Rene Girard’s “Mimetic Desire” by William Klein

I’ve heard it said that “insanity is knowing you have to change but refusing to do anything about it.”

I’ve been digging deep into the profound stories I’ve heard this year as a teacher. Children telling me stories of violence where loved ones have been impacted:

A child told me how they were jarred into the harrowing reality of gun violence as a machine gun tore through their neighbor’s walls, and her mother had her get down on the floor until it was over. She said, “The loud outburst and rattling of the drive by, felt like and sounded as if it was coming into our house.” A twelve-year old child witnessing the “surreal” death of a stranger in a McDonalds at the hands of multiple gunshots. Such violence stays with a person and more often than not scars them.

Throughout the year there were solemn intentions praying for the deaths of family members dying at the hands of gunfire in the heart of our city. Prayer is one part of the healing process, understanding and solving the problems is the other part.

The chilling testimonies that haunt me more often than not have me shaking my head in disbelief and asking the question “Why?” Society is addicted to conflict and violence. We see the love affair of Americans with their guns. The cycles of violence we see in movies, on the news and read in the newspapers has become a pandemic in its own right.

The more theology I study the more I see that unless we address the root causes of violence there is no hope to solve the greater problem. Every great theologian identifies this in his work, and I discovered a philosopher who has a pretty good answer as to why violence plagues our countries.

Stanford philosopher Rene Girard tackles the age old question of violence in society from an anthropological, philosophical, mythical and theological perspective. His philosophical perspective gained him world recognition and entrance into the esteemed and exclusive “Academie Francaise.”

His basic belief is that the cause of all conflict stems from “mimetic desire” and results in scapegoating. We learn from others by imitation of our desires.  There is a triangular relationship between object, mediator and subject.

The imitative nature of desire leads to conflict. If there is an abnormal disorder in society it must be the result of an interior crisis created from an outward desire. Since prehistoric times humans have sought the basic needs for life – desires for food, water, clothing, shelter, protection of progeny and a place of peace. This is not bad, but when there is a shortage of something it is bound to create tensions in society. Working together members of society work for the good of the whole.

The object of intention is heightened by the fact that someone sees something as desirable and wants to possess that thing.  This reinforces one’s desire to own that thing, which creates tension and desire in another person for the same thing. The conflict created by the tension is mirrored by others in society thus creating the sin of violent competitive actions.

This desire is triggered every day and taps into our desire every day.  Globalism, the media, the zoom generation and connection to people across the world has created a flow of information and connection to desires in a matter of seconds or hours.

The Buddhists address the problem of desire in their faith with the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Girard works through the issue from a mythic perspective and has established profound teachings and identifies the psychological quandaries of modern times.

He said, “People love drama.  They love to participate in drama. They like to believe there is a battle between good and evil and they are doing their part to solve it or win the battle for good.”  

True enough. I just wish people would reflect on their desires a little more. Maybe sit with them to understand why they are so important. Does the object of their desire require death to quench their thirst for something?

Can we rethink the act of desire and recognize that something holy and good is worth preserving by quelling violence through self-examination and re-evaluating our needs?

When do we break the cycle? When do we stop the insanity?

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