The good pains of adult life

The Voices of the Days/10 - No roof is high enough if it does not touch the sky

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 15/05/2016

Margherita ridRipeness is all.”

W. Shakespeare, King Lear

Becoming adults is a wonderful experience. It is an entirely spiritual and moral fact which generates a joy that can compensate and sometimes exceed the natural sadness that accompanies the end of youth and its typical beauty. The forms and times of maturity are many and various, inscribed in the flesh and history of each one of us.

There is no condition or state of life where this experience is simple and predictable. But when we're dealing with people who live and grow inside an ideal or charismatic community, the metamorphosis of maturity is a crucial point in time, carrying a high risk of failure. It touches the heart of the very vocation that, as soon as one is past this stage, changes radically, even in aspects that previously seemed absolute and immutable.

The entrance into maturity takes the form of crisis. It manifests itself in distress, criticism and tension towards the community in which we have grown and flourished. After many bright and peaceful years, one day the heart's gaze changes, and the "house" in which our biggest story blossomed begins to change appearance. We do not feel it anymore like a good place and friend, and intimacy becomes foreignness. Something breaks inside, and that which until that point had been our first beauty and great pride, the thing that one tells to one's friends and colleagues right away becomes distant, uncomfortable and cold. In the evening we return from work, we open the same door, but do not enter home anymore.

It is not hard to see why. When a person sets out on a strong ideal-driven and therefore vocational experience, in the beginning they completely identify with the community that preserves and lives it. They see the same bright voice calling embodied, which is idealized to the point of coinciding with the ideal itself. It becomes perfect, infallible, an anticipated eschaton: if it were not so, there wouldn't be any great love stories starting. For the criticism of adulthood to be generative, it must be preceded by a youth in which the community had been loved unconditionally, felt and lived as the greatest and most beautiful thing. Sometimes the process of the crisis is slow, painful and it lasts many years; at other times, however, it is very fast, and within a few weeks or months the soul is filled with a deep spiritual suffering, which in many cases also affects the body and psyche.

At the height of this crisis we remain in the same community of the first vocation only if at a point we manage to understand that everything that is happening is a very good thing, it is only and entirely a blessing, and that we are in the pains of the birth of adult life. That the past was not pure deceit: it was only the beautiful childhood of our lives, although necessarily different from what we had dreamed. And so, finally, we are able to accept and love the idealization of youth, just as the best memories of every childhood. And we thank life and those who put us in conditions of freedom to be able to get to live the crisis of maturity – and the wound becomes a great blessing. And then we continue the journey with a new maturity and freedom. From children we become mothers and fathers of our community. A wonderful part of life begins, and the rewards that it brings are of a different flavour. One of the most amazing experiences of the earth is to meet the beauty and fruitfulness of those who managed to become adults after having received a great vocation in their youth.

These experiences, however, are rare. In many cases, in fact, vocations fail to reach this blessed crisis of maturity, even when they were big, authentic and sincere. And that’s because we get sick of such a serious, albeit common disease.
To understand the nature of this disease, it should be noted that when a person receives a vocation they feel an invincible tendency not to want anything but to respond to that loud, clear and endless voice. All our talents, passions, interests, affections are oriented in the same, sole direction. Nothing is more valuable, everything else becomes worthless. It is in these wonderful moments, when the thirst for the infinite and the desire of paradise absorb all the best efforts, that this typical disease insinuated. A vocation is a call of the entire person, with all their human talents, and it matures well if the whole person is to answer it. You get sick, however, if a dimension becomes the only identifying dimension. Earlier on, Franco was a young lover of music and studies, he had many friends and a passion for mountains. After his encounter with the Voice, answering the call becomes his only interest, and he only wants to become a Benedictine monk. He wants and asks only that. He does not understand that the call is an invitation to the flourishing of the entire field of his life – music, studies, friends, mountains –, of all his true passions, all his talents are called to multiply and to transcend themselves, because if they do not bloom, they get infected and poison the whole body.

No vocational journey can start without directing all dimensions of life to the new and principal one, but if this process of reductionism is eventually realized, the person fades and gets spent - this is the great paradox of all true vocations. At the beginning of the journey the person does not know, cannot and in a way "should" not know that all the beauty of the world and the sky that they search for can be found on all the earth and all over the sky. They may not know that their life will flourish if they do not allow that first vocational dimension to absorb and "eat up" all the rest. They do not know and cannot know this. But the wise leaders of the community must know it. They know, they must know that the flowering and mature fruits of a vocation depend on the possibility that that person has, starting from the dawn of their new day, to develop all the dimensions of their identity which is always multiple: no husband is only a husband, no artist is only an artist and no religious is only a religious. No religious is a good religious if they are only a religious. And that’s why they have to do everything so that young beautiful woman does not become a person of a single dimension over time, even when it is herself that wants it and asks for it with all her being. They must protect her vocation from the reduction to an intensive monoculture that could lead her to exhaust the substances that feed her. In order to generate life, every vocation needs time and free space for the fallow, to flourish in fields other than those previously provided, to give life to new grafts and new cuttings. Each garden where we grow our life becomes too small if it does not coincide with the whole earth, no house roof is high enough if it does not touch the sky.

But it is precisely this kind of wisdom that is in short supply in the ideal-driven and charismatic communities, because it is too risky and free to live with the rules and procedures of a good "prudent" governance. All too often, instead of helping people to enlarge their heart and open the windows of their home, leaders encourage monoculture and recommend it as the only way to put as a solid foundation for the vocation. And so people, especially the most beautiful and radical, find themselves encouraged to "eat" all the dimensions of their humanity so as to nourish only one – that dies because of running out of food after a few years. Formation is reduced to only one functional training to the only dimension. The readings and the permitted texts all become much too similar. In the "Spiritual Exercises" only the experts of spirituality and theology are invited, and all the other beauties of the world are gradually moved to the background of a life that is impoverished, because it gradually and radically loses biodiversity, fertility and generativity.

This is how a progressive and systematic simplification of the landscape of the soul and social life is accomplished. The shepherds, the sheep, the Magi, the peasants disappear from the crib of the soul and the community, and there remains a unique and increasingly large cave, from which the ox, the donkey and sometimes even Saint Joseph are soon eliminated. Something similar happens to those couples that consume each other and wither for lack of air and sun.

Vocations of a single dimension also arrive in a big crisis, but it is a crisis that's radically different from the good one of maturity. These crises are felt especially by those who observe them from the outside – friends, parents, brothers and sisters. They see their friends and children wither, they see the light of the early years disappear from their eyes. But those who are in it cannot understand what is happening, because they lack the categories to read correctly what they are going through. The decrease of generativity, joy and enthusiasm for life are the warnings, but those who go through them use the same "spiritual" repertoire to interpret them, and look for solutions in the same texts and the same sources, but these have been exhausted by then. These are experiences of great silent pain, from which it is very difficult to get out.
Communities that do not know how to create the first good maturity crises find themselves inevitably handling only bad crises of withering. It is nothing but the law of life, even of that extraordinary life that is born from our greatest ideals.

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