I notice things as a father that I never had before becoming a parent. And one of the most striking is how inflexible many people are who don’t have children. This is a gross generalization, of course, but many are incredibly annoyed on an airplane, for example, when my child is somewhat disruptive, all the while I’ve been doing my darndest to keep the child pleasant. Sorry, seat neighbor, to have allowed that last playful shriek to disturb your zoned out zen rest!

I don’t take pride in this flexibility of mine. I know I never achieved it on my own. It was forced upon me when our children were born. And it’s a good thing they’re so incredibly wonderful and cute. Otherwise, I would have taken their interruption of my planned and scripted life with much less composure. As it was, I didn’t adjust easily.

This parenting-imposed flexibility came to mind when listening to the latest episode of On Being, the wonderful NPR program formerly known as Speaking of Faith. In it, Xavier Le Pichon, a French geo-physicist and member of the L’Arch community that cares for adults with disabilities, likens the weaknesses of the rifts in the earth’s surface to a human community. In the warmer depths of the earth, where the rock is molten, it easily adapts to these weaknesses where the tectonic plates of the earth move against one another building mountains, valleys, and creating earthquakes. It is only in the tougher spots, nearer the surface, where the rock is strong and hard that it resists the change taking place in the depths. Likewise, a community that is strong and rigid will resist the change. A community that is organized around its weaknesses is able to grow and change and adapt. So, where exactly does our mildly child-friendly society fit on this spectrum?

But there is more than that, Le Pichon says. I ask that question because I want to be the one society is organized around. Le Pichon says we need to put the weakest in the center. This recalls Jesus’ words “the first shall be last” and Paul’s, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” Anyhow, Le Pichon says it best:

Here is a very simple example that I have found time and time again and experienced myself. It’s a couple who gets its first child. The first child is extremely weak. He has no power, nothing. But he is really the boss in the house, you know?

As soon as he cries, he asks for something, up, everybody is at his service. You know, everything evolves around this new child. And it is the same thing when in a family or community you really are taking care with love of somebody who is sick or in the last stage of his life. Suddenly, we take turns around this person, and that is extremely specific of man community. Man communities have been built around two kinds of — I call them poles, you know, centers. They have reorganized themselves around the small ones, the babies, because otherwise there is no life possible. So that we share with all the mammals. But also the people who are in great difficulty because of suffering, because of sickness, because of handicap, because life is coming to the end. And that’s really very new and special. You know, it becomes a society which we call human.

Humane, actually. In French we use the same word. But humane. It is different from an animal society. There is a new touch, a new kindness, a new softness, a new way of living which is completely introduced by the fact that you put the weakest in the center of the community and they become the ones who are going to regulate the life of the society.



5 thoughts on “Weakness as the Necessary Element of a Strong Society

  1. I am known to my friends as being fairly imperturbable, but when I do become bothered, it comes on fast. When there is a child being disruptive, say, on a plane, I will certainly smile and ignore it or look over at the child and smile (if I can see them). What is sure to set me on edge is when the disruption continues unabated and the parent does nothing, or worse, encourages the behavior thinking it is cute. When that line is crossed, it is impossible to pull me back. Depending on how much longer I think that I might have to put up with it, I might say something in protest directed at the parent. I never blame the child because I see a child’s behavior as being 100% the result of their upbringing (barring exceptional cases). And, yeah, I have no children.

  2. Wow, Greg. I think I need to pull myself back here. First, if/when you become responsible for bringing up children, you’ll discover just how little control a parent can exercise over their kids behavior. Certainly, there are bad parents. But a good 98% of parents *HATE* to take their kids on a plane. It is an environment designed to bring out the worst in them. Cramped space, people close by, nothing to do … on it goes. If a parent encourages a mildly disruptive behavior, it may simply be because it is much preferable than crying or another, larger disruption.

    Anyway, the point is that we are all stronger, healthier, and better as individuals and as a society when we organize ourselves around the places taken by those who are weakest.

  3. Yeah, perhaps I went on a tangent/rant there. Your point is valid. A plane is a bit of an extenuating circumstance. The parents that I know do indeed hate to take their kids on planes, busses and trains. Heck, I hate travelling on planes. Let me just say that I see many parents that I perceive as being good parents, and parents that I percieve as bad ones, and the difference is substantial.

    As far as organizing around the “weakest” members of society, I agree that things work best when we can become personally involved with those who are “weakest” because we might learn a thing or two. It is indeed as much for “our” growth as it is for “theirs”. But for the divisions of time and circumstance, “us” equalls “them”. It, as always, comes back to the verse “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12, ESV).

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