Initially Nouwen looks like a poster boy for activism. Climbing the ladder to the highest echelons of the ivy-covered ivory tower, jetting around the world as a conference speaker and lecturer, publishing books with prestigious New York houses, Nouwen was a high achiever. He relished the stage and often fell prey to its attendant trials of loneliness and overly sensitive self-awareness. But the arc of Nouwen’s whole life paints a different picture. Disillusioned with his successes, he sought what one evangelical pastor has described as the “liberation of ministry from the success syndrome.” For Nouwen, “the true task of life might be the task to live our life faithfully in communion with the Lord [rather] than to change it.”
After withdrawing from his teaching post at Harvard and moving to the Daybreak community in Toronto, Nouwen was given the task of caring for a 25-year-old epileptic patient named Adam Arnett, about whom Nouwen wrote his final book. In it, he describes what Adam taught him about the limits of activism. Caring for Adam, Nouwen had to slow down, to realize the futility of pushing Adam beyond his limits, to accept the inability of Adam to achieve anything. “I found myself beginning to understand a new language,” Nouwen wrote. It was the language of stillness, the language of simply being present to another. Nouwen learned what he had so often tried to teach others: that offering one’s wounded self to a needy other is achievement enough. It’s a lesson evangelicals might continue to learn from Nouwen too.