On many occasions these lessons were difficult to learn and so often I still find myself faltering over what I am doing, yet I know that it is exactly because I am imperfect that I am able to gel with this community and to be an active and living part of it. Even though all the lessons I have experienced this year are important, there are two major lessons that L’Arche has taught me for which I am indebted. These two lessons are:
- learning to live a lot and
- learning how to grieve beautifully.
I cannot do justice to both of these items by putting them in the same blog post (as they are both very unique) so instead I have chosen to make this post Part 1 of a two part series.
When a new assistant starts L’Arche they are right away assigned to a coach. A coach is someone who has generally been in the community for many years and is able to share of their wisdom and insights as a result. They act as a mentor, a liaison, and a guide on the journey that can sometimes be rough and windy. When you meet with your coach it is often an opportunity to share your joys and frustrations in an open and safe manner without fear of judgment – because more than likely the coach has been through some of the exact same challenges!
When I first started coaching I was blessed to have a coach who share many of my core values and offered a listening and supportive ear as I first began my journey into L’Arche. It was a bit difficult at first because I was not used to sharing about my struggles in such a vulnerable and direct way with someone from work, but as we began our coaching relationship I soon learned that one of the key factors to staying sane in L’Arche is transparency.
When assistants meet with their coach one of the questions they are given to reflect on is “how are you living these days?” Before starting L’Arche this question would probably have thrown me off guard. I was so caught up in what I today realize is the superficiality that is our North American culture. I probably would have answered something along the lines of “These days I am a student” or “these days I’m saving up to purchase my first car.”
But when our coach asks us about how we are LIVING these days she isn’t asking us what we are doing, what our status or educational background is – those things really don’t matter at all to the core members (residents). The core members don’t love us any more or less if we have degrees behind our name or based on what we own – they love us unconditionally and thus give us a glimpse of Christ’s love for us.
Now when I am asked the question “how are you living these days?” I give pause. I reflect. I do not answer right away. Before coming to L’Arche I was a super crazy extrovert. I honestly didn’t know how to make time for myself, how to spend time in silence, or how to genuinely reflect. I was always so busy being a social butterfly. After a semester at L’Arche I have finally learned how to be “comfortable in my own skin” to use a German expression. I’ve finally learned how to be alone and content. How to move from “silence to solitude” as Henri Nouwen once said. I no longer try to get wrapped up in superficial relationships just for the sake of saying that I have many friends, instead I have learned how to truly value the friends I do have. Thus I have found much contentment and joy through being a part of this community. Joy that I never knew existed before this year!
Similar to the question of how I am living these days, L’Arche has taught me another very profound phrase “living a lot.” In the first few months that I moved into my L’Arche house everything seemed to be turned inside out and upside down. We had a core member (who was a pillar of the community, having been here 40 years) pass away, we also had many issues with the health of both assistant’s and residents, and we went through a tumultuous period of much change and personal crises. Looking back, I know that God used this difficult time in the house to bond us closer as a family and as a community and for that I am grateful. He taught us truly how to love and support each other regardless of the storms life creates, and through it all He sustained us just like a loving Heavenly Parent.
Nevertheless, going through the transitional time was anything but easy. It was a time of much stress and I quite honestly felt unprepared to deal with it. Yet, rather than allow self-pity to soak into my bones and rather than playing the victim, L’Arche taught me how to “live a lot.”
When I hear the phrase “living a lot” it connotes a certain sense of reality but also hope for me. It signifies that a person is still LIVING – that they haven’t giving up, that they are breathing and moving forward. In my own life, I have started substituting “going through a lot” with “living a lot” when I think about my friends who are struggling with various issues. A few of my friends from Tyndale like the phrase so much that they have started adopting it in their own vocabulary!
I think that the fact that we live as a community really intensifies the reality of “living a lot.” My Tyndale roomate once pointed out that she was walking through the mall on Saturday and she believes that everyone there had something happening in their life, and how does what my house was dealing with compare? My answer: the fact that we are living together means that we are more in-tune with what the other person is going through. When someone in our house celebrates we all are so joyous and energetic about it. At the same time when someone in our house is living a lot, we all live a lot right alongside them. No one person is required to have all the responsibility on them, we all share in the pain and hurt. We laugh together often. Sometimes we also cry together.
When I first started L’Arche I was really searching for community. I was hoping to find community in my co-workers and the other staff. What I have discovered, though, as I journey in L’Arche is that community is so much more than that. The staff will come and go – often staying only for short stints of 4 or 6 months. Sometimes if they are really committed they may stay a year or two.
But the core members stay for the duration of their lives – 10, 20, 30 years. They are the true pillars of community and they are the ones who ensure that the community continues to thrive. Even when we are all living a lot!
Read Part 2 of this two-part series: On Learning to Grieve Beautifully
Deborah Ferber is a Field Associate and blogger for Anabaptist Disabilities Network. She wrote this post in December 2013.