Connecting our Desires

vocationersSayingGrace1If mimetic desire, grounded in our mirror neurons, holds us all together whether we like it or not, why are we human beings so far apart and alienated from each other? Perhaps the catch is: “whether we like it or not.” If we don’t like being connected with the desires of other people, we will either claim ownership of our desires and dare anybody to challenge this ownership or try to expel the other. Both claiming ownership or expulsion only lock us tightly in rivalry with them so that our desires don’t connect. Instead they crash into each other into a soup boiling over so that nobody gets anything except more rivalry for the sake of rivalry. [See Mirroring Desires below if you haven’t read it already.]

In the history of race relations between blacks and whites in the U.S., from the standpoint of while people, we have had ownership through the institution of slavery and expulsion through segregation such as Jim Crow Laws or what one might call “social custom.” Those of us who deplore such attitudes and their results tend to expel racists, convinced that they deserve it. There is a dangerous tendency to believe that rivalry is a good thing in a righteous cause. Unfortunately, righteousness with this attitude is self-righteousness and rivalry in a good cause still makes that cause disappear in through over-involvement with our rivals.

There is an even more insidious problem here, however. It is well-known that the people who most strongly deplore others for certain actions or attitudes are often disturbingly prone to at least the temptations to the same actions and attitudes. Although statistics consistently estimate that roughly six times as many white people than blacks commit drug offenses, ten times as many blacks are sentenced to prison for drug offenses. All the while, there is consistent denial from those involved in the justice system that there is any racial bias affecting this situation. If these denials are as sincere as, to a chilling degree, I fear they are, then there is a lot of preconscious racial bias circulating like a plague. Speaking for myself as I confessed in Recovering Racists, I think that we all have a serious need of becoming more aware of our preconscious attitudes.

This post isn’t just about race relations; it’s about human relations. Our connections to the desires of other people can attract us to some but repel us from others. We tend to find ways to feel righteous about being repelled by some people but we are often rationalizing our preconscious reactions without ever actually thinking about them. Other posts on this blog and my book Tools for Peace look at spiritual practices for living with mimetic desire constructively. On technique is what moral theologians traditionally call a moral examen. This examen needs to be focused on our preconscious reactions to people so as to make them more conscious. This gives us the chance to do something constructive with them. One thing I find helpful is to look a person in the eye. That can easily transform the person before us.

Mirroring Desires

beanBagsIt’s no surprise to be told that neurons fire inside your brain when you decide to pick up a banana and again when you actually pick up the banana. What might surprise some people is to be told that exactly the same neurons fire when you see somebody else reach for a banana and then pick it up. This was not the kind of thing neuroscientists were looking for or expecting to find. Like many of the most significant scientific discoveries, this one was the result of serendipity. An experimenter who was analyzing the firing of neurons in a macaque monkey left the probes in its brain while taking a short break to have a snack. When he picked up a banana, the monkey’s neurons fired the same neurons that fired when the monkey picked up a banana. So began the following up of an exciting discovery.

The prime importance here is the firing of neurons based on intention. The neurons don’t wait until somebody actually picks up the banana. All it takes is for somebody to reach for the banana in such a way as to convey the intention of picking it up. If a person draws the hand away at the last second or tries to pick it up and drops it, the same neurons have fired. However, show a cartoon of a stick figure reaching for a banana and these neurons do not fire. The action has been portrayed but the live intention has not. Scientists call the neurons that fire under these circumstances “mirror neurons” because the neurons are mirroring the displayed intentional behavior.

This discovery seems to confirm, or at least add credence to, René Girard’s concept of mimetic desire, the notion that we imitate the desires of other people, often at a pre-conscious level.  (See Human See, Human Want) As I think about this exciting discovery, I would have to say that this neuronal mirroring of others’ intention does not, in itself, indicate imitating desire, but it does indicate very strongly that we automatically resonate with the intentions of other people at a deep physiological level, and these intentions are grounded in desire. Far from being individual blocks of personality shooting personal desires out at the world, our desires are wired in our bodies to resonate with the desires of others and vice versa. Our mirror neurons make sure that we live in a web of personal desires surrounding us.

Mirror neurons build a subtle and deep connection between all of us. We live in the midst of these connections whether we like it or not and these connections also connect us to God who created us, mirror neurons and all.

