A letter that explains the woundedness of the new generations, the terrible responsibility of the adults, and what Dante has to do with both.
After all, you had dialect… My mom used to yell at me in dialect, and the truest things she had to say about herself she said in dialect.
You lived in dialect and you adapted to Italian. I express myself in Italian. I say things in Italian, but I don’t live in Italian, at least not as well as you did in dialect.
This may sound complicated, but I’ll try to explain: Guareschi claimed that he knew very few words, but that, with those words, he was able to say everything he needed to say.
At school they beat us over the head with Dante, Petrarch, Foscolo, Leopardi, Mazoni, Pascoli, the masters of rhetoric, the proper way of speaking, etc.
But the bottom line is this: of course it’s important to speak well, but first of all you have to have something to say. You have to have a true hope that can be communicated.
When kids are still small, the schools come up with every possible way for them to express themselves: dance, theater, painting, computer science, sports, music, riding. And they have these things for kids of all levels: for those of normal capacity (who, I’m starting to think, are the worst off), for kids with disabilities, for DSA kids, for those with spacial perception problems, and autism, and severe autism, and all the possible variations, diagnosable or not. They are there for everyone, big and small.
And for those who still can’t manage? There are psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychotherapists for all ages. There are neurologists, occupational therapists, and teachers specialized in every possible expertise. And then there’s the Internet: blogs where you can vent, share your thoughts, or display your creations. It’s a marvelous world, with a place for everyone. The Church, too, adapts: there are vocational tracks of all kids, tracks upon tracks, call centers, prayer groups of all kinds – everyone has adapted.
Not me. I was born maladapted. And it makes me angry that there are a lot of people who want to create a way for me to express myself, just for me. It’s all good, really. It’s all nice – it’s a wonderful thing to express an identity. But I have a hesitation that makes me angry: what if I don’t want it? What if what I need is to listen? What if I didn’t need to express myself, if I don’t care one bit to express myself, to croak like a frog in a swamp full of other frogs, but what I needed instead was hope? Where can I go? Where can I go if all I want is the Truth?
Hope is the problem.
Once I have this hope, I’ll find a way to express it. Tell that to the teachers and instructors of everything except hope. I’ll find a way and learn how to do it.
This is not to say that there aren’t hope providers out there. You can have all the hope you want, as long as it’s not true.
I have heard too many teachers and parents say to themselves: kids have no desire anymore, they’re not passionate about anything, beauty doesn’t capture their interest anymore…
The question these teachers should be asking themselves, dear Franco, is not why we young people today seem to want nothing, or how we can express our identities. Rather they should ask themselves what they themselves hope in. Because then kids will assimilate that hope like manna from heaven, like air, even if it seems like we don’t care. And young people will base their adult identities on this hope that they breathed in when they were young. But the hope has to be real.
For heaven’s sake, let them stop trying to fascinate or torture their students, understudies, and children. Let them live out their hope and show it to the world in the things that they do. Let them be open to living for it.
Hope, if it is true, is fascinating in and of itself. But it has to be real, and really lived out.
It has to be as true as the hope of my grandfather. He was a castaway at sea for two nights when the English sank his ship during the war, and he watched many of his friends die horrible deaths, surviving to live with the anguish and trauma of those terrible days. And yet, without psychiatrists or teachers of expression, he raised a family and taught others to love and to “do things with the seven sacraments,” as he liked to say. Or like the hope of my grandmother, who had a hump at eight years old and saw the streets run with blood during the war, but who went on to open her little shop, where she worked and sacrificed into her old age. My little grandma – she was so slight, and yet I saw her carry more than 150 pounds on her shoulders, and she taught us children how to kill snakes in the yard. She let my grandfather win her heart – he would go to see her in town carrying his ice cream maker, and he courted her with ice cream. After three months they were married, and then they stayed together through Alzheimer’s, hard times, and other troubles… Do you see what I mean, Franco?
My grandpa expressed his love with an ice cream maker, and my grandma, a woman as hard as a block of marble but intelligent as an angel, married him. Period. She married him in dialect. She married him with hope in her heart. Because my grandmother’s dialect had something to say, had hope. I won’t get married, not even in Aramaic, or esperanto, or Croatian, not even with all the works of Freud and the other greats, or with all the encyclopedias and arts in the world, which are conveniently available in every possible format.
I feel certain that if Dante had met my grandmother, he would have chatted easily with her about her garden and her shop. And if they had talked about his trip to Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, Dante would have said [in dialect]: “tel se anca ti Maria, il Signur veed e pruveed” (“You see it too, Maria: God sees and provides). And in that expression, my grandma would have understood everything. Because she spoke the language of Dante, she lived the language of Dante, even if Italian was something she had learned at school, and the language she spoke was dialect.
I asked my psychiatrist why I can’t be like that, and he told me: They weren’t sick. You are.
He might be right… But this condition I have, this wanting hope, it’s not just something of mine, it’s the sickness of my generation. We don’t live in dialect anymore, but we don’t live in Italian either, the way Dante and Leopardi did. The critical problem at the origin of everything is the absence of hope. Sure, they helped us out in lots of ways, but they always told us: “What do you expect, this is how things are. The world is falling to pieces, and if you think too much about it you’ll only hurt yourself. But in exchange you can express yourself however you want!”
And so we can hope in anything, and in the opposite of anything. We can know it all, but also know the opposite of it all. Things can be and not be at the same time. We can love and then stop loving. Everything can change; we can do anything, as long as nothing is really ever certain. Only death. Yes, death – that we can never change.
We’ve ended up worlds away from the simple hope of my grandparents. What my grandmother would have understood from that expression in dialect, now we no longer understand.
