Narrative Capitals/9 Childlike spirit is the summit of adult life
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on 07/01/2018
“But one had to be talented to be able to age without becoming an adult ".
Jacques Brel-Franco BattiatoThe Song of Old Lovers (La canzone dei vecchi amanti)
Every organization and every community would like to have members who authentically identify with their institutional mission, genuinely love its narratives and truly believe in what they say and do. This difficult operation of sincere individual identification with the institutional mission succeeds very well in the context of ideal-driven communities and organizations (IDO), especially when ideals are so high that they puncture the sky and let us glimpse paradise. This creates a perfect synergy between the individual and the community. Everyone believes, hopes, loves and desires the things of all others, without this "socialization of the heart" being experienced as the alienation and expropriation of the hearts of individuals.
In fact, visiting such communities one is struck by this dilated inner life that can be breathed and touched. What we see is a human group, but the impression we have is that of meeting one person who subsists in the many people. An unmistakable community style is created, a collective personality that communicates itself in language, interior design, collective rituals, artistic expressions and even somatic traits. Everyone tells the same story, honestly.
There is a phase of life, usually the first and second youth, when the individual person experiences the same me/us (i.e. the unity of the personal/collective levels – the tr.) with immense enthusiasm and a feeling of great fullness, without any problematic notes. They don’t notice anything non-authentic in feeling, thinking and speaking with the thoughts and words of the community, because they sincerely feel all of it their own and live them as a very intimate experience. No ideal path would begin without this kind of spiritual and anthropological transubstantiation, a form of "mystical union" between the individual and the collective soul. The ideal us naturally and joyfully becomes the ideal me. You feel at home only when you align your feelings with those of everyone, when the mutual inhabitation of emotions touches perfection. One suffers and rejoices for the same things and in the same way, everyone prays with the same words, reads (almost) the same words of the Bible, the same words as the founders. It is the presence of this phase of a totally free, intimate, sincere and very generous adherence of the soul to its own community that tells the essence of that mysterious reality that we call "vocation".
When a community or organization is born, its greatest heritage is precisely the presence of many people who, sincerely and authentically, live this coincidence between me and us. They are convincing and win many others because they truly and totally believe in the message they announce. The exponential growth that many ideal communities experience in the early days depends very much on the perfect identification of the me of individuals with the communitarian us - one of the most exciting experiences of the human repertoire.
This phase is never short, it can last many years. However, it must not last forever. Because if at some point it does not end, from being a “blessing” it turns into a “curse”. The splendid youth of vocations gives the gift of its pearl only if it is able to die. However, many, too many times, the experience of youth does not end, it lasts for life and generates one of the most serious and frequent collective diseases.
Becoming an adult is difficult for everyone, but it is really difficult (and wonderful) when we spend a wonderful vocational youth with our me truly becoming us. Many times, in fact, we get crushed by the enormous richness of the first beautiful phase of the new life - another expression of the now known "curse of abundance". Those who manage the communities fall in love and then become too accustomed to the infinite availability of the moral energy of youth, and, more or less unconsciously, do everything so that it lasts as long as possible. Furthermore, individuals do not have "incentives" to get out of this form of childhood, where they feel just fine. The balance is therefore perfect and stable. And so too many people remain adolescents throughout their lives, believing, perhaps, that they have reached the peaks of spiritual life, because they are confused by the plastic toy peaks. Childlike spirit is not anthropological and psychological childhood, but the summit of an adult life that returns to being a child in a different way, not on purpose. The main problem of many communities is that they have too many quiet people who can't even reach the anthropological stage of the conflict between the me and the us (not to mention overcoming it). The first indicator of the maturity and freedom of an ideal-driven community and of the quality of its people is the presence of people in crisis for this same reason, struggling for a new kind of maturity. Again, the seriousness of the disease lies in confusing health with illness.
Sometimes, it happens that some people manage to reach the phase of crisis, and the me-us (individual-collective – the tr.) harmony begins to waver. These people have preserved some living desire, they have been able to cultivate readings that are different from those of everyone, they have not lost contact with the real wounds of the real poor, they have not broken up with yesterday's friends, they have continued to pray with the old prayers of their grandmothers and not only with the new and special ones. These people can receive the great blessing of being able to become adults.
