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Fraternity Has Hands and Feet

Narrative Capitals/8 - Founding and continuing without haste, just like equilibrists

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 31/12/2017

171230 Capitali narrativi 08 ridWhen a truly original genius makes its appearance in the world, people make haste to get rid of it. To achieve this goal they have two methods. The first is elimination. In the event of failure, they adopt the second method (which is much more radical and hideous): exaltation, putting it on a pedestal and transforming it into a "god".

Lu Xun, An Introduction to a The sayings of Confucius

At the origins of many communities and movements there is an experience of intense and deep closeness, among all of the members and - in the first place - with the founders. It is an extended kind of intimacy that exalts and develops the intimacy of each person. This particular "relational good" attracts, fills and fascinates no less than the ideal message received and announced. The contact of hearts and bodies, the sharing of the same table where meals prepared together are eaten, the real hugs to the "lepers" that immediately become true and different hugs exchanged with each other upon returning home. These are radically anti-immunitarian experiences, precisely because the many forms of mediation that we have invented in order not to touch the "wound of the other” are not there yet.

But this simple and universal proximity-fraternity is the first to risk disappearing when communities create a structure for themselves and become increasingly complex organizations. In this transformation of the nature of relationships, some of the most devious and bad viruses are nestled.

The evolution of relationships with the founders plays a key role. Soon after the first phase of fraternity and horizontality an increasing distance is created between the founders and other members, and the intimate proximity of the origin is progressively reduced. It becomes more and more difficult to see the founders simply in the midst of the community, to meet them in the street, to share ordinary life with them. And so, paradoxically, it is precisely the founders who are the first to emerge from the reciprocity-fraternity that is sincerely believed and proclaimed. Their different and unique role, which everyone recognizes, generates an invisible but very real and ever more impenetrable curtain around them, which produces a real and actual isolation that grows together and thanks to admiration, sincere love and the exaltation of their person.

And many ideal communities are intentionally transformed into immunitarian organizations, because with distance the experience of corporeality, contact, full human encounter and intimacy in relationships also disappears. We can speak and announce fraternity and equality, but if we do not embrace, quarrel and forgive each other mixing the flow of our tears, we are in the ideology of fraternity without entering into the experience of fraternity. The body, as Biblical humanism tells us, expresses concreteness, fragility, the entirety of life, it allows us to know the mystery of the person I am facing here and now. If I don't meet the other in their body, I see only an indistinct crowd, categories and classes of people, without being able to "see" Giovanna, Ivan, Luca. I “meet" but a ghost, even when it is a beautiful ghost. To recognize him I must be able to touch his wounds with my hands. Here lies the immense meaning of a word that becomes flesh.

This is why a first sign that a fraternal community is transforming itself into an immune organization is the decrease in the exposure of those responsible for it to the wounds (and blessings) of the simple fraternity of all.

This is how one affirms, day after day, one of the oldest and most universal taboos: “You can’t touch the king”. A taboo that comes from a powerful desire for the forbidden thing. The taboo is affirmed together with the growing of the distance from the founder, it is all the more difficult to "touch him". The growth of the myth is proportional to the decrease in encounters, hugs and kisses given to the lepers throughout the community - which, in rare cases of pathology, can also be accompanied by the abuse of bodies, a sick expression of the actual eclipse of the real body. The real antidote to this taboo would therefore be to maintain the intimacy and ordinary closeness between the founders and the whole community. But this is precisely the most difficult thing to avoid, because myths are nourished precisely by their being far from reality - an encounter and a look at the leader is as valuable as distant and unattainable he is (we also see this in case of the ‘myths’ of cinema and music).

These growing processes of isolation and untouchability have some inevitable and also some avoidable components, but the management of their avoidable part is decisive, also because some avoidable dimensions are interpreted as unavoidable. Among these, thinking that the distance and loss of intimacy with the founders depends on the quantitative growth of the community, without realizing that the first ones to become distant are those closest to the founder, because the "distance" is above all sacred and symbolic, not geographical. The "neighbour" is not the "next-door neighbour" - as the good Samaritan taught us.

