Why I Want to be Like You

I am not a student of René Girard, though some notable Orthodox thinkers have been. I ran across an article recently that provoked some reflection for me – particularly on a central theme in Girard’s work: mimesis. He observed that human beings are drawn towards “copying” others (mimesis). A passage from the article I was reading:

Human beings are expert imitators (mimetic comes from a Greek word meaning “to imitate”). Science has shown that we are the most imitative creatures on the planet, and we imitate in a far more complex, symbolic way than any known animal. While we are good at imitating the speech and fashions of others, Girard’s discovery was that humans imitate the very desires of other people.

“Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind,” Girard wrote. We have instinctual responses to help us choose the objects that meet our most basic needs—when we’re hungry, we seek food; when we’re cold, we want warmth. But there is an entire universe of desires for which we have no instinctual basis for choosing one object or another. For these objects of desire, Girard saw that the most important factor in determining what we want are the desires of other people, or what he calls our “models of desire.”

Taken from Why Everyone Wants the Same Thing – Luke Burgis

Girard is correct in his observation – we have a deep desire and proclivity for imitation. There is, however, an underlying mechanism that explains it. Not surprisingly, I believe that the mechanism is that of shame. Mimesis provides a wonderful hiding place, protecting us from the manifold emotional dangers of shame. Shame is our painful response to feelings of exposure and isolation. When we “fit in,” we are less noticeable, less vulnerable, less likely to be singled out for unwanted and dangerous attention. Shame, and the avoidance of shame, provide the explanation for why imitation feels so good. Imitation feels like a safe place (on some level).

I do not think that shame is the only basis for mimesis. There is, on a very positive level, a desire for communion. Communion itself carries within it a desire to be “like” the other, to experience union in as complete a manner as possible. However, healthy communion does not entail the loss of identity or being swallowed by (or swallowing) the other. The ultimate model for communion is found in the Holy Trinity. We are able to confess that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God, but we continue to confess that the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, etc. Perfect communion can say, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father,” and, “I only do those things that I see the Father doing.” And yet, the Son is not the Father.

Nothing is easy about this, despite how deeply we desire it. The mere avoidance of shame is insufficient for communion. Indeed, the mere avoidance of shame is a sure ticket to a shame-bound existence. The mimetic culture of modernity (complete with scape-goating, so well discussed by Girard) is a shame-bound existence in which people are constantly manipulated by forces as dark as demons and as voracious as any predator. CS Lewis’ imaginative conversations between demons in the Screwtape Letters, had an underlying theme of the desire for one demon to devour the other, and for all of them to devour us. And so we find in the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete:

The time of my life is short, filled with trouble and evil. But accept me in repentance and call me back to knowledge. Let me not become the possession and food of the enemy; but do Thou, O Savior, take pity on me.

Interestingly, mimesis is a theme in the writings of St. Maximus the Confessor (the same can be said of St. Dionysius the Areopagite). We desire (eros) and long for that according to which we were (are) created. We long to be like God, conformed to the image of Christ. This longing for conformity is not the same as longing for a place to hide from shame. Indeed, in Christ, we not only see Him for who He is, we also see ourselves for who we are (cf. 1John 3:2).

What we find in our life, as presently constituted, is that our sins are often a poor imitation of righteousness. The passions, for example, are not inherently sinful, but are distortions of their proper purpose. We are supposed to get hungry – but at the right time, in the right measure, for the right things. Instead, our hunger runs out of control and becomes gluttony. The same can be said of all of our desires.

Even shame itself, which, in its proper form, is nothing more than a signal for a boundary – and actually necessary for us to experience awe and wonder – becomes an all-comsuming passion that creates false personalities and the irrational desire to hide, to wrongly belong, to become what we were never meant to be.

The desire of mimesis, to be like someone, properly belongs with our desire to be “like” God, according to the image of Christ. This is a cruciform desire in which we practice self-emptying as a means of self-fulfillment. In purely human terms, there is another example.

