Narrative Capitals/1 - The new beginning of a spiritual and work heritage
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire il 12/11/2017
“We have to work in those intermediate areas between several orders of disciplines, in which exceptional wealth is often accumulated, like at the border of two different areas.”
Achille Loria The Economic Foundations of Society
Communities, associations, movements, institutions and businesses live through many forms of capital. One of these is narrative capital, a precious resource in many organizations, which becomes essential in times of crisis and in the great changes on which the quality of the present, the possibility of the future, the blessing or curse of the past depend. It is the patrimony - that is, munus / gift of the fathers - made of stories, stories, writings, sometimes poems, songs and myths. It is a real capital because, like all capitals, it generates fruits and future. If the ideals of the organization or community are high and ambitious, as it happens in many ideal driven organizations (IDO), its narrative capital is also great. It is a precious resource during the first difficulties, when telling each other the great episodes of yesterday gives courage to continue to hope, believe and love today.
The narrative capital is also the first mechanism for selecting new members of the organization or community. We love many things, but above all we love wonderful stories, those that awaken the deepest and truest part of our soul, that make us become better simply by listening to them. The greater our ideals and our soul is, the greater the promise contained in the narrative capital must be in order to activate and make us become part of that same story. Small stories attract people with small desires and ideals, great stories conquer great souls, extraordinary stories attract extraordinary people.
In the early days of its foundation, this narrative capital is the only asset that a community possesses, especially those movement-communities that arise from spiritual ideals - inside and outside religions. We nourish ourselves with the life that is generated, with the first stories and "miracles", with life and the words of the founders that are still lived and told to each other. The new life is immediately a gospel, fresh good news. Those who are reached by that generative story recognize their own story, past and future in it. In those early days, the rate of accumulating the narrative capital is very high, and its growth is exponential. Most of this special heritage is formed during the very first few years, sometimes in the early months or days. Its "productivity" is extraordinary and astonishing: in any environment it is enough to evoke those first stories to witness authentic miracles that are as and (sometimes) more impressive than the first ones. Saying and repeating the phrases and facts of the beginning produces literally extraordinary effects, which, in addition to making the community grow, also feeds the conviction of the truth and strength of the announced ideal in those who announce it, in a very powerful and admirable virtuous circle (stories - announcing them - bearing fruits - strengthening - announcing them again...).
If the "charisma" at the origin of these experiences is rich and innovative, and the founder is generous and creative, one can feed on the stories and words of the early days for decades - even for centuries - without feeling the need to add a single new one. But it is within this richness that the so-called parasitic syndrome develops. Almost inevitably and always unintentionally, the immense fruits that the stories of the past generate become an obstacle to the creation of new narrative capital. And today we begin to live with the income of yesterday - like the entrepreneur who stops innovating and generating new income because he lives very well on the revenues of past capitals. The bigger the first narrative capital, the longer the phase of life fuelled by the revenue is. This is a form of the so-called "paradox of abundance" (or "resource curse"), the trap in which rich countries fall thanks to a single natural resource, ending up impoverishing themselves precisely because of that enormous wealth. A spiritually rich founder and charisma can be transformed from "blessing" into "curse" without wanting or being aware of it, if the spiritual richness of their charisma makes it easier and faster to trigger parasitic syndrome (which can begin already during the life of the founders themselves who stop innovating and nourish themselves above all from their past). Because, paradoxically, the greater the spiritual richness, the more likely it is that the parasitic syndrome is activated. Communities with simple founders and charismas have other problems, but they do not know the parasitic syndrome, which is a typical disease of wealth.
But unlike financial or real estate capitals, which can allow a constant or increasing flow of revenue, narrative capitals begin to age and shrink if they are not updated and renewed. For them, Edgar Morin’s phrase is especially true: Everything that is not regenerating is degenerating. This obsolescence/degeneration can be extremely and dramatically rapid in times of acceleration of history (as ours is). From one day to the next, one finds oneself in a serious famine of stories to tell. Those first stories that were convincing and of a conversional power until yesterday, the ones that were our great treasure, had enchanted us and founded our individual and collective life become silent, cold, dead. The distance between the language and the challenges of the present and the stories of the past becomes enormous – here, too, the watchmen are young people: they are the first to report illness.