The inevitable part is a consequence of the success of communities. The awareness of the uniqueness and value of the founder's person pushes members to do everything possible to protect them so as to save them from being "consumed” by the people around them. Furthermore, growth and development necessarily produce some form of structures and hierarchy, which by their nature and function combine poorly with what is needed for fraternity. This inevitably implies the emergence of a culture of distance that becomes immunity. This is a paradox as well known as it is neglected by the founders of charismatic communities and movements, who generally make great haste to start the phase of institutionalizing their groups (and even when they are abstractly aware of it they believe, deceiving themselves, that their story will be special and different and therefore will not run into the problems of others). A good warning to community founders could then be summed up as follows: instead of accelerating it, as you spontaneously do, try to do everything you can to slow down the process of transforming your community into an organization. Move yourself like the equilibrist (tightrope walker - the tr.), without haste. Do not get caught up by the call of the other end of the rope.

The avoidable factors concern the founder directly. First of all, it should resist with all its virtues the tenacious temptation of isolation, especially when it is about to start and is more easily visible. It should not stop being present by the tables where all people eat, in the masses, continuing to embrace and kiss the real poor, not only those of the stories. It shouldn't fall into the invisible trap of (always less and small) privileges, exemptions from the work and duties of everyone - like washing dishes, shopping, ironing shirts. Fraternity begins to become an ideology when it loses contact with chopping the onions and cleaning the toilets; when the desire to "give life" to the brothers does not become "swiping the floor” with a cloth.

It is very difficult for the founders not to fall into these forms of exemptions, which are the result of very good intentions, a great deal of love and an ignorance that is not guilty of the consequences. It is in fact the community that, in good faith, does everything to isolate its leader. It is Peter who does not want Jesus to wash his feet. But when another Peter succeeds in convincing his master and thus impedes the fraternity of hands and feet, the great and ancient taboo of the king's untouchability becomes, day after day, the real new tacit rule of the community. Few things isolate more from friends and companions than those that, instead of helping the founders/leaders to remain equal to all, make them increasingly different. Those, however, who have received a charisma of founding a community would have a vital need of honest friends who like them so much as to treat them as equals, because they understand that the best way to help them play their different and special role is to keep them in ordinary and normal relationships, to contradict them, correct them, not to say “yes” to them at all times, not to rob them of the proximity of fraternity.

Unlike all empires and today's capitalist enterprises (where the untouchability of leaders is a common rule, and where one arrives at self-destruction because of the excess of immunity), communities and ideal movements cannot afford this taboo. Because an "untouchable king" inevitably produces crisis and, if untreated, the death of the organization-community.

Because though at first this immunity-related disease acts on the relationship between members and their "head", it soon becomes the paradigm of every relationship. That partial and distant relationality, without intimacy and emotions, extends and reproduces itself on all hierarchical levels, and infects all private relationships. And so the exemptions and privileges extend to all the various "leaders", and the apathetic and bodiless relationality takes root throughout the community and becomes a general and widespread culture. One begins not by "touching" the founder, but by not touching any leaders, and ends up not touching anybody - not even one's own interiority, which becomes increasingly distant and poor. Because when you lose contact with the other's body - since all distances increase - you become less and less able to feel life, to take your own and others’ limits, or the imperfections and sins of history seriously, to cultivate emotions and desires, to develop that human pietas that can only grow in the impurity of concrete life. And you finds yourself in an atrophy of real human emotions and feelings, replaced by artificial emotions and feelings because they are all "bodiless". It is not at all rare to meet communities, especially in the generations after the foundation, which speak of an abstract solidarity and reciprocity, because the real ones have been "devoured" over time by the sacred culture of immunity and non-contact. The "heart of flesh" needs bodies that grow in the only good life possible: that of all women and men "under the sun". I have been to funerals where the priests and nuns present who were relatives of the deceased, were the least able to cry and feel a sincere pietas.

It is very difficult to defeat this community disease, not least because it is often mistaken for health. But it is not impossible. Sometimes you can find a way out of the myth and realise that you are ill. However, the cure is far from easy. We would need the courage to identify the disease of immunitas in the original nucleus of the first narrative capital, because the virus begins to work in the lives of the founders very soon, and therefore it is also found in the stories that constitute the first inheritance. But the "untouchability of the king" over time has become a tacit norm so deeply rooted that it also impedes the touchability of his narrative capital. And so we work on the peripheral aspects of ‘charisma' and tradition, without touching their heart; and the virus continues to act and to reproduce.

The cure would consist in the ability to re-found a new capital by drawing on the pre-immune phase of the experience, when everyone was still free and simple. And from there, to re-read all the other stories, which should not be discarded but only understood and loved in their embodied corporeality (taking the body seriously means understanding and loving the diseases of our history as well). And so the true miracle of reciprocity in time and between generations would be fulfilled: to restore to our founders the fraternity that we stole from them yesterday.

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