We probably do not think of marriage as a desire to be “like” someone, but that is only a distortion of our definition of likeness. Men and women were made to “fit” one another – not as copies (in which the “parts” would be incompatible). Our “fitness” complements one another in a manner that rightly makes us complete. The “likeness” of marriage is a desire to become “one flesh,” and, when rightly understood, simply “one.” The “plumbing” is an obvious part of this, but is actually the easiest and simplest part. If the rest of the complementarity is lacking (which is a great matter of eros, kenosis, and love) then the physical “fit” becomes more of a weapon than a union.

Anyone who has been married for a period of years (successfully or unsuccessfully) knows that all of this is a difficult thing, just as it is a wonderful thing. I think that modern marriage is often problematic in that people are trying to do something other than “fit.” There is a fear that traditional marriage entails the loss of self or a subservience, or something worse (a lot of ink has been spilled since the 1960s criticizing marriage while magnifying the sexual revolution). At present, there’s more than a little chaos surrounding the whole thing.

What has not disappeared, however, is the place of mimesis. The crowd (pick a crowd, any crowd) is a terrible substitute for God. We desire God (and the desire for God is innate because we are created in His image). We discover the false god of the crowd, however, as we seek to protect ourselves from the ravages of shame. Who wants to be lonely, isolated, despised, and ridiculed? The crowd, like the demons, only seeks to devour us. Look at our heroes. Today’s hero makes a wrong move and is tomorrow’s pariah.

“I want to be like you,” is a proper prayer if spoken to Christ. “I want to be like you,” can even be a proper prayer if spoken to a saint (who is in the image of Christ). “I want to be like you,” is a consent to a deathwish if spoken to the crowd and the culture of our time.

We are created for God and the true goodness which comes only from Him.

 

33 comments:

  1. Fr. Stephen,

    I’ve been thinking a lot about *attention* lately, and how our habits of attending to certain things and people are too little considered in modern culture. Simone Weil wrote, “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.” It seems to me that absent God to worship, postmodern people “pray” to their sundry idols by so vigorously attending to them. Digital tech and algorithms increasingly determine what we attend to, and in so doing shape our liturgies of attention. It seems to me that mimesis is so powerful because when we latch onto a “model,” the person or thing becomes fetishized so that we attend/pray to it.

    As you point out, we try to avoid shame by mimicking what we perceive to be “normal” behaviors and constructing pseudo identities. Our lives are now dominated by attention to our digital avatars, which we curate to avoid shame. IMHO, one of the most terrifying (and cathartic) things about apocalypse is Jesus telling us that in the end *all* things we have said and done will be revealed. There will be no hiding from our shame, and the only balm will be the blood of Jesus. No more selfies, memes, or carefully-considered treatises to hide behind. I so look forward to that day.

  2. Father, thank you. Words can’t express how this reflection ties so many ends together for me!

  3. Thank you, Father Stephen. The words you have written speak deeply to me. All glory to our Lord and Savior!

  4. Fr. Patrick,
    Thank you. The coin was dropping for me as I read the article on Girard. The shame connection seemed obvious. I’m going to do a follow-up article on hierarchy (in the Dionysian sense) that ties together even more for me.

  5. Fr. Stephen
    A deep pool this! What are your thoughts on the relationship between icons and idols as it relates to mimesis ? One person or thing could be seen in both ways, could it not? That person or thing is not inherently either one, right? As it is often said of beauty, it’s in the eye (heart) of the beholder.

  6. Thank you, Father Stephen! Another Orthodox author who is too little known, Donald Sheehan, has a chapter on mimesis, Renee Girard, and violence in his book The Grace of Incorruption (Paraclete Press) which just went out of print but I think is still available on Amazon. Don passed away in 2010 but his widow Xenia Sheehan still maintains his Facebook page. I was new to the term “mimesis” when I read it and found it very relevant and interesting, as is the whole book.

