Everybody Wants to Be Like Somebody Else

This morning we return to the series of exhortations on the American Crisis of Degree. Degree is a term borrowed from Shakespeare that refers to the cultural order or coherence in a given society. Degree is the glue that holds society together; it’s the principle of societal stability that binds different types of people together and regulates a culture’s rhythms. Degree is the melody line of a society, the sun at the center of the solar system, whose gravity regulates the orbits of the planets. To better understand the importance of Degree, we need to understand something else about ourselves.

God has made us to be imitative creatures. We imitate those that we admire. We become like those that we like. Not only do we imitate their behaviors, but we also imitate their desires. And we do this spontaneously, without even thinking. The fancy term for this imitating of desires is mimetic desire. The word mimetic comes from the Greek word mimesis, which means “imitation.” Mimetic desire, then, means wanting something because someone else wants it first. Our desire is initiated and/or increased by its reflection in another person’s desire. 

Mimetic desire is often called triangular desire because there are three parties involved: the subject, the object, and the model who makes the object valuable to the subject. Or again, there’s the person desiring, the thing desired, and the model who makes the thing desirable by desiring it. When the object that we both desire can be shared between us, mimetic desire produces friendship and camaraderie. Friends love and enjoy the same things, and their joy is increased in the sharing. In fact, C.S. Lewis defines friendship as the spontaneous discovery of “You too? I thought I was the only one who loved that.” The discovery that someone else loves what we love increases and strengthens our delight in it, so much so that many times it’s unclear which came first. Are we friends because we love the same things, or do we love the same things because we are friends? 

However, mimetic desire has a darker side. When only one of us can possess the object, mimetic desire inevitably produces envy, rivalry, and conflict. Imagine a room full of toy animals and a small child—let’s call him Abel—in the middle happily playing with a black horse. A second child—we’ll call him Cain—walks into the room. Which toy does Cain want? Right—the black horse. Why is that? Why is he unimpressed by the other toy animals (even the other black horse sitting on the rug)? Because what makes the black horse valuable is the fact that Abel is happily playing with it. It’s the model’s desire that makes the toy desirable. 

But this isn’t the end of the story. Mimetic desire is a two-way street. Before Cain came in, Abel could have happily put the black horse down in order to play with the brown cow. But now, he won’t. He clings to the black horse like his life depended on it. Why? Because Cain’s desire for the black horse has confirmed and reinforced his own desire. Cain has become the model for Abel’s desire, just like Abel was for his. The boys take their cues from each other. They feed on each other’s cravings. Desire flies back and forth across the room like a professional Ping-Pong match, and the value of the black horse shoots through the roof. 

It’s important to stress that mimetic desire is not inherently evil. God has built us to love what others love, to take our cues from a model who awakens desire in us by their own desire. Again, mimetic desire is the foundation both of friendship and of rivalry.

Now what does this have to do with the Crisis of Degree? One of the primary functions of Degree is to regulate our mimetic desire in fruitful directions, to keep the foundation of friendship and fellowship that bind us together from becoming the desires and cravings that tear us apart.

For now, this reminds us of our need to confess our sins, so let’s seek him together now.

Prayer of Confession

Our Father and God, what you have made good, we have turned for evil. What ought to be an increaser of joy becomes a bringer of conflict. Our hearts have turned aside from you, and as a result, we are filled with cravings and passions which inevitably bring us into conflict with each other. We are filled with all manner of unrighteousness: envy and pride, malice and ambition, covetousness and hatred. Our desires are out of control, and this is a great evil.

What’s more, Father, as your covenant people, we have not loved and desired in the way that we should. What is public and obvious in the surrounding culture is often subtle and disguised inside the church. Our envy and malice stays hidden, and we allow resentment and bitterness to fester in our hearts. Forgive us for our jealousy and envy, for resenting and undermining our friends because they receive a blessing that we want, for the dissensions and conflict that tear us apart when our desires are out of control. Help us to orient our desires by Christ and to put to death what is earthly in us.

We know that if we in the church regard sin in our own midst or in our own hearts, our prayers will be ineffectual. So we confess our individual sins to you now. . . .