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"Ecce Homo": To Welcome the Suffering Is the Sign of Our Humanity


Xavier Le Pichon, Ph.D., is Professor and Chair of Geodynamics at the Collège de France. Contributor to Plate Tectonics Theory, he is considered among the major geophysicists of the twentieth century. He is a member of the French (1985) and American (1995) academies of science. Born in 1937 in Annam (present-day Vietnam) Le Pichon has lived with his family in one of the communities of the Arche, an institution founded by Jean Vanier, which brings together people that have learning disabilities with others who choose to live in the same community. The excerpt we propose, was originally addressed to the 76th session of the Semaines Sociales de France, (November 23–25, 2001),  with the title: Que ferons-nous de l’homme? The author talks about the sensitivity he has acquired towards the dimension of fragility of the human being. It is in particular the care for the weakest that contributes decisively to making us human. Suffering and pain are at once the place of God's love and revelation.

 My life is built on two anchor points—science, with my passion for earth sciences, and the community of L’Arche,[1] where I have lived since 1976 with mentally handicapped people. This link between science and suffering people may seem strange, but I feel that such a connection is crucial in the development of humanity. Science has to be humane, and it cannot be so if scientists do not integrate their scientific vision and their love for humanity. Teilhard de Chardin is my role model in this respect. This mystic was also a great specialist in earth sciences. He knew that the history of the Earth and the universe and the history of humanity are inextricably linked; he contemplated the best scientific conclusions as a Christian believer in order to reflect on evolution in human societies. Like me, Teilhard de Chardin was offered a chair at the College of France, but he was not permitted to accept this offer. I owe it to his memory to emphasize the importance of the type of reflection that he inaugurated and that I have tried, in a more modest way, to pursue in a recent book.[2]

I often use the term “human/humane.” In French, “humain” is used to denote someone who is both human and humane; that is, someone who is sensitive to the suffering of others and tries to alleviate that suffering. In the same way, a society is “humain” to the degree that it takes care of those who suffer most without either rejecting or marginalizing them. In 2000, I organized a conference of specialists at the College of France to discuss “The Unhappiness of Others: Suffering and Culture.” A dozen of us shared our thoughts about the way in which different cultures understand this situation.

The first paper was given by Yves Coppens, a specialist in prehistoric human fossil evidence.[3]  He reported that an adult skeleton had been found in Iraq in a tomb dating back sixty thousand to one hundred thousand years. It was the skeleton of a crippled adult man that showed multiple fractures that had healed long before his death. Examination of the skeleton showed that, during a major traumatic event, the man had lost the use of his right arm, that he was partially blind, and that he would have had serious difficulty with mobility. In other words, he was unable to take care of himself. For him to have been able to continue living for many years (as the healed bones showed he did), it would have been necessary for him to be entirely taken care of by his community. This community would have consisted of perhaps twenty or thirty people living by hunting and gathering, with no permanent camp. Every day, the community would have moved on in search of new resources. We can only imagine the considerable effort this group had to make over many years to transport this person from camp to camp, to care for him, and to allow him to live. In the past, the mere fact of being buried showed the great respect shown by the community for that person; internment became common only around ten thousand years ago. Thus, caring for a living person in such a manner was extraordinary, although by no means is this the only such example.

We are therefore faced with a phenomenon as old as humanity itself : In the face of the utilitarian logic that dominates the world, humankind devised a way to put someone who no longer had any “utility” at the center of his community, thus allowing him to continue occupying his place in society. Such a choice inevitably leads to a reorganization of society. As soon as such a seemingly foolish choice is made, everything must be reorganized around the person who is the most wounded and handicapped. That person becomes the center of everyone’s attention, and something completely different is created: This person becomes the new focus of society.

The practice of protecting the weakest members of society certainly existed before this, as the very young were always taken care of; without them there would be no future. But many animal societies are organized in the same way to ensure the protection of their offspring. Putting those who are suffering at the center of society in a systematic way is specific to humanity, so that those who are at the end of life or who no longer lead a productive and useful life are looked after. This is at the heart of human culture. Scientists have been looking for and discovering signs of “compassion” in other animal societies, but compassion is not integrated in a systematic way within the cultures of other animal societies. Most research today seems to be driven by the view that no fundamental differences exist between humans and other living beings. Yet this difference seems to be fundamental, and I make the plea that it be investigated in a more systematic manner.

We are dealing with a species par excellence, a human group that is discovering the true and full meaning of its humanity. In a way, one can say that since humankind’s beginnings we have not ceased to reinvent our humanity. When faced with the suffering of a sick, wounded, aging, or handicapped person, we are confronted with an extremely difficult and painful choice: We may say, “I cannot” or “I don’t want to” or “I don’t want anymore” to care for this person. This is rejection. Either society becomes hardened by concentrating on only those who are productive or who will be so in the future, or it opens up by refocusing on new avenues, new dialogs, and new ways of life. In this way, people will invent new benefits for society, such as communication, openness, and sharing. Those who are no longer capable of direct contribution to society discover that they are nevertheless welcomed as full participants in that society. And this profoundly changes the community that practices it. […]

I believe that what societies receive in return for opening their hearts to the suffering is an increase in their humanity. This is the discovery that the person whom we have welcomed changes us and raises us up.

