Sometimes I think Middle School has more drama in a day than Broadway stages in a year. Sweets has been struggling of late. A boy she thought was a friend has taken to texting her and telling her that everyone hates her. Today a different friend told her that she didn’t want to be friends with her anymore. She didn’t tell her directly. She had a third party share the news. It’s an awful parade of moments that includes eye-rolling, mock laughter, and a lot of tears.
In thinking about my experience of Middle School, I remembered that the cover of the notebooks we used in school included a sketch of our school itself. My notebook added a barbed-wire fence around the school, and gun turrets to many of the windows. I’ve otherwise blocked out much of that time. Strangely I can read about it, just the same. Perhaps you have too. Augie’s story in the book Wonder, is in many ways my own.
What’s happening with my daughter is an experience of what René Girard calls Mimetic Rivalry. Simply, a couple of kids are trying to maintain what they see as order in their social circle, by expressing dominance their dominance. Andrew Marr describes Mimetic Rivalry like this:
“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.”
For Sweets it’s a hellish experience.
Girard’s Mimetic Theory says that people imitate each other. The more we do, the more we become alike. Even the desires we have, and think we have, come from each other. Since we all want the same things, we form rivalries. Because we’re becoming more like each other, our sense of ourselves and where we fit in starts to break down. It’s a recipe for things to spills sideways in some form of violence, intimidation, and fear. To keep the peace, you need someone to take the blame, a scapegoat. Once you have excluded/killed the scapegoat–the role my daughter is playing with some of her friends–the tension dissipates and order is restored. It’s the role Islam is playing now in the US and Western Europe, and why it’s challenging to get people to be curious in a positive way about Islam simply because it’s one of the great religions of the world.
For Christians who follow Girard there are two key applications of Mimetic Theory. First that Jesus frees us from sin, because he is the ultimate scapegoat. Sebastian Moore says
“God, in the person of his Son, lets himself be caught in the trap we’re all in, then he does the most outrageous thing of all. He becomes on the cross, attractive to us, and this breaks the fundamental rule on which the whole system of scapegoating rests: the victim is supposed to stay on the other side, stay excluded — that’s what victimising is for. Perhaps you can remember a moment in a long-standing family row when suddenly you found yourself in sympathy with the person you had all united in disapproving of. Well, Jesus is that person drawing you to himself….This person becomes the person we want to be.” ~ The Contagion of Jesus, p33.
The second application has to do with where desire comes from. One of Sebastian’s favorite sayings was “Desire is love, waiting to happen.” Desire comes from God. Jesus frees us from the fear and anxiety that happens when desire is twisted, and turned in on itself. The people who can love one another, are those who align their desire, with love. With God. And since we live in a world where scapegoating happens
“The new life beyond scapegoating, the new politics of love, is always erupting. It has happened. It is happening. It is still to come. It’s all one coming. Anyone who has tasted Jesus knows this: he or she knows something so new and wonderful that it is always just coming, always at the doors. There is only one coming, that is Jesus becoming himself in you and me in all the world.” ~ The Contagion of Jesus, p33.
What’s happening with Sweets, is hard stuff to hear, and watch as she moves through it. Part of me wants to defend her, or intervene on her behalf, which I know are terrible things. It’s not a time for reaching out to other parents, or to recommend she cut ties with kids she otherwise likes. All of those responses would be ways I would be trying to scapegoat one of her friends, or their families. No. My role remains a chunk of what its always been, to be a guy who stands in a tradition, listens, and tries to be a voice of reason. I want to help her think about how she’s going to work through this. It’s the only way she’s going to learn how to deal with the reality that kids–and people–can be mean. This is also a way to deepen her sense of the spirituality that imbues the tradition that is our faith.