"Sometimes today people have difficulty with the phrases “the poor” and “the weak”. The words “poor” and “weak” go against certain cultural norms that want everyone to be strong and powerful. Weakness is frequently considered a defect. However, little children are weak; they cannot fend for themselves. People with severe intellectual disability are weak; they cannot cope all alone. This does not mean that they have no value. We all have our limits and handicaps. We all need each other. But some people recognize their poverty; others do not." Jean Vanier, Ark for the Poor, p. 14
Since coming to work at L'Arche, I've begun to look at the words "strong" and "weak" differently.
In our society, people are considered strong if we are independent. If we can do things on our own with no assistance from anyone else, that is considered a sign of strength. If we can support ourselves financially, emotionally and psychologically without needing help or intervention from someone else, then we are recognized as strong people. This is a good thing. It's the ideal. It's the way we want to be. It is good to be seen as strong.
But if, for some reason, we do not have that ability to be independent, if we need help to perform everyday tasks, it is seen as a sign of weakness. If we have to reach out and ask for help when we are struggling to pay our bills or buy our food, if we need to seek support for a particular situation or problem that is burdening us, it is seen as a lack of strength. If we were a strong person we'd be able to push through, to shoulder the burden on our own with no help from anyone. Being weak is seen as a negative. It's something we do not want to be. It is a thing to be avoided at all costs.
So, by society's standards, I would be considered a strong person. I am able to be independent. I can live on my own, work to earn the money to pay my own bills, purchase and prepare my own food. I make decisions for myself. I am educated and have a Bachelor's Degree and a Master's Degree. I don't have any health concerns, I don't need any medications to help me function appropriately.
My housemates, however, would fall into the category of what society would consider weak. Most of them would be unable to do all of the things they'd need to do to live on their own. They need help with daily tasks that they are unable to do themselves and sometimes need reminders to complete the tasks of which they are capable. They don't have the skill set or the capacity to get and keep a job that would provide them with a salary that would allow them to be able to live on their own and provide for themselves. Some of them are on medications that help them function appropriately both psychologically and physically. Some of them are unable to communicate their wants and needs in a way that society considers effective.
So, I am strong and the core members I work with everyday are weak. At least if we define "strong" and "weak" the way that society tends to define them. But it's not that simple. Life in a L'Arche community, much like the Beatitudes of Jesus upon which these communities are based, turns these things upside down.
There are many places in my life where I am weak. For instance, I can have a short temper. I can be quick to get upset and sometimes slow to forgive. I can be quick to judge people. I can let other peoples' opinions of me have too much power. I can be slow to ask for help, wanting to prove that I can do something on my own. I can sometimes hold back my emotions, not wanting to let people know how I really feel. My ego often gets in the way of even the simplest things.
The core members, however, are often very strong. They can see joy in the small things. They can forgive easily and let go of grudges quickly. They can be accepting and loving of just about anyone. With just a smile, they can bring joy to an entire room. They can be quick to laugh. They can stop what they're doing and dance to a song they enjoy no matter where they might be. They can have no problem relying on someone else for help with their everyday tasks. They often have no trouble being honest about what they are thinking and feeling.
These are just some of the ways that core members have shown me that they are strong. Of course, not every core member does all of those things and not any core member does these things all the time. Like all people, we are strong sometimes and at other times we are weak. Sometimes we can do things on our own, sometimes we need help and support. There are times when I'm the one who is strong, and I am helping the core members. Then there are times when they are the ones sharing their strength with me. We take turns.
And that is one of the beautiful things about life in L'Arche. It isn't about what I can do for the core members. It isn't about how I, the strong, capable, able-bodied non-disabled person can help them. It's about how we can share life together and what we can do for each other. It's recognizing that each of us is strong and each of us is weak in our own ways, with our own gifts and talents to share with the world.