I have certainly experienced this in the community of L’Arche co-founded by Jean Vanier and Father Thomas Philippe. My family and I live there with mentally handicapped people who are placed at the center of the community. Together, we are discovering our humanity. Often, when people arrive who want to live with the community, usually the young, they explain that they have come to help the handicapped. But as time passes and they find that they themselves have been truly welcomed by those they came to help, they acquire a new perspective about life and live fuller lives with their hearts more open to the possibility of growth. They discover new paths leading to communication and communion. They no longer say, “I am here to help,” but “I have discovered friends who have taught me something entirely new about who I am.”

Our friends at L’Arche love to receive postcards and letters, even though they cannot read or write. They understand the deepest and most basic meaning of a letter: “You have written to me, therefore you have not forgotten me.” They attach themselves to us first as people, and they know that when we welcome them we accept who they are as people. They have no idea what kind of work I do. They sometimes say to me, “You seem very tired. Were your students acting up today?” Although they have no idea of what I do in my work, they notice immediately when I have ceased to be “present.” It is my person that interests them, not my social position or my job. The steps that we are taking at L’Arche are not so different from those that our ancestors took a hundred thousand years ago. As soon as we welcome anyone who is marked by their difficulties in life, someone who may no longer be “productive,” a transformation is operative in both the one who welcomes and the one who is welcomed.

To explain the nature of this transformation, I will use the example of my parents at the end of their lives. I have written about this in a little book on death.[4] My mother was affected by Alzheimer’s disease, and my father chose to stay with her until the end. Alzheimer’s is a terrible illness that progressively destroys the neurons. It results first in loss of short-term memory, leads progressively to deterioration, and then finally ends in dementia. The choice my father made led him to accept a radical change in his life: He had been a man of action; he became a man of service.

When Alzheimer’s affects someone, the little memory and security that they retain must be protected because our sense of security depends on our memory. Each one of us has experienced the feeling of waking up in the morning and not knowing where we are, no doubt recalling the fright that accompanies this sensation. Mother lived permanently with this fright. “Where am I?” “Who are you?” Father structured their days in order for them to lead a life that was as consistent as possible, with unchanging rituals: morning and evening prayers (said in Latin because those were the prayers Mother remembered), regular mealtimes, afternoon tea, Mass at the end of the day. This meant that Father always had to be present and give her his continuous attention, and it also demanded what I would call an “inventive heart.” Mother, to whom he devoted all his time, became the center and source of his life. This new phase of his life gave him a new name. Although Mother had forgotten that Father was her husband, for her he became “Jean,” the person who was always there when she needed him. Mother had never had so much influence on her husband, had never changed him so much than during this time when she was at her weakest and poorest. But she greatly benefited from the change in her husband. Until her death, she was able to keep in touch with reality, keep her faith by continuing to pray and participate in the Eucharist. Father said at her death: “I have never loved her so much. And I am only discovering now what the Sacrament of Marriage really is.”

The experimental L’Arche community and what my mother and father experienced together during her long and painful illness help us to better understand the nature of this mysterious transformation of relationships that comes when we welcome handicap, suffering, and illness. If this welcome is made with dignity and love, the person we welcome becomes the one who leads us into a new deepening of our true humanity. That person changes us deeply as they also change the nature of the community around them.

The community and the society become more human in the deepest sense of the word. But this humanity is not acquired in a single moment. We must be constantly inventive in order to respond to new handicaps and new suffering. And even if this inventiveness demands all our technical and scientific resources, it remains fundamentally an inventiveness of the heart. In the end, the humanization of society comes through the way in which it welcomes its most wounded members. It is, in fact, the response society brings to such a challenge that makes it more, or less, human/humane.

[1] The first L’Arche community was founded at Trosly-Breuil near Compiegne in 1964 by Jean Vanier and Father Thomas Phillipe to welcome mentally handicapped people as full human persons. It has since become an international federation of communities, which share a common charter inspired by the Beatitudes of the Gospels (see http://www. The author has lived at Trosly-Breuil with his family since 1976.

[2] Xavier Le Pichon, Aux Racines de l’Homme, de la Mort à l’Amour, Presses de la Renais- sance, 1997.

[3] Yves Coppens, “La Conscience et le rapport à la souffrance et à la Mort dans la Préhis- toire.” Coppens was referring to the discovery of Ralph Solecki in the Shanidar cave of a Neanderthal Mousterian cemetery. Solecki considered that his discovery demon- strated that Neanderthals were “human, humane, compassionate, and caring.”

[4] Tang Yi Jie and Xavier Le Pichon, La Mort (Paris: Desclee de Brouwer, 1999).

X. Le Pinchon, "Ecce Homo": To Welcome the Suffering Is the Sign of Our Humanity, in C. L. Harper Jr. (ed.), Spiritual Information. 100 Perspectives on Science and Religion (Philadelphia and London: Templeton Foundation Press, 2005), pp. 457-460.