On the path of friendship

People are born with a natural inclination to do good – so teach the canons of pedagogy, the science of nurturing that teach humans the eternal values of love and understanding. This natural inclination towards goodness, which was instilled in us by God, calls us to do many things which will define us as individuals. In some people these will be developed more, while in others the opposite will occur, and these will be diminished. But the seed of goodness has been planted in each and every person. And it calls to us. It calls to us in a myriad of ways – from the enjoyment one feels at seeing a beautiful sunset, just as the Little Prince, to the warmth of a mother’s embrace, to the irresistible urge to smile and to be surrounded by smiles. This is all very natural. And one of the most important things which this natural human goodness leads to is friendship. Humans need friendship from early childhood. Childhood friends are dictated by chance and by circumstances of play. Friendship in teenage years is transformed into a stronghold of rebellion against the incomprehensible world of adults. Finally, friendship in young men and women is transformed into feelings of understanding, empathy, solidarity and moral support. Friendship often leads to romantic feelings between people. Friendship is an essential part of our lives, the lack of which leaves us completely powerless, as God often acts within our lives through the actions of other people who we feel close to, who are our friends.

Studies of American and European youth, as well as of youth in the city of Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, conducted to answer the question - “What is the single most important criterion for happiness in life?” -surprisingly resulted in the exact same answer in all three seemingly disparate regions: direct communication and contact with fellow human beings. And even though we may be living in the most advanced industrial age, true human intercommunication cannot be substituted by any physical achievements, material riches or feelings of power.

Having these ideas in mind, one day you come to the L’Arche-Kovcheh community. You look around yourself and see a variety of people – assistants, core members, their parents, people on the street who are observing you. And you go there in order to build a relationship with these people, a friendship. You come to them wishing to create a community, to communicate with them, to share the warmth that is one of the most obvious manifestations of friendship. You are introduced into a world of special people, people for whom your friendship is the single most important source of happiness in their lives. Often deeply hurt, often in pain, they have gathered here to create a community – a center of love, support and mutual need.

And within this special world filled with special people you search for your calling in life, trying to identify your responsibilities, trying to take these responsibilities upon yourself – that is, to do the right thing. You are an assistant. But standing in front of you, or sitting in their wheelchair, is your friend. And this is the first relationship that you must try to build, the relationship between an assistant and a core member friend, a friend who is the one person who will define your life because of your need for them.

When Joe Vorstermans came to Ukraine for a series of lectures, the only reason I went to listen to him was because I had heard so much about him from others. He lectured at the Ukrainian Catholic University and I was simply interested in hearing him. He discussed many profound and inspiring topics, which everyone should be aware of, although everyone must decide for themselves what they want to incorporate into their lives. It was he who posed a question that forced me to reconsider my relationship with my friends – my friends in L’Arche, my assistant friends, my friends outside of L’Arche. Joe posed to me and everyone else in the room the following question: “Are you truly my friend, or are you merely tolerating me?” And in my opinion, this is the fundamental question that I as an assistant should pose to myself with regards to my relationship with the developmentally disabled people with whom I work in L’Arche, people whom I refer to every day as “friend.” Do I call them “friend” because that is what you’re supposed to do in L’Arche? Or do I truly consider them to be my friends?

What do these people that we work with in L’Arche represent to us: A job? Someone to pity? A smug feeling of satisfaction that we are doing good? Or perhaps they really are friends; special people that help us walk on the road of life. Does being with a friend constitute a real friendship that satisfies our need to communicate with others? Are they someone who we truly accept as our equals, with whom we are willing to share our joys and our sorrows? Are we willing to accept our friends as real friends?

I do not pose this question to point out how other assistants are supposed to conduct themselves in the L’Arche community, or how they are supposed to correctly fulfill their duties. Rather, I verbalize it in order to bring my own attention to the matter and to ask myself this question.

You suddenly remember moments in the Community where you were placed in the role of a teacher, or an overseer, a judge or even a disciplinarian. And yet you also remembers those moments of tenderness, when you allow yourself to be embraced, to be the one that is being led, to be the one that’s being taught, whose mistakes are pointed out, with whom one can joke around with, even scold – moments of friendship, when my friend and I are equals; moments when I am not an assistant but just a friend.

I often think about what is truly important in a given situation: to teach someone something that they need to know, or to give myself the opportunity to learn obedience. And I choose obedience. One time a friend, whom I was supposed to teach how to act in a certain situation, grabbed me by the arm, hugged me tight and demanded that I do the same. I could have reacted in a number of ways. I could have demanded that he let go of me and do what I was telling him to do. Or I could have given in and be defeated, but loved and needed in that moment. Joe’s question was swirling in my mind. We both gave up and enjoyed the tender moment together. We were truly friends. People were watching us, but we sat there hugging each other as we rode together to the workshop. I am sure that the next time my friend will be able to make the trip himself, but this time he won. And this to me is true friendship.

The question of authority and subordination should never come up in a friendship. But they may easily come into play in the relationship between an assistant and a core member friend. My own relationship with people whom I meet in L’Arche is one of friendship between two people, each learning something from the other. This does not mean that boundaries do not exist, however these boundaries are set depending on the needs of either friend.

I feel that in building a relationship with persons with special needs, there will be situations where I will need to be strong, even critical. However I also believe that in building this relationship I can allow myself to hug them, to let them feel above me, to be better than me because these are normal situations in a friendship. Friends are not the perfect symbol of kindness towards one another. Friends are people who because of love for each other are walking through life together. And that is why I feel that I can joke and tease my friends in L’Arche just the same as I do with my friends outside of L’Arche. I believe that in building this relationship, I can do much more with them than just help out in the workshop. I can be the same as I am with other friends – good and bad, happy and sad, strong and weak – but always loving. Above all, I can allow my friends to act the same with me – to lecture me about the proper way of life, to get offended at me, to joke with me, to hug me – because this is so easy to do when you are with a real friend.

I am not taking away my responsibility for taking care of the people who have been placed in my care. However, I am widening the relationship between us to include friendship between me, the assistant, and the core member friend who I am responsible for.

“Forgive me, my friend, if I am only tolerating you. But believe me that I am trying as hard as I can to become a true friend.” This would be my answer to a friend, honestly admitting that although this is not an unequivocal answer, it is the best I can do at this time.

Joe said that God rejoices when we get down on our knees in order to be equals with our friends, and when we slow our pace to be like them. This is why I’d prefer to be “less perfect” in my actions, but more sensitive; less of an adult and more child-like and sincere. This is how I feel friendship, and this is what I am striving for.

And I believe, that each and every one of us needs to ask ourselves about our relationship with our friends in the community, and to admit to our weaknesses, and learn to be a bit more weak, but a bit more sincere. 

Volodymyr Stanchyshyn, L'Arche assistant