By Fannie Dionne
“Men and women for others.” We often hear this Jesuit expression, especially in schools where students engage with people who are marginalized. But what does the phrase really mean? How do we embody it in our daily lives? For the always-enlightening Fr. Michel “Jim” Lefebvre, SJ, we are men and women for others, first of all, by listening to those closest to us.
Our relationship with the world
The popular expression “men and women for others” is a direct reference to all that relates to solidarity, but at the same time it is a call to go beyond oneself, to step out of one’s comfort zone and privileged physical and intellectual environment to realize that not all people enjoy such qualities and privileges. As Lefebvre notes, “It is an invitation to have a different, more interior way of looking at things, a perspective that goes beyond appearances. It’s not just about focusing on the person in front of you, it requires asking yourself: Who is this person? What is he or she living? What can I do for him or her?”
When we hear the expression “men and women for others,” we tend to think that “others” refers to disadvantaged people, even though it actually encompasses everyone. Lefebvre continues: “I don’t think it’s understood well enough. We have to be men and women for others first and foremost, for those who are closest to us and then perhaps for those we don’t know, but they don’t have to be ‘disadvantaged.’ It can be someone who apparently is doing well but to whom something happens one day. It’s having the openness to say, ‘Is there anything I can do? Can I help you?’ Already this forces us to move beyond ourselves and reach out to the other.” So, this Jesuit principle leads us to a broader way of looking at others rather than simply focusing on their difficulties or suffering.
We have to be men and women for others first and foremost, for those who are closest to us and then perhaps for those we don’t know, but they don’t have to be ‘disadvantaged.’
Knowing who we are in order to encounter the other
Before being a woman or man for others, one must first have at least some sense of an interior life. According to Lefebvre, this is often missing.
“It’s not that people aren’t nice and don’t want to help, but their first thought is often: ‘What’s in it for me?’ After having learned more about who I am, I can then begin to ask if I’m able to listen, to be genuinely interested in the Oher. This is the first step in making the expression ‘persons for others’ a tangible and authentic mode of being rather than just a hollow slogan.”
The inner life, then, is the foundation that allows us to be open to others, to listen to and be with people, hearing their cries for help and going beyond superficial appearances.
The inner life, then, is the foundation that allows us to be open to others, to listen to and be with people.
Even if a certain individualism prevents us from being able to look at the Other with this depth of perspective, there is another quality that can help us become persons for others: curiosity. Lefebvre explains: “If we are not curious about people, about the people we know, I don’t see how the Other, a stranger, could suddenly be of interest to us. This spirit of openness, of taking the time to sit down and just listen, is a luxury that few can afford, either because this kind of accompaniment can be uncomfortable or because the world moves so fast that we remain superficial.”
To grow with others
Entering into a relationship with others and being available to them also implies not knowing what will emerge from that connection. Listening is not about gaining something or feeling happy. But regardless of whether or not the dialogue does not have a practical “result,” we do get something out of it, even if we are not necessarily able to identify or name it at the time.
According to Lefebvre, “We can consider our mission accomplished if we have taken time to listen to the other person, to enter into a relationship. Often, in this kind of conversation, the person says to us, ‘Thank you so much for listening to me.’ We didn’t give advice, but we allowed the person to express themselves more clearly. People today would like to enter into a relationship knowing in advance what will happen. What is needed, however, is an attitude of deep humility. We are not saviours, but if we, by listening, can allow the person to make some progress, our mission is accomplished. That’s already a lot.”
“We are not saviours, but if we, by listening, can allow the person to make some progress, our mission is accomplished. That’s already a lot.”
Thus, it’s not necessary to do great things in order to be a person for others. It is enough to learn more about who you are and to open up to the people around you. But in today’s world, this requires going against the grain, taking time, and accepting with humility the fruits of these encounters.