  7. Father, the fact that we are made in the image and likeness of God with the capacity to choose seems to be at the root of our mimetic nature. But their seems to be a mystery there that is beyond my capacity to articulate.
    Yet because we are we are not “individuals” either separated from one another, we are drawn to community and communion where we find the highest expression of who we are. Yet we have our own particularities too.
    Where do the particularities fit with mimesis? It seems a balance of some kind is reached.
    The saints are quite particular even though they each share vividly in the one holiness.
    I am quite drawn to St. Raphael of Brooklyn even though my particulars are entirely different than his. Yet, some how I feel a fit without having to deny anything of who I am.

  8. From one who has never fitted in due to circumstances beyond my control ,
    . a life for those outside the prevailing group is not so bad.
    I have been realising this over the past few days. I am thankful ! It is pleasant out here.

    Not having to agree does not mean we should be disagreeable ,though

    Thank you, Father.

  9. M E
    The people I have known in life who are genuinely “on the fringe” tend to be those from whom I have learned the most. One in particular I am thinking of has always shown me Christ in love even as he laughs at me (without malice). I love him with all of my heart. I would not have come to any sort of repentance as easily without him. His wife too in a very unobtrusive way. Thank God for them and bless them.

  10. Reminds me of one of the better quotable lines when Rudolph is running away from the North Pole and first meets Hermey the Elf. Hermey is also running away and wants to be independent. He explains the meaning of independent to Rudolph.

    Rudolph’s classic response – “Let’s be independent together.”

  11. Dear Father,
    I once read a (for me) seminal book, called The Myths and Rites of Seduction, by Aldo Carotenuto. His theory of how desire operates in seduction seems also applicable here, because we are continually seduced by stories, art, people (both erotically and otherwise) and of course God.
    He takes the desire for communion in an erotic context further, to a desire for unification, which is eventually frustrated by the reality of “not fitting” and the impossibility of actual unification (despite the “plumbing operations”).
    The truth about shame and mimesis is very valuable for me, because it is another reason why the unification with the beloved – and the Beloved – is frustrated. As is the idea of ‘fitting’, as this is also applicable in both marriage and theosis.
    Thank you for a wonderful post, with lots to think about and absorb!

  12. Fr. Freeman,

    I’m going to rewrite a short version…

    I want to propose that the discussion relates to pantheism and monism versus Orthodoxy. In pantheism and monism, distinctions are ultimately irrelevant. All is will, or all is identical, which to me is two ways of saying the same thing.

    For union to be real, there must be distinction. There had to be a free Creation. The Creator/Creature distinction must be there. Without the EE distinction, you end up ruining the Creator/Creature distinction, and you end up back in/towards monism or pantheism. Both of these are flawed deeply, so you may arrive at atheism.

    Distinctions give rise to definitions. To eliminate distinctions and definitions, which seem to me to be at the heart of “hell is other people”, you need to fantasize yourself to be in a monistic or pantheistic role. You pretend your psychology is at the heart of reality, then enforce it the best you can. Reality becomes all mind or mind-will. On the pantheistic side, you and everyone else are absorbed though displayed temporarily on a spectrum/as fluid. Kind of like mercury in alchemy.

    If I kill a mosquito as a pantheist, a monist, an atheist, a New Age follower, a Gnostic, etc. – do I also kill part of myself? Yes. I ether kill an equivalent or I kill a predestined thing eternally present in the mind of the god. I end up with the ability to give myself a definition without reference to anything else. Ultimately, I deny my contingency. Even here, I can see a connection to Impassibility on the basis of Creator/Creature/EE distinction – that God is contingent on nothing. I’m not getting off into that, my point is, the Christian counter to the worship of Pan is the worship of Christ, who is the Free Creator and hypostasis/union of the Uncreated with the Created – whereas all other worship ends up ruining the distinctions.

