I met Jean Vanier once and was as surprised as others to read reports of his inappropriate sexual activity with a number of women.
This seems to have involved exploiting the vulnerability of women seeking help or spiritual guidance and whom he used sexually. He made pseudo-religious justifications to them for his behaviour. They knew that, as one put it, he was viewed as a “living saint”.
My surprise at the reports brought home to me the difficulty we have with integrating the good and bad side of individuals. In other words, instead of seeing people as both good and bad we see them as all good or all bad.
I met Vanier for an article I was writing about the L’Arche communities for people with disabilities and which he had founded. (Vanier’s sexual misbehaviour did not extend to people with disabilities.) These communities struck me at the time as excellent examples of making people with disabilities equal participants, with no “us and them” mentality. Today I have no reason to think otherwise.
Like others, I saw Vanier as all good. He was addressing an event organised by L’Arche. After he had spoken, a good many people, including myself, queued to see him for 10 minutes each in his modest room. In my memory he was sitting on his bed while we talked.
I forget what he said but I have always remembered the sense of service to others that he exuded and that he was very self-effacing. He had charisma. Some of the people in the audience had problems with drink, drugs and life in general. One of his helpers told me he had seen people turn their lives around completely after talking to Vanier for 10 minutes.
Our habit of seeing people as all good or all bad may start early in life
So I can understand the shock felt by volunteers and others in L’Arche, people who revered him, at the revelations that came to their attention following his death in May at 90 years of age.
We have all learned, yet again, not to make living saints out of anybody. The challenge, though, is to be able to see the good and bad in people without becoming embittered.
Our habit of seeing people as all good or all bad may start early in life. One psychological theory sees babies as starting life in the mistaken assumption that they have two mothers, one good (who feeds and comforts them) and the other bad (who does not). One day the realisation dawns that they are one and the same mother. That’s a lot for a baby to come to terms with. Maybe the baby could conclude that when people seem bad they are good behind it all or else that when people seem good they are bad behind it all.
At some level, though, I am not sure we ever get to integrate those two ideas. For instance, when two people are infatuated the other person is “all good”. Everybody else knows that eventually the scales will fall from their eyes and that the relationship may or may not survive disillusionment.
Still the strength of infatuation is amazing and is a distant relation, I think, to the uncritical admiration we give to figures who seem to be all good but aren’t because they are human beings. If there is one thing we ought to know by now it is that each of us is sometimes good, sometimes bad.
Could a “sometimes good, sometimes bad” view of Vanier have made it easier for women to have his behaviour stopped?
In the particular case of Vanier, we cannot know if it would have made a difference. And, by the way, this is not directed at anybody in L’Arche. I am talking about the way in which the world saw him.
But it seems to me that “sometimes good, sometimes bad” is the most rational lens through which to view the world.
Unfortunately, and bafflingly, we seem to find it harder to look through that lens than through the one marked “all good” or “all bad”. And so we will continue to be surprised and disappointed.
Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (email@example.com).