Sunday Quote: Activist Jean Vanier on loneliness and the revolt against injustice

Quoted by Erin Lane on

Agree or disagree? Who is most likely to revolt against injustice: a lonely person or someone who is not lonely?


23 thoughts on “Sunday Quote: Activist Jean Vanier on loneliness and the revolt against injustice

    1. I don’t know the context; I read the quote in a different article. I don’t think he–the name is French, I believe–is using lonely and solitary as synonyms. People can be lonely in crowds; I know I have been.

      But I have read that people who are lonely are better than non-lonely people at linking non-verbal facial expressions with the appropriate emotions. The theory is linked to a scarcity model: a person focuses on what he/she lacks. (For example, a dieter who is restricting foods focuses on food. A person without money is going to be focused on money, all the things he/she can’t buy, all the ways that money makes lots of things easier, etc.)

      So a person who is lonely–lacking friends–focuses on other people, trying to read their moods, trying to understand the interpersonal dynamics in groups of people. They’re acutely attuned to what they don’t have. (I’ve seen this in myself during intensely lonely times.) So perhaps the lonely person, by focusing on those other people, can recognize when an injustice is being done in a relationship and/or in a society. They might not know WHAT to do about it, but since they don’t have friends to compete for their time and attention, they also have time to ruminate over the injustice and feel the increasing need to do something about it.

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  1. I wonder if she means solitary. I can get behind the necessity to spend time alone to ponder and thoroughly examine the best way to ACT — forethought. I think everyone to a degree needs others. I guess I see more unfortunate examples in today’s world of lonely, socially isolated people revolting in negative ways. Most of the movers and shakers that I know and admire have friends and networks of people yet they’re comfortable spending time alone. They spend time by themselves, but they’re far from lonely or isolated.


    1. I don’t think “lonely” and “solitary” are used as synonyms here. Like I said to Tim (see my other, longer comment 🙂 ) I think the lonely person focuses on what he/she doesn’t have, and that might wake them up to injustice. It might also make certain types of lonely people blame the wrong things–too much time alone isn’t healthy–and revolt in negative, destructive ways.

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  2. Loneliness being the linchpin required to revolt against injustice comes across as nonsensical. The most successful revolts against injustice require cooperation within a team of people. The more they work together, the less lonely people usually become. Therefore, if loneliness is required for revolt, that very requirement will be destroyed as these supposedly lonely people come together to combat the injustice. In Vanier’s paradigm, the ongoing work will destroy the impetus necessary for the work. Thus this statement becomes absurd. Perhaps within a larger argument it would make more sense.

    Is this man the Jean Vanier quoted in your post?


    1. Ellen, yes, this is the man. I’d never heard of him before running across the quote. (In the context of the Erin Lane article, she was saying that being solitary and being lonely aren’t things we need to be afraid of being, and yet many people are. Even when they’re “alone”, they’re still occupied by the web, a phone, etc., and never alone with their thoughts and the discomfort it often produces.)


  3. I think this very much depends on the TYPE OF loneliness. I am often lonely in the sense of being outside any and all in-groups: this has been true all my life. I have very, very close individual friends and in that sense I’m not lonely (or alone) at all! But I am never in the group, and that’s significant.

    If we’re talking about that lack of belonging, then yes, loneliness leads me to fight injustice. It has led me to start my own groups, seek out the lonely people, and initiate actions that provide for the outsiders.

    Being lonely has also given me the strength to do these things. Because I’m not a part of an in-group, I do not have to worry about maintaining my status as a member. This ultimately gave me the freedom and courage to come out as a bi woman and to speak up about homophobia, bi erasure, feminism, gender roles, racism…

    In other words, without in-group membership, I (a) feel injustice more keenly (having friends can help us ignore all kinds of pains–that’s the beauty of friendship) and (b) have no one limiting my behavior and can thus speak out without fear (I’ve already been rejected).

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    1. You nailed it, Liz. I think that’s the type of loneliness Vanier means. He works with physically and mentally disabled people, who are definitely not “in” and are often (always?) outside what most consider “normal” society. He sees a lot of suffering. Being on the outside gives one a different perspective. I’m keenly aware of others’ presence, but as an observer, not a participant. The biggest difference I see between your situation and mine is that while I might not fear being rejected, I fear my kids being rejected because of something I’ve said or done; I’ve seen it happen in private school settings. Believe it or not, I’ve censored some of what I could say on this blog because of that factor.

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  4. Laura, I happen to own Vanier’s book Becoming Human (based on a series of his lectures), so I went to see if I could find this quote and found it instantly; the whole first chapter of this book is on loneliness. Here’s some more of what he writes (the quote you used is within):

    “…Loneliness is something essential to human nature; it can only be covered over, it can never actually go away. Loneliness is part of being human, because there is nothing in existence that can completely fulfill the needs of the human heart.

    Loneliness in one form is, in fact, essential to our humanity Loneliness can become a source of creative energy, the energy that drives us down new paths to create new things or to seek more truth and justice in the world. Artists, poets, mystics, prophets, those who do not seem to fit into the world or the ways of society, are frequently lonely. They feel themselves to be different, dissatisfied with the status quo and with mediocrity; dissatisfied with our competitive world where so much energy goes into ephemeral things. Frequently it is the lonely man or woman who revolts against injustice and seeks new ways. It is as if a fire is burning within them, a fire fuelled by loneliness.

    Loneliness is the fundamental force that urges mystics to a deeper union with God. For such people, loneliness has become intolerable but, instead of slipping into apathy or anger, they use the energy of loneliness to seek God. It pushes them toward the absolute. An experience of God quenches this thirst for the absolute but at the same time, paradoxically whets it, because this is an experience that can never be total; by necessity, the knowledge of God is always partial. So loneliness opens up mystics to a desire to love each and every human being as God loves them.”

    Maybe he means that the lonely person is the one who allows him or herself to feel that sense of emptiness and longing and doesn’t try to fill it with activity and busyness — and since Vanier’s life focus is on people with disabilities, perhaps he’s aware of how disabled people often CAN’T escape their loneliness the way others can. That kind of person, who acknowledges their need and unfulfillment, can then go deeper and connect with God and others in a more fundamental way.

    Wow, you’ve given us a lot to ponder with just these few words!!

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  5. On the one hand, loneliness would make me empathize with people. On the other hand, it could make me a needy people-pleaser, and thus discourage me from speaking out because I want to fit in, or because I fear rejection.


  6. Personally, I would think injustice in life would cause a person to revolt against injustice (to oneself or to others), because injustice is perceived as a harm. I think all people revolt against injustice when it touches them directly, and sometimes empathetically- when they feel what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes and it doesn’t feel good.
    Jean Vanier however does seem to make a good observation that a dissatisfied soul, longing for completeness and relationship, will frequently seek to improve one’s lot and by extension, humanity’s lot, and will search for God and to experience Him. That ground point of being that the dissatisfied – whose loneliness for relationships (and completeness) – is something deep within human nature. The experience is very like something C.S. Lewis discusses in The Four Loves, concerning need-love and charity (agape):
    “God , as it seems to me, bestows tow other gifts; a supernatural Need-love of Himself and supernatural Need-love of one another.”
    I think a better way for what Vanier is trying to express might be: the human need for love, which loneliness can awaken in us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great quote from Lewis. And you’ve made a good point, too: we all need love, and when we’re lonely, we realize just how deeply we long for love. Thanks for adding your thoughts.


  7. * The comment I quote is found the last chapter “Charity” in Lewis’ The Four Loves on page 178 (Harcourt Brace Jobanovich Publishers: San Diego, 1980). Also it should read * “two other gifts.”

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