(Mirroring People by Marco Iacoboni is an accessible and absorbing account of the discovery and ramifications of this exciting discovery.)

Mary and Martha at the Feet of Jesus


The story of Mary and Martha of Bethany in Luke’s Gospel has often been interpreted as comparing the active life to the contemplative life. Many writers have suggested that the active life is good but the contemplative life is better. Those of you who have been following my blog where I have been developing the thought of René Girard and his colleagues will likely become a bit suspicious of a possible rivalry between the two sisters and a deeper suspicion of an interpretation that seems to foster rivalry between Christians who feel called to either a contemplative or active vocation, or a combination of both.

In placing this story directly after the parable of the Good Samaritan, it seems likely that Luke does not intend to put action and contemplation in conflict in any way. Instead, Luke is drawing a hidden harmony between the two. If God really is totally beyond rivalry of any kind, then God is not a rival with our neighbor for our affections and concern.

The many stories of sibling rivalry in the Bible incline us to look for it here, but in this case, we only half-find it. Martha is upset with Mary, but Mary shows no signs of being upset with Martha. Those who interpret this story as contrasting the active and contemplative lives take Jesus’ gentle reproach of Martha as indicating that she is distracted from him by her busywork. But if Jesus is not offended by Martha’s attention to work instead of him since Jesus does not put himself in rivalry with such work, then the words mean something else. I suggest that Jesus is pointing out that Martha is not distracted from Jesus by her work; she is distracted from her work by resentment of her sister. Mary, for her (better) part shows no sign of being distracted by Martha.

In his book Beneath the Veil of Strange Verses, Jeremiah Alberg suggests that Mary and Martha “represent two ways of reading the Gospel or two ways of listening to the Lord.” Martha represents us when we are offended by Jesus because he “does not help us with our projects, and that he does not command others to do the same.” In short, Martha is offended that Jesus does not “support” her. Mary, on the other hand, represents us when we sit at Jesus’ feet without offense, without asking to be “supported.” When we do that, we are held up by Jesus whether we realize it or not.

It isn’t a matter of being active or contemplative; it’s a matter of being focused on Jesus without resentment because Jesus has no resentment. In any case, the wisest commentators on this story suggest the Mary has need of Martha and Martha has need of Mary and a mixed life of action and contemplation is best. In the preceding parable, it was the Samaritan who was focused on Jesus through his focus on the victim while the priest and the Levite were focused on their standing in the community. If we are focused on Jesus, we will be attentive to our neighbor without rivalry or resentment, which will set us at Jesus’ feet.

An Extraordinarily Ordinary Saint

BenedictChurchStatue1St. Benedict, as portrayed in the Dialogues of Pope St. Gregory I, is an imposing figure, performing miracles with the flick of the hand or the eyes. The St. Benedict we see in the Rule composed by him is rather ordinary, even boring. That’s okay with Benedict; he wasn’t trying to be anyone special. He was a man devoted to a life of prayer in community who was put into a position of leadership and the responsibilities that entails. He wrote a Rule for his community to give some spiritual teaching and practical guidelines. A lot of abbots had done the same. Benedict cribbed much of his own Rule from one of the monastic rules lying around. He probably didn’t expect it to be remembered for long except in the eyes of God. That’s all that really mattered to him.

The document Benedict drew from is an interesting contrast to Benedict’s Rule. It is called The Rule of the Master, authorship unknown. The Master seems to have thought that he was writing the ultimate rule to end all monastic rules. Everything in this ideal community was in place and nobody would need to write another rule. For every sort of delinquent behavior the Master could think of, he composed a perfect speech to remedy the problem so that no abbot would be at a loss for words no matter what happened. (Hah!) Benedict didn’t think so. He didn’t bother to write a critical review of the Rule of the Master; he just took material that he found useful, much of it actually cribbed from John Cassian, and left out the rest. The silences were deafening. No endless lectures on overcoming monastic vices for one thing. No pulleys lowering baskets at mealtimes to indicate that the bread came from heaven for another. There are loose ends everywhere so that any abbot using this rule can improvise according to the time and place and the weaknesses and strengths of the monastics in the community/

What we’re left with is a document so short that it makes for an ideal book report if shortness of book is the main issue.  There is spiritual teaching about listening to God in silence and in the Divine Office. There are verses urging us earnestly to run in the way of God’s commands and cautions about being humble by putting oneself constantly in God’s presence and never forgetting it. There is much about worshiping with care and doing humble chores with equal care, to the point of treating the tools of the monastery as if they were the vessels of the altar. There are also admonitions for treating the other members of the community and guests with care, perhaps suggesting that they, too, should be treated as the sacred vessels of the altar.

