Excerpts from Becoming Human, p. 16-17
In L’Arche assistants are not there essentially to do things for people with disabilities but rather to become their friends, their brothers and sisters. We are bonded together in a covenant of love; we are of the same family. This does not exclude, of course, our doing things for them nor that we be competent in teaching skills and in our care for them, nor that we know how to dialogue verbaly with those are able to receive and appreciate such communication. But it is to say that what is specific in L’Arche is the covenant of love that binds us all together.
This bonding implies eating together and such realities as presence, communion, and touch. It means there is communication of the heart through our bodies. There is a whole new mode of communicating through the way we touch and look and laugh, the way we listen, the way we are present to others. This is most evident with those who have severe disabilities, who cannot talk or walk, but it is true with all our people. They are more sensitive to body language than to verbal language, though both are necessary.
Communication is weird in the twenty-first century. We have all sorts of methods now – computers, cellphones, telephones, etc. – yet we still find ourselves disconnected from one another. The most common forms, e-mail and texting, cannot adequately convey emotions. We can only read words, and we don’t experience the way a person is standing, looking or speaking. Face-to-face communication is precious, especially for those who are non-verbal.
I remember being on an airplane once, after it had been delayed five hours and we had deplaned and reboarded twice. I was exhausted and frustrated, and I couldn’t help but cry. The woman sitting next to me gently touched my shoulder and told me that it would be alright. It was a simple gesture, but it was more reassuring than words I could have read from a page.
What Jean wrote decades ago is probably more important now than it was then. Even though it can be difficult to facilitate, nothing can replace the connections made through touch and presence. Remembering that just physically being there, even if you are not actively doing anything, can sometimes be more than enough.