This is an extraordinarily interesting and humbling book. Although I felt somewhat uncomfortable about his description of people with learning disabilities as `damaged' or `broken' I think perhaps he doesn't mean this in the way that at first I assumed. The message of the book is that such people have in reality far more to offer `normal' people spiritually than we ever have to offer them, but that one has to approach the idea and reality of working with them with true humility. His book has shifted my ideas, and I feel in debt to him. I think anyone who works with, in particular, nonverbal people with severe disabilities should read it. Quite apart from anything else he begins to explain why such people seem to have such a certain and pure spirituality. I think I will have to reread it - his thoughts certainly resonate in one's memory.
I admire and respect Jean Vanier and approached this book hoping to learn from his experiences. My first disappointment was the comparative dearth of stories. Those stories that were included were far too short. In what way were these individuals transformed? What were the significant steps in their lives? The person with intellectual disabilities that I know best has not, as far as I know, been ignored or mistreated in any way, and yet is sullen, withdrawn and often unkind.
I realise that the counter-argumentmight be that Jean Vanier is trying to distill all these experiences into a single summary. My second disappointment, however, was that the resulting summary (if that's what it is) generally delivers Vanier's ideas without development. They simply are what they are, with the occasional appeal to the New Testament, but more often to a universal human experience or wisdom. As a result, the book often felt dull and uninviting to read.
Lastly, the final chapter on forgiveness lacked the depth - and possibly the real world experience - of the rest of the book. The example of the Australian who doesn't like Germans because her grandfather was gassed in WW1 really grated. As the philosopher Al Murray would say: "get over it!" How many Germans did she meet every day in Australia!
I will give the book another go another time. Maybe it will be better on second reading.
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This is a book of human wisdom - about community, the necessity of accepting change and of openness. The focus is on learning from people with intellectual disabilities, whose very inarticulateness makes them our teachers in the way of the heart, of acceptance and love. As Vanier says, 'the belief in the inner beauty of each and every human being is at the heart ... of all true human education and at the heart of being human'. Poignant and true stories of a number of damaged individuals bring Vanier's approach to life. There is much on loneliness, belonging, weakness and forgiveness. However, the power of the message starts to tail off in the second half of the book: more stories, with a greater sense of development, are needed. I strongly recommend hearing one of the various CDs of Jean Vanier talking: he is a marvellous speaker.
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