The Different Power of Desires

Narrative Capitals/5 - There is no more vital guarantee than “freedom-without-guarantees”

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 10/12/2017

171203 Capitali narrativi 5 rid«Human desire will forever remain only in its irreducible character (resistant to) any reduction and adaptation. »

Jacques Lacan The Seminar of; Book V (English translation by Cormac Gallagher)

It is not uncommon for experiences born in the name of gratuitousness to end up coming into conflict with the very gratuitousness that generated them. In many companies, the ‘simple’ goal of maximizing profit already produces organizations that do everything they can to try to direct all the available energies of their workers towards this end. But if the mission of an ideal-driven organization (IDO) is the definitive redemption of the poor or, perhaps, the conversion of the world, the members are asked to direct all available and even unavailable energies, possibly their entire life towards such a high cause. And so it often happens that in the practice of the IDO there is less freedom and gratuitousness than in the companies and organizations that the IDO criticizes precisely because of the lack of gift and freedom.

In fact, it is in the relationship between the organization and the people where the essential dimension of gratuitousness can easily be missing, because (without wanting to) the IDO ends up living and growing by consuming the gratuitousness of its own members. This paradox is one of the main causes of the great crises of ideal-driven organisations and, not infrequently, of their end.

The keyword for trying to understand the grammar of these phenomena is desire. There is no gratuitousness without freedom, and there is no freedom without the ability to desire freely - the first freedom is the freedom of desire. Desire is not something romantic and sentimental, or even frivolous and trivial to which our culture has reduced it. The ability to desire is one of the fundamental capabilities of the person, which becomes almost everything when dealing with people who spend their lives adopting high moral or spiritual ideals.

The first gratuitousness experienced by those who follow a vocation is the gift of their own desires. This gift, however, produces diametrically opposite outcomes - in the donor person and in the institution/community that receives it - depending on whether the gift of desires is kept alive or is sacrificed. Abraham gives his only son Isaac as a free gift, because he had a call and responded - in true vocations we cannot fail to give everything. Abraham gives everything freely, but if God had really wanted the sacrifice of the son donated to him, the children of the first promise would not have been as numerous as the stars of heaven. In historical experiences, however, especially in religious and spiritual communities, the ram almost never arrives, the angel does not stop the hand raised to kill and the IDO sacrifices the gift of desire. And life gets stuck. Why?

When a person encounters an ideal-related experience wherein they recognize themselves, they glimpse the possibility of endlessly expanding their desires, to the point of touching their own dreams. So they freely choose to invest everything in this new promise, which speaks only of gratuitousness and gift. They do not live their response as sacrifice, or (least of all) as a loss. In renouncing individual projects and desires, they only see an immensely greater freedom and gift, an infinite possibility of blossoming differently in a wonderful new garden. Thus, the new desire that appears infinite absorbs in itself all the other desires, until it gradually becomes the only desire. It happens too easily that the desire of the community sacrifices the desires of its people. The other stories of our own and of the world lose fascination and interest, we stop desiring them because they seem too little and trivial to us. To the point of not appreciating and discrediting those who live and tell only their little everyday stories, those who speak to us banally about their family, their ordinary work, those who pray with their simple prayers they learned in their childhood. The biodiversity of feelings, words, desires, interests, stories and of life itself is dramatically reduced, but we are so abducted by the new astonishing desire that we fail to perceive this shortage.

In this process, which can be very long, the degrees of freedom experienced in the encounter with the first voice are drastically reduced, and more and more people want only the things that the new community wants and tells us to desire. But desiring a set of things that are made finite and defined by others simply produces the death of desire, which can live and grow only in mixed territories, in the surprises and unpredictability of life as a whole and, above all, in freedom. The only way to hope that a child will grow up as a free person is to help them to desire things that are different from what we wanted - and sometimes to be surprised that one of their free desires was also our own, equal yet entirely different. However, human communities born from ideals, especially those born of great ideals, almost always do the opposite: they take the gift of people’s desires and sacrifice it on the altar of the desire of the community. They encourage their members to desire the same things that the founders wanted and that they all want. And so they sacrifice the desires of their members by trapping them inside a closed list of desirable things. Good desires stand out from bad desires which inevitably end up killing all desires. There is an actual and real substitution: the place of individual desires sacrificed and so killed is taken by the only collective desire, the same for everyone else. The good way would instead be grafting the new desire into the individual desires, giving life to a new reality where the first desires of people are exalted by the great narrative of the ideal that acts as a ‘multiplier’ of the desires of everyone and of each one. But this happy outcome is not the most common or likely one. Because grafting is much more risky and unpredictable than replacement, which works well and better than grafting as long as people and the community are young, but generates great problems in adult life when the great desire comes into crisis.

