I never expected to gain profound insight from helping someone shower.
Then again, most of the moments of grace and beauty that I was privileged to share during my summer volunteering with L’Arche were unexpected. Sharing a meal, driving to the craft store, playing checkers – all ordinary, everyday experiences – would inexplicably leave me overwhelmed by their profundity, struggling to re-order my sense of the world and my place in it.
I would steel myself for these moments of grace in the times and spaces customarily conducive to them, like celebrations or prayer after meals, but most often they arrived by unorganized, unorthodox avenues … like showers.
This particular insight came to me a few days after I began my summer with L’Arche GWDC. I was shadowing evening routine with another assistant, helping my friend Heather* with her shower, and things were not going very well. Heather was tired from a long week at work and was anxious to get to bed. As I helped her wash and dress, she made it clear in her words and gestures that she did not want to take a shower, that she did not want to wait one minute longer to get into bed, and most especially, that she did not want me there helping her.
“Nah you…Liiiii!” she moaned as I tried to help her into her wheelchair, telling me that she did not want my help, but that of Liz, another assistant.
“Tired. Tired!” she snapped as I struggled with her nightgown. In the moment, it hurt me so much to see how unhappy and frustrated she was with me. I knew she had had a hard day at work, and that she was always especially tired on Friday evenings, but it was still difficult not to take her rejection personally.
Driving home later that evening, Heather’s words were still ringing in my ears. I had only been at L’Arche for three days, and I was struggling with the feeling that I wasn’t “doing enough” as a volunteer. I guess I had expected to walk into the house, assess the needs of assistants and core people, start a million helpful projects, and become everyone’s best friend immediately, but that certainly hadn’t happened yet.
My time here has come to an end, and it still hasn’t – but I am finally okay with that. After eight weeks of life, love, and laughter at L’Arche, I’ve realized that there is more to life than accomplishing things.
In fact, I’ve realized that I will never do enough, and I will never be enough, either.
What makes this realization a blessing, rather than an unhappy acquiescence, however, is the accompanying insight that nobody can ever do enough or be enough in the grand scheme of God’s plan for his creation. I think that is how he meant for things to be. In accepting our universal insufficiency, we accept that we are also equally vulnerable, and thus, all essentially the same – thirsting for love and acceptance. Whether or not we have overt disabilities, we all have our shortcomings. What brings our identities, our projects, our strivings to fulfillment is the equalizing love of God.
I realize now that my “failure” the night I helped Heather with her shower, as evidenced by her unhappy cries, was the first of many moments this summer when feeling insufficient, weak, and vulnerable put me in communion with the core members who became some of my closest friends.
L’Arche founder Jean Vanier calls communion “mutual vulnerability, one to the other,” and that night, Heather and I were both vulnerable to each another. She was vulnerable because I, a stranger, had complete control over her physical comfort as I guided her in and out of her wheelchair, adjusted the temperature of the shower, and helped her with her pajamas. She was completely exposed to me, literally and figuratively. That must have been a scary and unpleasant experience for her. It’s no wonder that Heather didn’t express her undying gratitude for me during or after her shower. Were the situation reversed, I probably would have reacted in the same way she did.
I, on the other hand, was also vulnerable to Heather: I desperately wanted to do my “job” right, and be shown appreciation and praise for it. Heather’s approval was central to my feeling of well-being that night, because I was operating under the illusion that the approval and appreciation of others would finally make me believe that I was “doing” enough.
In some strange way, our mutual vulnerability brought us into communion with each other, and paved the way for our friendship to emerge. I couldn’t have predicted it that night, but a few short weeks after this incident, Heather and I went on a “dinner date” at her favorite restaurant, talking and laughing like old friends, toasting strangers around our table and hollering at neighbors on the way home. I think the transformation in our relationship started that night in the shower, Heather feeling tired and frustrated, me self-conscious and slighted – drawn together by our weakness and imperfection.
It is a sad fact that our society tends to view people with disabilities as underperformers. I have always considered myself an overachiever, and the blessings I have received so far in my life testify to that quality. But what really separates me from someone without a college education, a bunch of friends, an impressive resume if I can’t even help someone shower “successfully?”
In the eyes of God – very little. And that can be a truly joyful realization.
As theologian Michael Himes explains in his book Doing the Truth in Love, “When I can say, ‘It is a very good thing that I am I,’ knowing that ‘I’ am not fulfilled, not trying to substitute some imaginary ‘I’ for the real ‘I,’ not claiming that it is good that I am I because I am the center, the meaning, the maker of the universe, in short, not making ‘I’ God, then not only do I consent to my own finite being, I rejoice in it. There are lots of limitations which constitute my concrete being – physical, spiritual, intellectual, moral, temporal – but I choose to be this limited being. God has chosen to make me, and I agree with God that it is good.”
It is good that no one of us can ever be “good enough.” It is good because our shortcomings, the cracks in the façade we craft for ourselves, leave spaces that God rushes to fill.
Life at L’Arche is full of these spaces, and life at L’Arche is full of God’s presence. It is his love which gives our lives meaning, not the achievements we seek to fill it with or the accolades we collect in a desperate attempt to prove our worth to ourselves and others. In the final estimation, we are all equally insufficient, and in some beautiful, mysterious, and wonderful way, that means that we are all equally – and exceptionally – lovable.
Emily Conron is heading in to her junior year at the University of Notre Dame where she’s double majoring in Psychology and Theology with a minor in Catholic Social Teaching. She spent the summer with L’Arche through ND’s Summer Service Learning Project.
*Name changed to protect privacy.