil national d’handicap (National Disability Council) and has advised the French government on policies regarding disability. In 2009, Kristeva made her first visit to Trosly-Breuil, a village in northern France, to meet Jean Vanier and spend the day with the members of the L’Arche community. Kristeva’s visit to L’Arche inspired an exchange of letters with Vanier, published as Leurs regards perce nos ombres (Their Look Pierces our Shadows) (2011). There, Vanier associates his engagement with people in the situation of disability with Christian charity, which for him is not the sovereign act of giving to the poor, but, rather, an act of love between human beings. Kristeva rejects the charity model altogether because it makes the disabled into an “object of care” rather than a subject. Instead, she argues for interaction rather than integration, and encounter rather than assimilation. Yet, throughout their exchange, and in Vanier’s own writings, it becomes clear that Vanier is not proposing a charity that takes the other as an object, but an ethics of tenderness that promotes the flourishing of all through interaction and love.
The title of their exchange, Their Look Pierces our Shadows, is an allusion to Henrik Ibsen’s play Little Eyolf (1894), in which a disabled son drowns. The boy’s mother is haunted by the look in his eyes, which penetrates to “the depths of her humanity.” Kristeva tells Vanier that the play changes “the gaze of the non-disabled on persons with disability. Ibsen helps us to do this by reversing the perspective: it is Eyolf who looks at us, it is the look of the little boy with a disability that counts, for it is him who will pierce our shadows.” Kristeva is struck by the moment in Ibsen’s play when the mother is recalled to her humanity by the look of her disabled son.
Drawing on this mother’s interaction with her son, Kristeva suggests that the encounter with a person in the situation of disability has the potential to challenge traditional notions of humanism, both of the Christian and Enlightenment varieties, and to inspire a new humanism, one based on affect and not reason. Kristeva’s new humanism as interaction with others, as being with and embracing (even loving) the singularity of each person as they are, requires not only an expanded notion of humanity, but also of home.
As she points out, the word ethics, comes from ethos, which originally meant a regular sleeping place or shelter. Living with others creates a sense of being at home as belonging. Fundamental to this sense of home and belonging is having a safe place to sleep, both physically and emotionally, a place to let your guard down and be accepted as you are. Everyone needs a safe place to call home, a safe place to sleep, and to feel loved.
Living with others, welcoming them into your home, accepting them as they are, and interacting with them through love, this is what makes us human. It is not our linguistic abilities, our reason, our tool-making, our productivity, but our affective connection and the ways in which that connection makes human life meaningful that are distinctive to humanity. To live with others is to learn tenderness as a lesson in loving the uniqueness of each person. Beyond merely tolerating differences, Vanier’s life and work challenge us to embrace disability to the point of loving it, of wanting it to be. The affirmation of the positive uniqueness of each serves as an antidote to Aristotelean norms and their defective or deficient counterparts.
What we learn from Vanier’s account of living with people in the situation of disability is that it is being with, and not speaking to—or even listening to—others that gives his life and the lives of those with whom he lives meaning. Our affective connection with others runs deeper than language or thought or reason. It is primal and primary and necessary for survival and thriving. To live with others is to learn to love singularity.
Through his life and work, Jean Vanier teaches us an ethics of tenderness. Tenderness, however, cannot be reduced to care, although caring for… can be an expression of tenderness. This ethics of tenderness is a way of being with, a disposition towards the other, rather than a set of particular actions or even intentions towards the other.
Living with others, accepting them as they are and not how society would like them to be, and interacting with them are transformative experiences. This is the principle that motivates Jean Vanier’s L’Arche project. Vanier’s life and work challenge us to share not only our resources, but also our hearts through the tenderness of sharing a life.
 Vanier, Jean. 1992. From Brokenness to Community. The Wit Lectures Harvard Divinity School. New York: Paulist Press, p. 15
 Kristeva, Julia, and Jean Vanier. 2011. Leur regard perce nos ombres: Échange. Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, p. 67.