    Mimetic desire follows either a pantheistic/monist route, or a Christian route (no eternal universe, real distinctions, real freedom in God and man, etc.). It will make you a Marxist or a martyr. It is obvious why a free Creation by the free Christ with creatures that are distinct and made for greater freedom and communion is a threat: they will mimic Christ and not the created thing; whether people, governments, rulers, psychologies, etc. They won’t worship Caesar. To get them to worship Caesar they cannot be distinct from the State, the ideology, the will, etc. – as they will not give the loyalty desired. The Marxist can take up every cause/identity strategically in absorbing all into the monad hiding behind the “all”/Pan. Knowing the Creator/Jesus exists, that you exist by Him, for Him, are loved by Him, it defines the Christian, and makes for suspicion of the State, rulers, sinners, and you’d rather die than give worship to Caesar, and get called an atheist (properly a defector of the State) in the process.

    So, mimetic desire, for belonging and safety, to me is a straight line to the fear of death. Who will take care of me? If Christ created me, I have to repair to him. If I am part of the divine-all-will, I can find security in identities, even take the creative reigns of invention, deny contingency, and play like gods for a while. Which is safer? Well, all there is, is mind and will without a free creation by the Triune God – so that may out from the get-go, but it may also be so intimidating due to sin and, especially if you feel like “hell is other people.”

    I think I’m in the vein of Farrell’s GHD.

  13. Fr. Freeman,

    The short comment:

    Mimetic desire turns tragic when you make Satan your father and do what he does in the promise of safety, security, and happiness, because he’s a liar.

    Satan, and anyone who desires to claim the earth or its inhabitants as their own, must destroy allegiances based on contingency (marriage, loyalty to God, family, agrarian living even – anything that obviously shows contingency on nature/biology/etc.). They must tell new stories where we/they are not contingent, assume for themselves the characteristics of God, and ensure/enforce fidelity in return for the illusion of security. In terms of worship, it becomes monism and pantheism together.

    It’s sort of sad that it’s that simple. I see the Marxist tendencies in people the same way idolatry is mocked in the OT. You trust with your ultimate good something that is no better than you, that even needs you/is contingent on you, to keep existing.

  14. Father,
    I’ve just finished reading the articles linked in your article. And I appreciate your introduction to these current themes in the media. Sometimes I encounter things that I know are completely wrong, yet lack the vocabulary to explain, finding all that I can tap into are my emotional responses of like or dislike.

    I’m trying now to describe a couple of experiences. One in which there were those who, out of what seemed to be jealousy or envy, copied in a faux way of doing certain things I was doing. This included getting the same haircut, earrings, dress, and claims of manufacturing that I had undertaken (I want this part to remain ambiguous). Out of frustration with the circumstances, I cut my bangs very short, sufficient to make them funny-looking and unruly at the top of my forehead, and that was where the copying stopped.

    The other situation involves the incessant approaches some Protestants take upon themselves to pester/challenge/denigrate my beloved ones who are not Christian. They call such actions ‘evangelism’. These actions have never appeared to be an act of love. Instead, such actions are an expression of imperialism and aggression and a way to shame and ‘excommunicate’ in their own way. There is a clear pattern where they do not do this in my presence. It seems as if they want to pounce on the mouse while the cat (me, the one who loves the “mouse”) is away. The beloved one told me some of the words they used which were not in his vocabulary, and he wondered and asked me what they meant. However, over the years since my conversion to Christianity, he has developed his understanding that there is a secular spiritualism in this culture that is not the ‘real thing’ (his words). And he has learned to brush off such interactions. These are not ideas I have given him, but that he has developed from his own observations.

    From Psalms 126 (127):
    Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain; Unless the Lord guards the city, those who guard it stay awake in vain….Like arrows in the hand of a mighty one, so the children of those who were outcasts. Blessed is the man who shall fulfill his desire with them; They will not be ashamed when they speak to their enemies at the gate.

  15. Fr. Stephen,

    Another excellent article. You seem to be writing in a very pithy and condensed way. No wasted words. I really covet and admire that quality.

    I do think your condition of being immersed in writing your book does put you a bit in a state of having “eyes for nothing but shame” right now. While you make an excellent point mimesis being a wonderful hiding place for shame, that is only part of the picture.

