What These Past 4 Years Have Taught Me

disability   4 years ago I started my journey with L’Arche (well, kinda. I got accepted as a live-in assistant, but didn’t start until July 8th). L’Arche has had such a big, formative part in my life, and if you follow me on social media/blogs you likely have read all about some of the lessons and experiences it has provided me with. Thanks to L’Arche I’ve had the opportunity to attend a regional Ontario-wide prayer partner retreat, serve on the spiritual and community life committee, live in Edinburgh for a year, go to Ireland, go cottaging with our core members, have “Holy Book studies”, cook spicy cinnamon chicken, find a fab salmon recipe, attend the National Speaking Group in the UK, have panda birthday cakes every year, and many other wonderful things. Some of my best friends are people I’ve met through L’Arche and we’ve been able to go on trips together or even just hang out for late night snack clubs.

In the past, I’ve written about the lessons I’ve learned during my stay in L’Arche, but I realize that I have only processed my experience while there, not after I left. I think it’s important now that I am starting a new chapter in my life as a children’s pastor, to take a few moments to reflect on all that L’Arche has taught me and meant to me. I’ve been out of L’Arche for nearly 3 months now, so it is the perfect opportunity to step back and look at it from the full-side of my humanity and inner spiritual life, not just as an employee. Here are some of the ways I’ve learned and grown as a person that have become apparent to me (and there may be other things surfacing in the next few months as I further transition):

#1: If you don’t really want an answer, don’t ask the question.

You know how our parents always taught us that honesty is the best policy, but if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say it at all? Well, that’s not the case in L’Arche. We live together 24/7 and have made an intentional investment to be part of community with each other. This means that we are part of each other’s lives at a much deeper level than most other employment opportunities would provide. In L’Arche I have learned to accept honesty. Our relationships run deep, but be careful, if you ask if your dress makes you look fat, you very well might be told that it does

#2: Your feelings are yours to feel in whatever ways you choose to feel them.

No one has the right to tell you how you should or shouldn’t be acting or reacting in a certain situation. Prior to L’Arche I had no clue how to deal with the emotions of others. I find myself to be a very logical person, so I’m more into facts and figures and what needs to be done practically than I am with trying to assuage unpleasant feelings. L’Arche has opened this side of my brain up to me. Now I feel comfortable in most situations. I have learned to accept any thoughts or feelings I have. I don’t necessarily have to continue to dwell on them, but they are good to at least be aware of.

#3: On being a people-pleaser

My natural inclination is to get people to like me, but L’Arche taught me that I need to assert myself first. I need to live into the fullest example of who I am as a person and do what’s right for me. I can’t make decisions based on what other people THINK I should do or where they think I should be. I need to first and foremost follow my own heart’s path.

#4: On practising balance and self-care

L’Arche is truly a unique experience in that they are an example of an employer who truly cares about you as a person. L’Arche is a formative time for everyone and we have experiences like yearly assistant retreats, visioning meetings, assistant check-ins, and accompaniment (also called “coaching” which functions like spiritual direction/mentorship). There are very few other jobs I know of where your “boss” and “co-workers” are as patient as you work through your own life’s pattern.

Life in L’Arche is demanding and often difficult since we work long hours (most people I talk to who have never been in L’Arche are shocked to find out that I worked 55 hours per week on average and sometimes up to 70). But for seasoned L’Archers, we learn the balance. We learn how to say no to some things in order to say the best yes to other things. We learn how to use our free time wisely. Every free day is our opportunity to look for outside groups and social interactions. Even our 4 free ours of personal time are spent doing whatever relaxes us.

It seems odd, but those long, gruelling hours were some of my happiest times and in them I found more freedom than when I only worked part-time. L’Arche taught me to recognize the signs and symptoms of burn-out before it is too late and how to prevent ourselves from drying out and shrivelling up like a raisin. I’m sure the skills I learned in this regard are transferable to any other ministry or employment opportunity.

#5: On friendships

When you arrive in L’Arche, you have no idea what type of people you will be sharing your house with. Sometimes you will hit it off right from the start. You’ll notice a similar passion or interest and your friendship will fly. Others you’re a bit more unsure of. They seem so different at first. You wonder how you’re going to work alongside each other when you both see the world so differently, let alone become friends.

In L’Arche we are a professional organization, but also a family. Yet, there is no expectation to become friends with everyone. It should happen naturally over a course of time.

I regret that there were many people I would have loved to have gotten to know more, but since we worked in different houses our lives went on and we barely talked. Yet in many other cases, I’ve been completely amazed at who I’ve met and gotten to know. Prior to L’Arche all my friends were Christian and mostly white (you have to understand I spent my entire life in Christian schools and church groups…how was I suppose to know any differently). Suddenly I found my life being enriched by a wide plethora of ideas stemming from Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, and Jews. At first I wondered how we would possibly form strong-lasting bonds when our religious leanings were so opposite. But then I learned that this diversity is our greatest strength. That it is the best example of striving for a better humanity, and that it is possible to work together in ways that are life-giving. We’ve had so many interesting discussions surrounding faith and religion and it’s been wonderful because we aren’t out to “convert” anyone. We talk freely and openly and we know we are practicing global learning rather than trying to prove another person wrong.

Furthermore, I’ve had the opportunity to live with people from over 15 different countries. This is something I feel is so special and close to my heart. I’ve gotten to try Filipino spaghetti and Bavarian pancakes. I’ve eaten an Indian meal with my hands and cooked a full Thanksgiving dinner twice for my Scottish house. I also introduced them to Shrove Tuesday (pancake day) in exchange for them introducing me to proper fish and chips and haggis. I’ve danced the salsa and the ceilidh. I’ve picked up some Polish and Hungarian words and I’ve taught them some Canadian slang. This intercultural exchange will always be part of my life now. I never want my world to be completely white again 😉.

Living in L’Arche was the most formative 3.5 years of my life. Those years have given me so much self-confidence and global awareness. I know that you’re learning never ends when you’re in L’Arche, but I also know it’s important to take what I have learned and apply it to my new situations. When I look back on who I was 4 years ago I see someone who had a big heart and wanted to help but simply didn’t know how to. I see someone a bit shy with emotions, a bit clueless about the world, and a bit naive about global impact. When I look at who I am today I see someone who desires to not just do things “for” people with disabilities but alongside them. I see someone who strives to create a more just society where all can fully be themselves, and I see a young woman confident in who God has created her to be and trying to live into that reality, that goal, and that identity every single day of her life whether in L’Arche or out.

Thank you, L’Arche for all you’ve taught me. Thank you to all the assistants and core members who have patiently walked beside me as I’ve figured out where my life was headed. Thank you to my accompanier for asking all the hard questions. And thank you, God, for providing these 4 incredible years!

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