At a children’s party, the house was filled with balloons and the children were all happily playing with them until one child suddenly grabbed one balloon and yelled: “This balloon is mine!” Suddenly, all the children forsook the other balloons and fought over the one balloon. This story, told me by an eye witness, is a classic example of what René Girard calls “mimetic desire.” Just as we imitate each other in actions, dress, etc., at a deeper level, we imitate each other’s desires. That is, once one child voiced a desire for one particular balloon, all the other children instantly desired that one balloon and none other. Later in life, one youth’s desire for a certain girl triggers a desire for the same girl in another youth who had ignored her up to that point. So deep is mimetic desire that we often do not realize it is there and we claim our desires for ourselves alone.
This conflict, what Girard calls “mimetic rivalry,” might give the impression that mimetic desire is, in itself, a bad thing. That is not the case. Mimetic desire can easily be benign and non-conflictual. For example, my father shared his love of pizza and butterscotch sundaes with me and I desire them to this day. Likewise, a teacher who loves Shakespeare will try to instill the same desire for Shakespeare in his or her students.
In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis suggests that the mark of a friendship is that the two friends are focused on a common interest more than on each other. This is mimetic desire working in a positive way. On the contrary, when two or more people fall into a mimetic conflict, they are focused on each other to the exclusion of anything else, most of all whatever it is they think they are fighting about.
We cannot avoid mimetic desire. We are tied into a sea of mimetic desire as soon as we are born. Mimetic desire connects us with other people whether we like it or not. So much for individualism. The question is whether we will be connected through expansive sharing or connected through constrictive conflict. Most important, we are born into God’s mimetic desire for us and for all other people. We are constantly faced with the choice of which direction we are willing to go with the mimetic desire we share with all others. Do we make war or do we make peace?