Dear Jean, Week 2: It’s Complicated


Each person with his or her history of being accepted or rejected, with his or her past history of inner pain and difficulties in relationships with parents, is different. But in each one there is a yearning for communion and belonging, but at the same time a fear of it. Love is what we want, yet it is what we fear the most. Love makes us vulnerable and open, but then we can be hurt through rejection and separation. We may crave for love, but then be frightened of losing our liberty and creativity. We want to belong to a group, but we fear a certain death in the group because we may not be seen as unique. We want love, but fear the dependence and commitment it implies; we fear being used, manipulated, smothered and spoiled. We are all so ambivalent toward love, communion and belonging.” – Jean Vanier, Community And Growth

Dear Jean,

I don’t think it’s making life complicated to express truthfully how complicated our relationship with love is. Too often we’ve reprimanded ourselves over how we fail to see love as simple, homogenous, mysterious-but-still-attainable, and certainly something we ought never to over-think.

The reality is: love is as incomprehensible as it is hard.

I know I don’t want to admit to my ambivalence when it comes to love and relationships of all sorts. I value my creativity as an intrinsic aspect of my being. Opening myself up to love generates vats of anxiety about losing that valued aspect. Thus, love brings loss.

I value my liberty and independence deeply. As a strong introvert, I cannot have too many people in my space for significant amounts of time. What a tear in my own fabric to know that as badly as I need space and solitude, I still need others with me and around me in order to live. I have yet to strike a balance. The restlessness here is pervasive and severe.

Human relationships can be so deeply disturbed, can’t they? It is one thing to be about my day in relationship with God — quietly praying, meditating, contemplating, having casual conversations with Jesus while cleaning the house — because, in my spiritual tradition anyway, God knows me completely and thoroughly already. There is nothing about me that is hidden from God, and yet there is everything for me to discover about God.

What a beautiful irony.

I have no such certainty of place or role with humans. Building community and cultivating peace on a daily basis is, by nature, a valiant act not only against the darkest powers of the world but against the worst terrors we find in ourselves. I have no idea of the joys and wounds of the person beside me; they are as broken as I am; they are finite like me, and limited like me.

They are not God.

On so many levels this is a relief to realize that none of us is God; but on a few other levels, some of the ones most deeply hidden in the basements of my worlds, it is disappointing. For when God knows me intimately already, what point is there in hiding? It is here I realize then: what point is there in trying?

Yet with people, I have to try. I have to work. I have to dig. I have to cultivate. I have to commit. I have to fall. I have to get up. I have to misunderstand, become frustrated, return and try to understand again.

That other person leaves me no room to slack off.

And this, you say, is love?

This is community?

How have you lived such a life for so many years?

My nature reveals that I would walk away. I want my space; I want my creativity; I want my independence; I want to have that private spirituality where I need not work so hard to walk with God because, after all, God’s done most of the work for me. I can coast as I please. Besides, God tends to be not as chatty as people. While I would certainly appreciate a bit more communication from the Almighty from time to time, especially during times of grief and trauma, God’s silence is a quality I’ve come to admire and even desire.

People can be so loud.

I can be so loud.

Community is noisy, messy and even grotesque at times, resembling more a child’s first attempt at building a hinged marionette doll — arms askew, head off-kilter, and eyes out of place.

But truly: that’s us.

We are askew. Community urges us to not only welcome our askew-ness, but to celebrate it and grow with it and in it and through it.

I wonder what richness and depth you saw when you penned your words? Surely you can’t mean that shy introverts or people with anxiety disorders or ASD suddenly move into communal-living situations and hope to fare well? Surely you have been privy to the diverse types of people in the world, all shaped by our cultures, genders, family stories, religions and education. Surely you must know that the world I was brought up in — and remain in — caters to the extroverted.

Even typing this, I feel the breath in the room grow thin.

I find it difficult to imagine that a social extrovert would desire a contemplative life as a vocation. Long stretches of silence and dwelling in spaces with few or no people would have the capacity to drain that person just as much as community living sounds like it could drain me.

Love could drain me.

Perhaps there’s the rub: my ambivalence isn’t out of place.

Love will drain me.

Community will drain me.

Both of these statements are true. I cannot change them. Love and community will drain us all, no matter what our personality types are and no matter where we’ve come from. Their complexities and capacities to restore and resurrect worlds-in-pain demand nothing less.

Yet love has the capacity to fill me up again.

And I, in my limited vision, am perhaps seeing community only in one of its almost infinite incarnations: sharing physical, communal space for the rest of my life.

Without my struggle with ambivalence — without my struggle with love and community — perhaps I could not have come to realizations of any sort. Perhaps I would have simply believed that love = X, and community = Y. Period. Graphed and charted. Perhaps then I would have tried, as I have before, to force my being into a flat and simplistic expression of community, insisting on its simplicity.


Perhaps my ambivalence is more of a gift than the world gives ambivalence credit for. Perhaps we are meant to struggle with love. Perhaps we are supposed to fear losing those parts of ourselves we see as good, as gifts, as places we’ve nurtured carefully and faithfully.

Holding this carefully, I wonder, Jean: just how truly expansive is love and community?

The ambivalence of it all makes them both seem…eternal.

Until next time,

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