There’s nothing out of the ordinary. Anyone can do it. Benedict said it was a rule for beginners. There’s nothing about doing fabulous miracles like the disciples or attributed to Benedict in Gregory’s life. The monastic life isn’t about healing the sick, but it is about tending the sick to give them the best chance of being cured. It isn’t about casting our demons except to build up a community life that doesn’t give demons much room for maneuver. It isn’t about raising the dead except to give of oneself to improve the quality of life for others.

One thing Benedict does accomplish in his Rule that the disciples accomplished was the miracle receiving freely and giving freely. Benedict freely received the tradition of the Gospels, the Sayings of the Desert Monastics, the writing of John Cassian derived from the Desert Monastics, and the fussy Rule of the Master that would be forgotten if it weren’t for Benedict. All this, Benedict has freely given to us to guide us in ordinary lives of prayer in community.

Meet Some Desert Monastics

220px-St_Macarius_the_Great_with_CherubI have just posted an article called “The Desert Monastics ad Hidden Models.” Some of the stories in the article are stories I have already shared on this blog, but other stories are new to this blog. These are old stories so maybe some of you know them. If you don’t know them, you will be glad when you do. This paper was composed for the meeting of the Colloquium on Violence & Religion (COV&R) meeting at Cedar Falls, IA July 10-14.

On Being Interdependent on Independence Day

fireworksIndependence Day in the US is a day for fireworks and parade and speeches. It can be a field day for jingoism but it can also be a day of collective self-examination of how we might make our country better and not worse.

Reflecting on the concept of mimetic desire, the human tendency to imitate not just the actions of other people but the desires of other people, can help us greatly in getting a sense of direction on how we might make our country better rather than worse. With the way anything in social media can go viral, we need to be conscious about how the media are infecting our desires in ways we can easily not see. Media gone viral constantly blows up into scapegoating of victims that make everybody else feel “better” about themselves, a process that makes our country worse instead of better. It is worth noting that Alexander Hamilton favored a strong executive branch for our government vested in one person because that made it easier for everybody else to know whom to blame if anything went wrong.

In our global age, we are all of also members of an economic body. Adam Smith wrote about its emergence in The Wealth of Nations, published in the same year the Declaration of Independence was signed. This system, vast as Leviathan, is fueled by mimetic desire that is way out of control. I don’t buy the notion that this system somehow works out for good even though most people in the system act out of self-interest. The system has its own life and self-interest that we can see clearly enough grinds huge numbers of people into destitution unimaginable for those of us living in our own bubble. Since the US is such a leading participant in this system, it is tempting to equate the two, but they are not the same and can easily work at cross-purposes. The effort to become aware of how our own desires are being formed and manipulated by this system is much stronger than with the system of the political body.

Standing alone against such vast social systems is hopeless, but we don’t have to do that. In the simple story about the Emperor’s new clothes, one child cried out that the Emperor had no clothes and suddenly the mimetic perception of the kingdom shifted and he was not alone. Saying what we see and what we desire connects us to the desires of others. We will not be alone.

Most important, those of us who are Christians are members of another body, the Body of Christ. (Other faith traditions form bodies with the same kind of power.) The mimetic processes of the political and economic systems easily confuse us into thinking that this Body is equivalent to one or both of the others, but it is not. Acting out of self-interest in the faith that everything will work out fine falls infinitely short of the Gospel and the Messiah who sacrificed himself for us. This Body can also be exasperating when those in it fail to strengthen us when we need it, but it is still the Body where we can join up with those who had gathered around the woman caught in adultery and join the mimetic social process started by the eldest and walk away because we know we are not without sin. Where do we end up if we take this walk? The arms of Jesus who enfolds us in His Desire.