To the outside observer, a L'Arche house consists of two types of people. There are those who have disabilities (who we call core members) who come to live in the house because they are unable or don't want to live on their own. Then there are those who choose to come live in the house and help out (who we call assistants) who do not have the label of being disabled. It is the assistants' job to assist (hence the name) the core member to live as fruitful and meaningful of a life as possible. To someone on the outside this is what it looks like, and I would say that this is a pretty big part of life in L'Arche. But, when you take a deeper look, it's really not that simple.
Many of the assistants will tell you that when they came to L'Arche they brought with them some lofty ideals of how they were going to do such good works, and how they were going to help the core members live better lives, and how they were excited about all of the things they had to offer to the core members. But, once they spent some time in L'Arche, and once they developed relationships with the core members, they began to realize and recognize all of the things that the core members were offering to them. It is not a one-way relationship where one only gives and the other only receives. Life in L'Arche is reciprocal.
Along those lines, the assistants often come into L'Arche thinking that the core members are the disabled ones, and that the core members are the ones who need help to live a better life. But that notion is quickly disproved, too. Yes, it is correct that the core members have disabilities. Some require help eating or bathing. Some use wheelchairs or crutches to get around. Some of them are deaf or blind. So, it is true all of the core members do have some kind of disability and that is what has brought them to L'Arche, but it is also true that the assistants bring their own disabilities, it's just that we are often better at hiding them.
Assistants can struggle with being open with others, or with trusting people. They can have trouble sharing their emotions or developing close relationships with others. Maybe they find it hard to love themselves or someone else. These are all things that many of us struggle with, but they are things at which many of our core members excel. And these are only a few of the disabilities that assistants can bring with them when they move into a L'Arche house.
I recently moved to a different house here in our community. I have been a live-in assistant in this house now for only a little over two weeks. Often times, when assistants are brand new in a community, there can be a honeymoon period where everything is lovely and wonderful and the quirks and behaviors of your housemates are funny and cute. But then, after a while, you begin to bump into each others' rough edges. The things that were cute or endearing are now irritating or obnoxious. Instead of being funny, your roommate asking you the same question multiple times a day is now annoying. And the constant compliments from another roommate, which you once found charming, are now kind of aggravating and an obstacle to actual conversation. You find it hard to overlook how someone in your house consistently leaves their dirty cereal bowl in the sink, or maybe they constantly scrape their fork on their plate at dinner. This is when the honeymoon is over and the reality of life together sinks in.
Having had the privilege of being a part of this community for around four years, there really wasn't much of a honeymoon period with this house. I have known and interacted and been in relationship with the core members and the other assistants here for several years now. In this new house, I now live with a couple of our core members who have more obvious disabilities and who require more assistance and, whether I like it or not, they have been helping me to see and recognize and confront my own disabilities.
Lately, I have found myself getting frustrated and angry pretty easily. I get upset when one of the core members is constantly trying to move things that aren't where he thinks they belong. Or when another core member won't comply when we need him to eat or to get ready for the day. Or when another core member gets distracted and focuses on 2,000 other things instead of the one thing that we would really like. In the moment, these things frustrate me and make me aware of my short temper and my impatience. As a result, I can end up losing my cool or snapping at someone, which doesn't ever solve the issue, but in the heat of the moment I am not thinking about it that way.
Stepping back, I am able to recognize that these are examples of how life in L'Arche is like a rock tumbler, and we are the rocks bumping into one another. Our rough edges can be sharp, and they can hurt. Knowing what I know of rock tumblers, I know that when the rocks are done in the tumbler they are smooth and shiny and beautiful. I know that through the process of life in L'Arche I am becoming smooth and shiny and beautiful, much like those rocks. I just know that I am in the middle of that process now, and it isn't always smooth or shiny or beautiful in the midst of it. When the rocks are tumbling it is noisy and a bit chaotic and sometimes it can be painful.
But also, in the midst of this, I have my other experiences to look back on. I have been blessed to have lived for a time in two of our other houses here, and so I have some idea of how these things go, at least for me. There were times when I would get frustrated, and want to strangle a housemate in one of those other houses because they breathed funny or something silly like that. But I also know that after my time living in both of those houses, I came to love and appreciate each of my housemates. It wasn't always easy, and I struggled more with some than others, but I can look back now and see how my relationships with each of them grew and blossomed, sometimes in spite of but often because of the the times when we bumped into one another and rubbed each other the wrong way.
That is part of what I have found to be the beauty of L'Arche. Living with core members and other assistants, while it is not easy and it is not always fun or exciting or glamorous, it is always rewarding. Sometimes, in the midst of the day-to-day issues, when everything is happening up close and personal, it is hard to see it that way. But when you look at things from a panoramic view, and you are able to see where you have been, and how it has led you to where you are, it can give you a new perspective. You can see and appreciate how, even though when you came you had intentions of helping the core members live a better life, that they are, in their own unique and amazing and valuable ways, helping you to grow and change and to live a better life, too.
So, I will continue to bump along in this rock tumbler. I won't always handle myself well, and I am sure to be impatient and lose my temper when someone knocks into my rough edges. But I know through the process of living together, of forgiving them for their rough edges, and forgiving myself for my own, I am coming ever closer to being that smooth, shiny, beautiful rock.