The Risk of Generating Freedom

The Voices of the Days/8 - Those who give birth for real are generously vulnerable

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 24/04/2016

Tronchi sulla battigia rid(There is a kind of) human worth that is inseparable from vulnerability, an excellence that is in its nature other-related and social, a rationality whose nature it is not to attempt to seize, hold, trap, and control, in whose values openness, receptivity and wonder play an important part.

Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness

A particularly important phenomenon is the so-called "mission shift" which occurs when the organizations, movements and associations become something different during their development and move away from the purpose that had generated them, because some activities that were born to serve the mission at the beginning end up becoming the order instead of the means.

Ancillary activities begin to seize opportunities or it happens because of some need, and then gradually, and almost always unintentionally, that these activities absorb more and more energy as well as the resources that once were used to develop the original mission. This is one of many important phenomena where the line between the good, the less good and the bad is almost impossible to detect, because they live inside one another, they grow together, and when the "evil" becomes clear and visible it is almost always too late to intervene effectively. Organizations and people change together. The original identity remains alive and fertile until it is able to co-evolve with the people; but as soon as an invisible but very real "critical point", is passed, the fruit of change ends up poisoning the identity. In this paradox there hide a lot of the quality and outcomes of the organizational evolution processes.

The change of the mission and the tension between the means and ends are important facts in any form of organized life, but they are crucial in the organisations that are born of ideals, charismas or great and complex "missions". Here the change of mission is not only a delicate process, but it can also lead to their death.

These communities and movements may also die when transforming into something too different from the original charisma - and sometimes they are already dead although they appear to be in great health. A school founded by an educational charisma can die because it closes, but it can also die in terms of its charisma because of having gradually become an institution that has lost touch with its original mission. It will still bring fruit, but those are fruits of a different flavour, even if the community cannot notice this change that it creates and on which it feeds because its palate has gradually adapted to it. And so, having been born to promote a cause or serve an ideal it suddenly finds itself promoting and serving another one or other ones. The servant becomes the master.

If an enterprise of footwear was founded yesterday only as a means to make profits (a very rare occurrence), its nature does not change substantially if you move first to the bags industry, then on to sport and ultimately to the financial-speculative sector. Just as it frequently happens that an ancillary type of activity (for example: products for shoes) gradually becomes the main activity. In all these cases the mission (making profits) remains consistent, only the ways and means to embody it change.

Things are radically different when we are not dealing with a company but a missionary religious order that founded a hospital to serve the poor and proclaim the Gospel a hundred years ago. In this case we cannot stay easy if over time the hospital has become increasingly large and efficient, and so it has drained more and more economic, spiritual and human resources, and the Gospel and the poor have been more and more distanced from its horizon. Until one day they disappear altogether, when the hospital becomes so beautiful and expensive so that it will only treat wealthy customers - it is a shame though, that in order to grow and become so big it has consumed almost all the energy of the community. Here the transmutation of the means into ends may simply lead to the death of the original mission, because day after day the work-child has eaten up its parent.

This process is particularly difficult to manage because these different organizations live and grow with a radical uncertainty about their future, which opens up and is revealed them only as tomorrow becomes today. When it gives a work is started or a community is opened in a new country, nobody knows where it will lead the new foundation, because in ideal-driven and charismatic organisations the main indigence is not knowing the arrival point of the journey.

The only knowledge that is given is that of the origin, and even this is imperfect and partial. They are like those ancient messengers, who had the message to be transmitted written on the back of their head. The real name of the communities born of charismas is revealed only when there is someone who reads it and explains it. The recipient of the message is not the community that carries and transmits it. The discovery of each identity is never a narcissistic process, but it is a gift we receive from those who can look at us differently. And charisma is never given for the sole consumption of the community which embodies it. When we no longer feel the need for somebody other than us to read the message that we bring written on the back of our head, and we try to interpret ourselves alone by looking in mirrors, charismas become minimal chores, socially irrelevant if not harmful, and will be spent soon.

So when a new work is born from a community we cannot know if the "baby" will be the realisation of the promise or the one who, without knowing or wanting, will kill us one day. Whether it will be Isaac or Oedipus. We cannot know their fate until it is fulfilled in the unfolding ambivalences, contradictions, in the meetings at the crossroads of history. At other times, though, it is not the works and activities that distort the ideal-driven communities and make them die. In some cases it is the community itself, born of a charisma, that ends up killing it.

False reformers, missed or delayed reforms, a crisis which is so radical and devastating to actually overcome the community itself. Here the generations that follow the one of the foundation cannot preserve the charisma and make it grow: the founder produces children who end up killing the charisma that they have inherited.

The greatest fear of those who found an ideal-driven community or organization is that the next generation, their "children", go astray, and betray the charismatic identity. This fear is in the chromosomes of each good foundation, and its absence simply reveals that we are not dealing with a charisma, but with an ordinary organization. But this founder knows, or should know, that the truly deadly mistake is to transform this natural fear into phobia or panic, and so block and prevent the continuation of the original experience.

Exposure to the distortion of the mission and the original charisma is the precondition for its fulfilment, its fecundity and its good growth. In the foundation of an ideal or charismatic organisation the time when the founders pass through this specific and decisive test arrives promptly. The possibility of continuing the charismatic experience beyond the founder, and then the transition of the charisma from one generation to another are almost all in the capacity to manage this vital, inevitable and decisive tension. The temptation has to be overcome and the generation that will come after him should be put in a position to be born, live and grow for real. In every child there may be Oedipus hiding, in every child there hides Oedipus. In every child there may be Isaac hiding, in every child there hides Isaac.

The latest and greatest temptation of all charismatic foundations is to prevent the "child" to be born out of fear that he may kill his father. The charisma is totally identified by the founder with his own person, who is blinded and makes it non-transmissible, thereby preventing it to be reborn many times in many generations. And so the charisma dies with the founder. Many communities have died simply because of this, for lack of generosity which is what prevents them from real generation. The greater the foundational charisma, the stronger the temptation is not to generate for fear of dying. No foundation of a community can escape the risk of its degeneration, because if it does, it surely degenerates: if it evolves it can get lost along the way, but if it prevents evolution it will get lost for sure.

Communities are generated and regenerated when those who have founded or re-founded them are able to "give birth" to men and women who become free to the point of giving their lives for the same "mission" of the founders. In this freedom there hides the possibility of abusing, perverting, injuring and even killing the gift. Without this radically risky and vulnerable gift of freedom the charismas do not bloom over time, they wither for lack of children, or because the children generated and brought up without this freedom become too "little" to be able to repeat the miracles of the first generation. Only risky and vulnerable confidence is capable of the generativity necessary for the charismas to continue to flourish.

The wonderful mystery of transmitting gifts between generations lives in the space opened by the vital tension between trust and betrayal. Our children can become better than we are if we give them the freedom to become worse than us, too, and to betray our dreams and our promises. Perhaps there is no greater gift than this.

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