Do not give in to success

Do not give in to success

The Great Transition/8 The pitfall of '"dusk at noon" and its antidote

by Luigino Bruni

published in  pdf Avvenire (59 KB) on 22/02/2015

Now two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the Spirit rested on them... they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” (...) But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets!”

Book of Numbers 11:26-29

Organizations, communities, movements are living organisms: they are born, they grow, die, get sick and they are cured. There is a disease, the one that last Sunday we called "auto-immune", is particularly severe and difficult to cure, especially because its early symptoms are read as signs of success and health. As with all autoimmune diseases, the factors that used to serve to grow and protect a VDO (value driven organization), at some point begin to infect the same social body that they had been nurturing for so long.

Let us think of the crucial issue of the structures and bureaucracies of a VDO. The birth of the organization, the works and institutions of the "charisma" are a sign of the fertility and strength of the experience. Their appearance is seen and hailed as a blessing and a great sign of fertility. And so while these structures were the fruit and the service of life in the beginning, as they were born from encounters, needs, requests reaching the VDO from outside, at some point they start being produced from the inside in order to anticipate future needs and potential "questions". The central and auxiliary structures evolve, are born and develop internal bureaucracies that absorb an increasing amount of energy, human and spiritual forces that serve to manage the structures generated by the first success. A bureaucratic class progressively develops and works full time. It grows in a hypertrophied way, which is interpreted as a strength and success of the movement-organization instead of being perceived as a sign of decline. Without structures and institutions our ideals remain fleeting experiences, which would leave no mark on history. The structures and the necessary bureaucracies, however, may end up, as in the myth of Oedipus the King, eating up the father who created them - and, as in the tragedy, without wanting to do so or knowing about it.

This law of "dusk starting at noon" can be found in many human organisations, especially the larger ones or those that are towering high above the others. We find it at work especially in people with talent.

A writer or an artist, reaches their best thanks to the encounters and the readings that nourish them in their early stage of training and development. It is at this point, however, that success may end up devouring talent. The writer stops feeding off of biodiversity and, protected and fed by the success, he begins to draw from himself as he becomes self-consuming. He begins to browse through the books of other authors starting from the last page, searching for his own name among the references. As in any narcissism, he falls in love with his own reflection, until he drowns in the lake of his own talent. He no longer feels the need to learn, to listen, to be asked questions by critics. This is where the decline of creativity begins, which initially does not look like a decline because it coexists with the increase of the number of fans, readers, recognition and consent. However, in fact, it is the beginning of the sunset.
You can only be saved at this point if you are able to see the beginning of the decline and act accordingly, even though everyone and everything still speaks only of triumphs. If, however, you wait with this recognition till the moment when the sun is already down, then the process will be at a very advanced stage and often irreversible. As with other autoimmune diseases, the cure can come from outside the body: by yourself you can only see the sun of noon. It is the others who see more and much earlier than you, especially if they are your equals and not followers, and if they have the courage to take the risk of sharing (most probably) the fate of "Jiminy Cricket".

Something very similar happens to the bigger and better VDO-s that are very similar to artists, people of genius - there are actually no organisations that could be more creative, sublime or exciting than the VDO-s. The most important job of its founders and/or leaders is being able to see its self-destructive potential inside the culmination of success, and behaving accordingly by making drastic and painful organizational decisions (for example by discouraging the homogenisation of the members, reducing distances between the leader and the group, fighting self-referentiality, not welcoming to hear an echo of their own voice by their followers, promoting the autonomy of thought in people...).

History tells us, however, that they almost inevitably do the opposite, and build organizations and hierarchical structures to lead all activities and the whole person of all people towards the strengthening and development of that success and acclaim.

How to escape from these sad outcomes that are self-generating and that no one should wish for? How can we not fall in love with our own success, and so condemn ourselves to infertility? Almost everything depends on the ability of the leaders not to make the commonest of all mistakes: fatal reduction of identity. This mistake is usually made when the leaders, in order to direct all the moral energies of the members towards the goals of the organization, want monopoly over their people. They create individuals "of a single dimension" in terms of identity, thereby reducing - often unwittingly - the anthropological and motivational complexity. They forget that every person, especially those of quality are beyond the mission of the organization or movement, however great that is. This is where the true dignity of every person lies, which is greater than any paradise that is promised to them.

The importance of avoiding this error applies to every VDO, but it is decisive in the spiritual communities of the kind of people who have a dominant vocation, anchoring in the realm of "forever". Here the serious risk is not to recognize that the dominant identity is never the only axis of the person, and that its flowering inside and outside the VDO depends on the interaction and the cross-fertilization of the many dimensions that make up its life. The paradox of gratuitousness is also to be found here: to ensure that people can flourish and so enrich the organization, themselves, the world, no one should possess them, use them, eat them, or even manipulate them, not even for the noblest purposes.

Every follower of a "charisma" grows well if they find their own way to respond to the vocation received, if they find and cultivate their own "charisma" in what is preceding them. All those who are part of a VDO should try to avoid the mistake of "monopoly", but it is especially true for its leaders who should not support these trends even when they are requested by the very people who come in search of a strong and all-encompassing identity; because if they support them, they soon find themselves surrounded by underpowered people who keep losing their anthropological, moral, spiritual richness over the years. Obviously, these outcomes are non-intentional, and therefore very difficult to see and treat - and for this reason it is important to talk about them.

When, however, this organizational generosity and chastity are lacking, people with vocations "work" for a few years, perhaps for decades, but they almost inevitably come to a moment of radical crisis, where they either quit to be saved or renounce to flourish in order to be saved - the world of religious orders and charismatic communities now offers us a rich and growing empirical evidence for this.

At one point, life puts them on a crossroads: they should either reappropriate their own life in its entirety, looking for a new flowering outside the VDO, or settle for a reduced life with no more eros and desires, even if this re-shaped life is accepted and interpreted as virtue and fidelity to themselves (and perhaps it also produces moral excellence for the individual - but rarely for the VDO). These organizational forms of chastity and gratuitousness are very rare and always sophisticated, because they require managers to be able to assist in development of latent and unforeseen vocations to touch new frontiers other than those already opened.

They should know how to appreciate and enjoy not only good orchestral performances of music that's been already written, but let themselves be surprised by new works, new music and different dances. The VDO-s that have lasted for many generations have been able to generate not only good interpreters but also many "composers" of new music who wrote new melodies often concerts and symphonies using the first dominant motif offered to them, and have continued to make this world and heavens more beautiful.

Finally, there is a great message of hope in the possibility - as history, and also life tell us - that new concerts, dances and symphonies can flourish even inside the VDO-s that are already suffering from auto-immune disease. First, because life is unpredictable and is more interesting than our descriptions of it, and so it happens that just like people, also organizations and communities can wake up one day and find themselves fully healed or getting better. Moreover, in human organisations there are always some vital areas, places and suburbs where some "prophesy" to those on the edges of the camp. But it is still possible to be saved because even in the hardest situations, there is always a third option. There are many people (I have known some, too) who - because of a mysterious but real gift - can have an experience that is similar to what Jesus proposed to Nicodemus: a man can be "born", even when he is "old". You may become adults and yet remain "children", you can grow well by staying in a VDO without becoming cynical or disenchanted. And so sometimes you become a stem cell capable of regenerating the entire organism. This third option is always possible, in all contexts, in all VDO-s, in all the communities. Every day.

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