But why do ideal communities substitute desires? They do so because, on the one hand, they think that the only way to realize the great desire of the community and its founders is to succeed in having the heart of their people, and therefore the gift of their desires. The whole mind and all the forces are not enough. For their great purpose, all desires are also needed, because it is there that the infinite energy they need to fulfil the infinite desire of the IDO’s mission is found. We can already see it in companies which are increasingly trying to ‘buy’ the wishes of their employees. It happens even more often in ideal-driven communities. This process is generally covered by a genuine good faith of the founders/leaders, who are sincerely convinced that there is no greater happiness for their members than learning to desire only that one desirable thing. Then there is a second reason for sacrifice and substitution. It is the more or less conscious intuition that if people’s desires remain free, loose and not channelled, they carry with them the risk of the end of the community, which can live only if totally desired by their members and desired in the same ways and forms. Writing very detailed rules and statutes is often also the unconscious manifestation of this need to sacrifice, control and direct the desires of present and future members, hoping to guarantee the continuity of the original experience. For these two reasons, the sacrifice of desires is therefore an almost invincible temptation of ideal-driven communities.

However, at some rare times, the founders can understand that the only good way not to make their work perish is not to sacrifice the gift of desire they receive. And they let it live, they cherish it because it grows in synergy and fraternity with the new collective desire. They unbind Isaac from the faggot and save him from the devouring fire, thus risking that those living - and therefore different - desires will grow in a way they do not desire them to grow. It is only by putting those who come after us in the condition of freedom to destroy what we have built up that we can have the hope (but can never be certain) that they will actually not destroy it. We can hope to control some of the ideal processes that we operate only by giving up the control of everything - and if we want this something we saved to be important and essential, we must give up control of what we think is essential and important. To keep human things alive there is no other guarantee than freedom-without-guarantees. The higher the ideals, the more necessary and essential is freedom and the gratuitousness of desires. Moreover, the more generous and ambitious the IDO’s ideal is, the more likely it is to sacrifice and substitute desire. History tells us that the more you control desires in youth and/or in the first phase of the foundation, the more you will have people with little or no wishes in adulthood and/or in the second phase.

When we go through a serious crisis of narrative capital, to write new stories still capable of enchanting others and ourselves, we would only need new free and in-finite desires, such as those donated on the first day. But those people who are accustomed to wanting only things defined as desirable find themselves with a numbed muscle of desire. They no longer want anything, so they can’t live and write desirable stories.

It should not therefore come as a surprise to us that a common difficulty for communities that are going through a serious crisis of narrative capital is to find themselves with a large number of members suffering a shortage of desire, and therefore an apathy of eros, life. This regards above all the more generous and pure people, who more willingly sacrificed their desires to embrace the new - the more desires we donated yesterday, the more we suffer apathy today. What to do? For now, we can become aware that it is not easy to get out of these traps that are at the root of the death of great collective ideals and of so much individual pain, also because the illness of desire that manifests itself today is the effect of the sacrifice of yesterday’s desire, which was welcomed by all as a blessing. But one must at least avoid exchanging the cure with the illness (when, for example, inviting people in crisis and those who are burnt out to desire the same things again). And then, to hope for a resurrection of desires, we can try to listen again to the ‘banal’ daily stories of the families of our friends and colleagues, their ordinary stories of work, efforts and love. Maybe we will discover that ‘under the sun’ there are few other more worthy things to desire. And, perhaps, in the company of these simple but once again true and living desires, we may spot an angel waiting who still calls them by name.

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