    Yes you gave a good example with communion, but what about things like vocation? While the desires to eat and sleep are very straightforward, I believe we all have very different occupations and places in God’s orchestra, if you will – in this life and the next. The fact that the work of discovering our particular place starts now and not just in the next life is only more reason we would be looking to others to discover similarities and things we resonate with.

    Shame is the setting of boundaries, as you put so well. But while people can join some groups to hide, they can also join others because they recognize themselves as belonging inside those particular boundaries.

  16. Drewster, you make an excellent point. My older brother is better than I am in pretty much every endeavor. Even now he is an Orthodox priest. Yet, he has always been leader for me. We were received by the Church at about the same time. I had the honor of attending his Ordination by His Grace Met. Joseph of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church many years ago.
    Now we are much more brothers on a similar level for the first time. It is a treat.
    I am not sure where shame comes in other than always being not as good in everything, except in the area of performing arts. I am better than him.
    He has every other 1st Place Trophy.
    I rejoice in that. It is because of the love of God for each of us.

    Glory to Him

  17. Drewster,
    This is true. I don’t mean to be a one-note Johnny viz. shame. It is, however, just that dominant in our lives. Humility (the ability to bear a little shame) is the “mother of all the virtues” according to the Fathers. We don’t see many articles on humility (and I think that most of them would like ignore its true nature).

    I have an upcoming article on “finding your place.” It’s not a how-to, and, I think, says nothing about shame. 🙂

    My own experience of vocation is instructive, in some ways. I have no doubt about my vocation to the priesthood – it is indelibly marked in my character and, was already present in certain incipiant ways even as a child. But, as I was being drawn into it, shaped and formed, I can also see many things that had the character of sin (including toxic shame) that played a part. The years have brought plenty of sifting, kneading, rebuke, disasters, etc., as that same vocation continued to be shaped. Much of the time, the priesthood was effective only in spite of me.

    What I would say is that, even though shame and such may mark or mar our entering into certain things, it does not necessarily cancel them out as virtuous. We all have feet of clay and pretty much nothing is untouched by the sins of our life and history.

    The problem with our present times is, I think, the nearly complete lack of inner structures. The things that structure various groups are often over-laden with the passions. It’s simply a difficult time. It is also true that God’s grace and providence are as much at work in the present as at any time. Thus, we are being saved despite many things. Many things have a hidden virtue within them because of that grace.

    So we plow forward.

  18. “Much of the time the priesthood was effective only in spite of me”
    Father thank you. The priest who baptized me, my son and my late wife lived in deep shame. It colored everything he did and eventually drove him out of the priesthood and the Church. He damaged many including my late wife deeply. Yet the Sacraments were, oddly, not colored by his struggle. We never doubted them because the presence and Grace of our Lord was often deeply palpable.
    Yet, damage was done in other ways that made life difficult and I am still learning to forgive him 36 years later. But in all the problems with him none of us ever once doubted that we were in The Church. Baptized and Christmated by his unworthy hand into the Life of Christ. What you just wrote made that clear in a new way that I hope, by Jesus’ continuing mercy, will free me from my continued jugement of the man and bitterness toward him. … and help me genuinely pray for him.
    Jesus is so gracious in all His ways. Especially in His mercy.

  19. Michael,
    The words of St. Paul come to mind:

    “Who is sufficient to these things?”

    And,

    “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.”

    The failures of the ordained are probably the most difficult stumbling blocks in the whole of the faith. May God have mercy on us.

  20. Michael and Father,
    As I too have had a rough road into the faith, I’ll add that it seems that the rough road is something like sandpaper, polishing the soul. While I don’t know this so much in myself, I see it in others, such as in you.

    The Lord said to Peter, “Indeed Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you return to Me, strengthen your brethren.”

  21. Failures of the ordained. It is a humanly impossible. Job failure is all but certain but even in an extreme case like I experienced (and there is much worse) the Blessing of the Priesthood is still present and active. IF I look for it and honor God Incarnate. We all sin and fall short. Me most of all.
    The Grace of the presence of Jesus Christ in Sacrament that I witnessed as the man presided has yet to be exceeded. Even when obviously Holy Bishops have presided.
    His Grace and Mercy make us whole often in spite of ourselves.
    His love transforms if we allow it. If we humbly ask and accept His mercy. That is what has finally begun to sink into to my heart and through my extra thick skull.