Once I told you that they had taken away our reality – hope incarnate in reality – and had left us alone with our thoughts. Today I would add that we are not even allowed to cry. Complain yes, to whine is physiological, but crying because you lack hope is absolutely something that needs fixing, is absolutely something that must be avoided, is absolutely wrong, is absolutely sick. A little bit is ok, when you’re small, but it is strongly discouraged, because then you have to grow up. And grown-ups think about serious things. You have to be “concrete.” You don’t have permission to exist as what you are. You can pursue self-fulfillment, emotionally and at work, but you cannot really just exist, as a being in need of hope. The girls are all too thin or too fat, too tall or too short, the parents too anxious or too permissive, the kids too insecure or too self-centered. We are all too much or too little. Well what if we are all just needy, just badly in need of hope?
The crucifix is always the crucifix. And although at one time it spoke in dialect to my grandmother, while now it speaks Italian, it calls all the same. What is becoming more to more clear to me is that it calls in a powerful voice.
And I think that one of the most powerful ways that the crucifix calls is mental illness.
People of sound mind, balanced people who are able to manage their emotions, are able to stop thinking about it at a certain point. They can settle down and find themselves a good girl, a good job. They can go through a nice process of self-fulfillment. They can forget that nothing is certain, manage this awareness, and surrender.
The mentally ill cannot. I am convinced that Christ calls our generation through mental illness. He does not send us the illness – of this there is no doubt – but through it he calls us to Himself. Because people who are neurotic, disturbed, and suffering mental anguish, due to their illness, suffer an incessant physiological need for Truth and Hope.
People who suffer in general, but particularly those who suffer mental illness, have a physiological need for something to support them, to give meaning to their suffering and their existence, and to help them distinguish what is true from what is false. A neurotic person cannot lounge on the couch and relax; he can’t go to work and play the dedicated professional. Mentally disturbed people need to know the meaning of things, and this need is irrepressible.
Even when we want to forget it, even when we want to deny it, we still suffer. We need Truth. We need someone to come get us in our dark wood, and to show us “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” We need that man on the cross who alone can truly say: “I make all things new. I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (Then it’s absolutely true – you know this, you know me – that doctors are crucial and extremely important. It is absolutely necessary for people who are ill to see doctors. Otherwise, things will go as they go for so many kids whose parents are extremely religious, and who, instead of sending them to the doctor, send them to be catechized, because the point is to “face the reality,” “adhere to the proposal,” “make the gestures…” Some doctors deserve a gold medal. Others you should shoot at if you see them coming).
Neurosis and psychosis are illness that corrode the consciousness, that tear you away from the world and from relationships, but that make you desire them as you desire air, whether you want to or not, whether you are aware of it or not.
As a neurotic person, it’s not enough for there to be a higher design, a meaning, and a religious approach that can give me answers about life and death. My neurosis never stops.
It doesn’t give me peace just to believe in something. I need that God-man who says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” and who says: “I am with you until the end,” because even I am not with myself until the end.
I often say: I don’t know where I am, I don’t know what I’m doing; do I still exist? Do I really love this girl? Am I really doing good? How can I manage to ask the waiter for a drink? How can I manage to leave home today? Why did my girlfriend leave me? Why can’t I clean my windows? Sedate me, I don’t understand – why am I like this?
Ultimately, all of us who are mentally disturbed utter this cry: I need the way. I need the truth. I need life! And no one can take this cry away from us!
Because what we need is to deal with the real Truth. We need to make love with the Truth, to eat the Truth. We need the Truth to be the one to take us by the hand. Implacably. We don’t even need miracles or extraordinary occurrences. What we need is companionship with the Truth. A real Truth, like my grandmother’s. And then, after that (it’s undeniable) we need treatments, medication, and therapies.
We need God to come and get us in our illness, speaking to us. Who cares if we believe in ourselves or not; what we need to see is that God believes in us and comes to get us. Physiologically we cannot stop asking questions, and God, who is no idiot, will manifest himself to us (I don’t know how) so that we can know him. Why do they make Jesus out to be like a judge, or like some moronic social worker. Can we abolish religious education, please?
I know very well that I’m talking like a sick person! Yes, being sick is a terrible thing, it’s a cross that I do not wish upon anyone. But to be in love with, and in need of the truth to the point of suffering like mad when you don’t find it – that is something I wish on everyone.
Do you see what I mean, Franco? Maybe God is calling the West – including Italy and its culture – to Himself through mental wounds. Because they are nothing less, whether we are aware of it or not, than the cry all people share in common.
Disturbed people like me, deeply disturbed, we are neither poets nor saints. We are people who, because of our circumstances, experience the vital intersection of the dialogue between God and humanity, and thus between God and culture. Mental illness insistently asks God to become incarnate, to make himself truly present. And God insistently asks sick people like me to seek him. Fragile and clumsy as we are.
Your Fr. Giussani said: “The protagonist of history is the human heart begging for Christ, and Christ who begs for the human heart.” St. Augustine said: “Our heart is restless until it rests in You.” My grandmother said: “Help yourself and heaven will help you.” Translated into present day language this would be: settle down, try to love yourself and accept yourself, and to do this with others. Try to do what you can, as best you can, because heaven, the saints, and God himself are all moving to help you (just like for Dante) already, here on earth.
I stick with it, I try to stay calm, and laying it all on the line I say: “Lord, I don’t know what to say to you. I don’t even know how to think straight. Please, can you teach me my grandmother’s dialect?” Which is really the same language Dante spoke, which is the Gospel, which is that Man on the cross, which is Him, here with me, and telling me: “Trust me, Peppino, write in good conscience, and then I’ll take care of making something good come of this half-baked letter.”
PS. To all the harebrained religion teachers, the big shot professors, and the moralist goody-goodies of this world, they should be reminded of the line that Sergio Leone gave to Clint Eastwood: “God’s not on our side, because he hates idiots also.”