But, even in these happy cases, the management of these blessing-crises is rarely good. The highest obstacles are found inside the person, who when perceiving the first cracks of the inviolable block of the first intimacy and identity, denies and rejects them. People don't want to see these because, paradoxically, instead of interpreting these divergent symptoms as the beginning of a new authenticity, they experience them as non-authenticity and no-truth. It frightens them very much, and they halt. Moreover, in addition to the subjective feeling of inauthenticity and betrayal that holds the person back, there is the other, very high obstacle represented by those responsible who, in good faith, often recommend the return to the previous phase of harmony and peace. They fail to recognize the blessing in the first symptoms of this type of crisis, and they fight them.
The vast majority of possible crises abort before they are born, they are rejected and declined as temptation or betrayal. An infinite and immeasurable waste of human values, oceans of pain.
Also because - and here is a decisive point - from the day after the arrival of the first cracks, returning to the first peaceful and sincere authenticity is impossible. The first crisis is a point of no return, one can, one must, go only ahead. Every return becomes, this time really, inauthentic. People are no longer able to laugh, rejoice or pray like they did in the early days. They are laughs and prayers similar to those of yesterday, but they are no longer the same. And so to try to bridge the gap between what you really hear and say and what you almost really hear and say, you start to simulate some of your emotions and feelings. The phase of false authenticity has begun.
Sometimes the growing of this gap produces a new crisis, which generally ends like the first one, with a new reversal that is done in a less and less convinced and more and more sorrowful way. People who are really convinced of the us live together in the communities alongside those who are less and less convinced but behave as if they were really convinced. But when the share of the "as if" exceeds that of the really convinced, the decline is rapid, because the spiritual and moral energies of partial authenticity are much smaller, and their ability to attract new members is even less. Simulated authenticity does not last long, and it consumes people's soul, to the point of extinguishing them. Many people leave communities (even when they formally remain there) because they are exhausted by these simulation exercises. Because if the part of false authenticity does not evolve by elaborating a new synthesis of the first us, it ends up infecting the part of sincere faith in the original message that had remained, to the point of not believing in it any more (many people deny ideals of their youth to which they have not given the possibility of growing up, and so they have become trivial). Many spiritual communities and IDO-s do not reach a second generation after their foundation because, collectively, they cannot overcome this first infinite youth, and the us of childhood - the genuine and the simulated version of it - devours the possible and beautiful us of adult life.
Some rare times, however, a second (or umpteenth) crisis manages to finally generate a new life, a new individual and collective spirit. And when it happens, the most beautiful years of life begin. If it is true that there are few things sadder than a beautiful youthful vocation that has withered being unable to mature, it is even truer that very few things are more beautiful than a person who has managed to generate a new us by bringing their first me and first us with them. But there would be a need for responsible leaders who have experienced this alchemy themselves, and are therefore able to create the conditions for people to reach at least the phase of tension between me and us, that is to say, the phase of cracks in the wall. To help their people to get out of the safe land of the first collective authenticity, accepting and loving the inevitable and concrete risk that their exit will land them in distant places, that some of them will never return home. To understand that in order to have adult people, able to continue and enrich the collective history one day, they must put them in a position to make their us today die so that perhaps a new us may rise up tomorrow. To allow people to develop their talents, ambitions, desires, relationships and dreams that are different from those of everyone. To give them the chance to grow up differently, to imagine paths of being adult that are different from those imagined and dreamed of by young people and by everyone. The us’ of adult life are always plural and diverse, but no less real and faithful. However, in ideal communities the radical need to control the inner life of people out of (a more radical) fear of "losing" them once they become adults makes youth eternal and therefore degenerates it. And so they can't even generate that "faithful remnant", the only ones capable of saving all the people tomorrow, who, in order to be generated, need freedom, open air and the biodiversity of fertile land - "whoever would save his life will lose it".
An entire community can be saved by a single person who has found a new adult authenticity. Someone who believed in a dream, found a wonderful Child, felt "a great joy". A new and different joy that they would never have known if they had stopped walking in pursuit of a star.
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