In ideal connected and charismatic histories, the first stories continue to speak in the second and future generations only if accompanied by the second and third stories. Franciscans have kept Franciscanism and Christianity alive by adding the stories of Francis to those of the Gospels, and Franciscans today keep Francis (and the Gospel) alive by adding their "acts" to those of the Poverello of Assisi. The first patrimony, the fathers' narrative gift, is not enough to keep on living: the gift of children is also indispensable - which is also a gift for fathers who manage not to die forever.
The exhaustion of narrative capital is the most common cause of the crisis and death of an IDO. It is not easy to escape from this deadly syndrome. Often one gets ill and suffers without even being able to get to the diagnosis, and the crisis is attributed to other causes (the lack of radical thought in young people, the evilness of the world...). At other times we understand that the crisis has to do with our inability to narrate the heart of the charisma, we see that the narrative capital doesn't speak (to us) more, or doesn't speak enough, or speaks to the wrong people, but the wrong cure is chosen.
The most common bad cure is adding new stories that are easier to understand in the "present century", but that no longer have the DNA of the first story. It is only in the end that many understand that it’s because we are simply telling another story. Thus it happens that a community born of a charisma that wanted to evangelize the world of the family, faced with the difficulty of continuing to explain the evangelical words of the first generation to themselves and their world, begins to deal with family policies, adoptions and natural methods after a time. These new stories are much closer to the changed cultural sensibility, much easier to explain and understand, more suitable for financing and finding advocates. But the decisive problem hiding in such operations - that are common today - concerns the narrative capital directly. The new association can no longer use the first narrative capital, which remains a resource for the archives or for a phrase to quote on Christmas cards. Here there is no grafting of new stories on the old tree, but only replacement of the first narrative capital with the new one. In some cases, which are a species of this genus, there is a first phase when the new part of the narrative capital tries to maintain contact with its original component. But the new and more successful stories gradually erode the old ones, until they are consumed entirely.
For many people these transformations and evolutions are inherent in the nature of things and history, they have always been, and always will be there. Others see it as a serious and decisive problem. The new narrative capital, simple and easily understandable, does not attract vocations. The first generation had been able to conquer people who are willing to dedicate their lives to that ideal because they were fascinated by the prophecy and the radical nature of the promise. If the great difficulty of explaining the first message generates words that are simpler and simpler to understand because they are bereaved of their ideal charge, what happens is a change in the type of people attracted by that message. The person in the first generation who had made that ideal the or an identity dimension of their life (this is the essence of every vocation) gradually disappears and new members arrive in their place with an increasingly lighter adhesion. In other words, the new narrative capital no longer selects vocations but sympathizers, or workers employed in works (life should be spent on God or on a world without poverty, not on "corporate social responsibility").
This is how thousands of charismatic communities and spiritual movements born in the twentieth century and in past centuries are becoming extinct. Sometimes new institutions are born from their death, at other times they die and that's all, when faced with the probable distortion of identity the community and its leaders react by hindering or preventing any updating of the first narrative capital. They continue to tell the first stories, with the same language, with the same words that no longer fascinate anyone.
A third, equally unhappy outcome is the re-absorption of the charisma within the tradition that the same charisma would have wanted to innovate and change. Faced with the difficulty of explaining - to oneself and to others - the charismatic importance of one's own community, one renounces to the specific and new components, and "returns" to do the same traditional activities that one wanted to innovate - at a young age, people want to announce the good news to other religions and non-believers, as adults, however, they go back to do catechism for confirmation.
These and many more are the scenarios that we will explore in depth in the next few parts of this new series. We will try to understand what good paths of the future exist whereby ideals can continue to nourish the consciousness of the world, so that the grafting of new stories on the first functions generates a new bloom, new fruits and new colours. We will ask ourselves: is it really possible to update and regenerate the narrative capitals of our communities? Or is their dying inevitable? What are the generative transformations? How do we understand whether we are betraying the promise or fulfilling it? These are difficult and risky questions and answers, but above all they are necessary ones.
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