The Chernobyl Effect and a Living Encounter[1]

[1] Excerpts from a talk given by Luigi Giussani to university students in Italy in August 1987

Let me begin our conversation by observing a difference between the current generation of youth and the one I met thirty years ago. The difference lies in a weakness in the realm of consciousness, a weakness that is not ethical, but concerns the dynamism of the consciousness. In fact, after all these years, we pointed out the pernicious and decisive influence of power, of the dominant mentality — dominant in the literal sense of the word. It is as if the youth of today were victims of a kind of Chernobyl nuclear explosion: their organism remains structurally the same but, dynamically, it is different. There has been a sort of physiological subjugation operated by a dominant mentality. It is as if the only real evidence in reality is what is in fashion, and fashion is a concept and an instrument of power. Never before has the environment — understood as mental climate and way of life — had at its disposal instruments of such invasive and despotic power over our consciences.

That is why it is even more difficult for the Christian announcement to be accepted as a convincing way of life, and to become life and conviction. What is heard and seen is not really assimilated. Our surroundings, the dominant mentality, the all-invasive culture, and the power all cause us to feel estranged from ourselves. So we remain, on the one hand, abstracted in the relationship with ourselves and emotionally uncharged (like batteries that last for minutes instead of hours); and on the other hand, by contrast, we try to find shelter in the “community.”

If the most convincing evidence today seems to be what is in fashion, where can people find themselves again? Where can they find their  own original identity? The answer that I am about to give not only fits the current situation, but it's a rule, a universal law (since the beginning until the end of human existence): people regain themselves in a living encounter, that is, by means of bumping into a presence that stirs an attraction and provokes them to recognize that their "heart" — with the needs of which it is made — does exist! The "I" again finds itself  in an encounter with a presence that carries this statement: "What your heart is made for does exist! You see in me, for example, that it exists." In fact, paradoxically, the originality of the self emerges when we realize we have in us something that is in everybody (and, by the way, this is what really puts us in relationship with others and makes us no longer feel like strangers.).

People rediscover their original identity by encountering a presence that gives rise to an attraction, reawakens the heart, and causes a commotion full of reasonableness, because it matches the needs of life according to all of its dimensions, from birth to death. People regain themselves when a presence, which corresponds to the needy nature of existence, finds its way into their life — only in this way may the person no longer be lonely. Usually, in daily life, people live in a solitude from which they try to escape by means of  imagination and discourse. However, this presence which corresponds to life is the opposite of imagination. The encounter allowing the self to rediscover itself is not a "cultural" meeting, but a living encounter; it is not a speech, but a living "fact"— which, of course, may emerge even by hearing someone speak; however, it is always a matter of a relationship with something living, not an ideology or a discourse disconnected from the force of life.

It is not, I repeat, a cultural encounter, but an existential one. This encounter brings with it two unique features (which are the proof of its authenticity): on one hand, it introduces a dramatic dimension into existence, which is a call to a change in life, paired with the beginning of an answer to this call; and, on the other hand, it introduces at least an ounce of gladness, even in the most bitter circumstance or in the recognition of one’s own pettiness. In short, to use another expression, what needs to happen so that I can regain myself is an evangelical encounter able to restore the vitality of what is human, as happened in Christ's encounter with Zacchaeus.