Monday, April 13, 2015

My Failure Reflected

As some readers may be aware, I'm part of a blogging network that reviews books. I receive a number of emails every year offering the latest selections available, and I can pick and choose which ones intrigue me enough to read for review. Some of these books fade from my memory as soon as I'm finished with them. They end up being an obligation to fulfill. Others, however, linger in my thoughts and make their way into sermons and other writings. These have much more of an impact and expand my view of the world. It's always my hope that every book I select would do this, but unfortunately not all do.

Last month I read and reviewed a book called Desire Found Me by Andre Rabe. I knew nothing about mimetic theory before picking it up, and changing that was certainly a big reason for requesting a copy. There were even parts that caused me to think it might end up more in the obligation pile than the impact pile, but in the weeks following the completion of my review, I find myself returning to the basic concepts introduced therein.

Essentially, mimetic theory proposes the idea that our desires are the product of what we see and learn from others. We learn our earliest desires from those who raise us: if we see a parent investing a lot of attention and energy in something, we learn to do the same. A simple example might be the way Coffeedaughter always seems to covet the food she sees Coffeewife and I eating: the desire wasn't there before she observed what we have on our plates that we appear to be enjoying, and she wants to enjoy it as well.

Mimetic, or mimesis, has the same root word as mimic. We mimic what we see in others. We are not self-made, independent, standalone figures, but rather products and reflections of what we see in others. Desires change over time, of course, but this is how we organize ourselves into groups with shared values and how we process new relationships.

Such reflections can also be the source of conflict. Rabe invites the reader to picture two people putting their hand on the last cookie at the same time. They both desire the same thing; they reflect the desire in the other, and that reflection is now the cause of a conflict between them. 

This reflection can also cause anxiety within a person or group that they subconsciously decide they need to relieve. Sometimes we see certain traits we possess reflected back to us that we don't like or don't want to face, and so we project that trait onto something or someone in order to make ourselves feel better. This is how groups choose a scapegoat: the anxiety of the community gets projected onto an individual or minority in order to avoid dealing with the root issue; it simply becomes that person's or those people's fault. This, too, can be the source of conflict between individuals, as the surface issue may seem to be one thing, but underneath the real issue is that each sees something of themselves in the other that they're ashamed of.

I am pretty much as far removed as I can be from a group of authors that have come under fire in recent months for seeming to rally around one of their own. The person at the center is facing serious allegations, and many including me have been disappointed and disheartened by how the others in this little tribe have responded. Some have issued statements of support, others have fallen over themselves to promote the accused's latest book, and still others have fallen silent in the face of new evidence supporting the accuser's claim.

The internet is a strange place when it comes to this stuff, because here we deal in personas and narratives more than 3D people in all their nuances, hangups, motivations, and hesitancies. There has been enough offered that I am inclined to side with the accuser, but I have to remind myself that there is so much more to the story that I will never be privileged to know. But I am content to bid farewell to the accused, because I had a mixed relationship at best with this person's work and am fine with never reading or supporting what he does ever again.

Several of the supporting players, however, have caused me to be much more reflective, because I really don't want to give up what they offer to the church. Their writing has impacted me over the years and I know many who greatly value their voices. It is easy to dismiss their reactions to this as protecting their own brand, but I think about these imperfect humans who perhaps have wrestled and are still wrestling with this situation, who maybe have handled this in ways more personal than public, who perhaps are still weighing decisions alongside a bevy of emotions swirling within them. 

Of course, I don't really know much of anything about that either. But what I do know much more about is my own reaction to it all, and I can consider how I may be projecting my own desires and fears onto these public figures. I can wonder how I would handle this if in their shoes, and reflect on how disappointment with what I think I see in them is really disappointment in what I see in myself. Whatever I think I know about others protecting their place of power and privilege, or about others not wanting to give up their book deals or speaking gigs, or about others being hypocritical or cowardly regarding standing up for the voiceless, I am challenged to look back at myself and see the ways I might be tempted to do those same things.

I think about these decisions that I hope I wouldn't make, and I can even pinpoint the reasons why I would make them. I have a family to support and a mortgage to maintain. I would want to hold on to a friendship, unhealthy as it might be to try, while knowing I have a constituency to whom I answer. I would rather deal with such things privately and only acknowledge certain aspects in the public eye, resigning myself to the fact that I'd lose someone regardless. I would certainly be prone to hasty decisions made to ease my own anxiety or insecurity, or to appease those around me whether it was the right thing to do or not. These are tendencies that I know I have, and to which I've succumbed more than I want to admit, and that I'm sure I'll exhibit again.

I look at these figures I admire, and I see my reflection perhaps moreso than I truly see them. I hoped they'd be able to live up to an ideal that at its core I really want to attain for myself. This disappointment, this realization that they're human and fallible just like me, is a reminder that I'm no better. And that reminder is, in its way, the most painful thing.

(Image is Full Failure All American Hero by Derek Hess)