The Beauty in Front of Us

The Voices of the Days/9 - The temptation to "conform" and the antidote of "haecceity"

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 08/05/2016

Cardo Fucsia ridWhat needs to be there in the heart, in education is that love of life should never fail our children. ... And what is a human being's vocation but the highest expression of his love of life?

Natalia GinzburgThe Little Virtues

Every vocation is a radical experience of beauty; it is first and foremost a wonderful encounter. Those who have got to know this beauty continue to long for it for life. It is a meeting that happens only once, but it is so strong and radical that it changes us forever. At that time the person makes the most sublime human experience: they understand who they really are, which is something beautiful and great. They feel a tabernacle for the infinite, tiny but immense.

For this reason, these vocations and these 'promises' are irrevocable. You can get out of a convent or stop painting for too much pain, but you can never quit the beauty before, because, simply, that vocation is us, it is the most lively and true part of us. On that day one gets the impression that the whole world was created only for us, for me. Some people go through a special experience as children, during childhood: they have the impression of being inside a movie, a cartoon, a play, where their parents, friends, teachers and the people around them are interpreting a script, written completely and only for their happiness. When the day of the calling comes the experience of childhood is relived: we can feel it, and we are sure that everything around us was created as a gift for us, for me. That everything, inside and out, is a unique, immense, wondrous spectacle of loving beauty, infallible and obvious. The quality of a life and its fruits entirely depend on this meeting. Almost everything is at stake there. These epiphanies of beauty are particularly strong and pure in artistic and religious vocations, but it is the same experience repeated in various forms in authentic work and scientific vocations as well, or in that decisive meeting with the one who will become our wife or our husband.

It is a call to embark on a mission, a task, a destiny, to take our rightful place in the world. It is moving out of the house and towards the promised land, to build an ark of salvation, for the liberation of slaves, even if just one.

But if the vocation is us, it grows with us; it takes the talent of our character, our work, our life, simply. And when the call takes place inside the community, the relationship between our vocation, that of others with whom we live, and the institution in which it is born and grows becomes decisive. And that's where you risk a lot, almost everything, for/of the flowering of a vocation. Many wilt or get spent because at some point the individual-community dynamic breaks down, for the mismanagement of the distance that is created between the development of the individual's own vocation and that of the community over time. This widening gap is inevitable, because every vocation is unique and unrepeatable, and therefore its forms and its times of development can never coincide with the forms and the ways of the community, because when they coincide the development of the person and the community stops. It is in the discard pile, among the slits, in non-alignments where life is generated and regenerated. Therefore, the block of the flowering of the vocation does not depend from this distance, which is very good, but from its exercise. It is here that the worst mistakes are usually made.

By far the most common mistake is committed by the leaders of the community, when facing the discomfort and the difficulty of managing the estrangement between the forms and ways in which the individual lives their vocation and the 'normal' ones, they think that they can eliminate discomfort and difficulty simply by asking the person to conform to the times and ways of the community, losing what constituted its original note. This way they lose sight of what the medieval philosophers called haecceity, i.e. that dimension of life to which a daisy I am seeing now is this daisy, and not just a daisy. This is what makes me see Giovanna, not only the Franciscan nun, who she also is. People are concrete, never abstract, and the most concrete dimension of all existence is their vocation. Sp the first wrong abstraction is the very idea of ​​community. They forget that communities are made of people who are all different, and they estimate a kind of an average that becomes a most abstract form of 'we' against which they measure the deviations and errors of the routes of individual concrete persons. It is a very common and very dangerous operation, because in the name of an abstract common good concrete persons are suppressed and put out. And maybe you also can build people who coincide with the average - it's a pity that in the process of transformation exactly the best part of the person is lost and often that of the community, too.

The temptation-error to forget haecceity is very common, because communities have the tools to achieve this conformation in their repertoire. Constitutions, statutes, regulations, decisions and resolutions of the governing councils also aim to maintain the unity of the community over time, and to allow the government of a body without dispersing and falling apart in the many different interpretations and often in the disagreements of the various members. But there is another thing that wise governments know very well: that the actual exercise of this power must be very rare, because a vocation reduced to compliance almost always ends up losing its splendour and its freedom, its most sublime beauty.

When, however, the individual paths - which are by their nature lateral and tangential - are discouraged and repressed, the myth of Procrustes is revived who amputated the legs of his 'guests' that were too tall to fit in his bed and stretched the ones who were too short. Procrustean communities use regulations, statutes and the words of the founders as materials to build a one-size bed, in which they force everybody to enter, disrespectful of the different vocational measures of individuals. The crucial aspect that makes this reductionist process very common and in some ways almost inevitable is the role played by the single person. It is those who have received a vocation that begin to numb their own soul to make it fall into the only measure of the 'average bed' of the community, and then to make real voluntary self-amputation to cut the difference between their own, real vocational measure and the one requested by the community. The most precious and very rare wisdom of those responsible for vocational communities is therefore in preventing these self-destructive processes, even when they come from the same people who, especially in the early years, derive a certain comfort from the adjustment to the average culture. We are all truly accountable to a vocation, especially when we are still young, if we help it not to lose its own surplus, if we cultivate and care for our own uniqueness; because when we don't encourage and maybe even fight vocational haecceity, vocations do not keep their promise of beauty over time and go bad. The dawns do not become noon, the springs never see the season of ripe fruits.

A virtuous community-organization is rather similar to a skilled artisan who builds the 'bed' so that it conforms to the real person: people with their variety of vocations are the ones that make communities fruitful. They are difficult to manage - just like life or children are. They are gorgeous - just like life or children are. Only people, in their mystery, contain the active ingredient of the evolution of the community and the fulfilment of their charisma. The Procrustean syndrome eventually amputates the future of all. The fate of these sad communities is in fact enrolled in the epilogue of the same myth: Procrustes was captured and killed by the same condemnation with which he had afflicted his victims.

At other times a vocation is blocked by a wrong way of relating to the past, to the first beauty. The purpose of that first meeting was the revelation of our place in the world (and as the word says, every re-velation is an act of unveiling a new covering at the same time). The fatigue of those who keep a vocation within themselves lies in the ability to resist the longing in the absence of the first beauty, to be able to resist turning back in search of the origin. At night we dream of that long-ago meeting, we go back to the place where it happened many times, we look at the photos and read the letters and diaries of the early days. But nothing happens, the miracle does not come back, because it cannot return. Until one day we begin to understand in a gentle way that that ancient beauty is not behind us, but - quite simply - it is in front of and around us. It is not the return of Ulysses, it is the setting out of Abraham.

Sometimes this new, charming and perfectly free phase of life begins with the discovery of the beauty of nature. We had lived in the country for fifty years, and one day we discover the flowers. We watch them and finally we see them inside. We see the same beauty that once enchanted us and lit us. In a thistle bud we see all the beauty of the universe, and we recognize that first beauty which has never disappeared from our land.

Finally, there is a great hope: this journey of the new beauty can happen even inside Procrustean communities, even when we lost a lot of the overflow. As long as a little remained of it, maybe just the memory of the first entirety. And, like plants, from that little rest that's still alive we can start to bloom again. 

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