    This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. My unworthy prayers are with you both and each person here. Prayers of thanksgiving mostly.

  22. Fr. Freeman,

    I would appreciate an article some day on shame’s connection to death. You’ve convinced me that not all shame is bad, but I (direct me if I’m wrong) I can’t think of many places where you connect death to shame. As someone who was never really formed (to my knowledge) by Freud or others like him, I think now (that I am more aware of him) that death is actually responsible for something like being ashamed of your own feces/flatulence/etc. I think of our dog who, when she passed gas, got up and went in the other room because of us – but if she got loose she would find other animals feces to roll in. I’ve thought often how most animals have no shame when it comes to these things. But logically, when you defecate (I’m sure you thought I’d bring this up) you realize some death. Almost all foul odors are related to death. Burning sulfur is an image of hell Biblically.

    And last, thinking over this quite a bit makes me realize that fear of/realization of contingency is what death reinforces. I’ve often wondered about the angelic fall and after making this connection, any created being’s knowledge of its contingency could make it tempted to transcend it. And that’s sort of the picture of the Bible. So, I guess I would appreciate an article or book recommendation that connects contingency to shame.

    I’ve said many times after deconverting from Calvin, that the antidote to Total Depravity (or Original Sin and Guilt) is, my phrase, Contingency Denial. People don’t run around trying to be good enough for god in my experience, like Protestants assume of all the self-righteous creation. They actually go around denying their contingency on God, and this leads to depravity. To me, what was often a strange phrase in Hebrews, that to please God you have to believe He exists and rewards the seeker (a humble position), makes perfect sense now.

  23. Matthew,
    A good while back (I’ll have to hunt it down), I wrote about what I probably dubbed “existential shame,” that is, the shame of our contingency and death. You’re right about it.

  24. Well, I saw a young man in a restaurant today, I wish I could be like. He was with his father, who is both older and more infirm than I am.. The young man helped his Dad out of the car, it took a lot and helped his Dad get seated. Then the young man got up and addressed his Dad with dep affection and love. When his Dad was in the bathroom, I went over to the table and told the young man how much I really appreciated how he helped his Dad. He looked up at me and smiled a beatific smile and quietly said: “Honor your father ..”
    He appreciated me noticing and talking to him about it. With parted with mutual “God be with you.”
    Wonderful.

  25. The Grace of the presence of Jesus Christ in Sacrament that I witnessed as the man presided has yet to be exceeded. Even when obviously Holy Bishops have presided.

    In our weakness, He is stronger…. Glory to God in all things, indeed.

  26. Copycatting is a technique by which creatures learn, and become educated – in methods, social norms, what hav e you. In animals, imprinting goes a bit deeper than that, but is still a form of learning. Mimetic desire is not just copycatting, not as Girard came to understand it. His understanding was not his creation, but something he discovered as had others.
    See – https://www.americamagazine.org/issue/rene-girard-and-peculiar-nature-human-desiring
    Mimetic desire involves jealousy and fear. Girard uncovered what he terms the “foundational murder” (as in Abel). He says that pagan gods are human fabrications that came into being thusly — a stranger arrives in town who’s not “one of us”; before long, all manner of gossiping conspiracy nuttery erupts (sound familiar?) and next thing you know the stranger has ‘supernatural’ (superman) powers and represents an uber threat, so they must be killed. Afterwards, there’s so much collective shame, that guilt must be alleviated somehow, so the stranger is made into a god and worshipped, replete with sacrifices being made to them.

  27. Foundational murder operates on the scapegoat mechanism. Girard did not understand Christian salvation as operating on that mechanism, but as laying it waste by unmasking it and revealing it for what it is. Christ was an innocent victim of murder, but was truly god, not a fallen human creature simply said to be a god to cover up murder by creating a false god.

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