Mimetic Laughter

outsideSupper1Laughter is one of the more pleasant things in life, but is it just a frill? In his book The Phantom of the Ego,” Nidesh Lawtoo discusses the importance Georges Bataille attached to laughter for the emerging consciousness of a newborn child. Laughter is one of the first things a baby learns in imitation of a mother, father, or other caregiver. So it is that laughter comprises the first bond a newborn child makes. Interactions with babies may seem silly, something to be transcended with intellectual maturity and so we don’t value laughing with babies.

At its best, laughter is spontaneous and infectious. How many times do we laugh without knowing why, just because other people are laughing? When children are laughing helplessly as part of playing, happiness spreads to everyone around them. We don’t want to be left out of the joke, even if we don’t know what it is. Just think of some of our best times when we laughed with family and friends with no other reason than we were together and we got caught up in laughter.

There is a darker side to laughter, however. Actually it is a darker side of us and our mimetic desires, rather than a darker side of laughter. Often laughter is used to wound others, to score points against others, to put others down to lift ourselves up. Almost as soon as they learn how to speak, small children use laughter in this way. School playgrounds are filled with this sort of thing. Children learn all this from their elders, of course. Just as they imitated the spontaneous laughter of those around them as infants, they imitate the cruel humor that surrounds them as they grow older. Unfortunately, children usually learn this mode of laughter through being shamed by adults who think ridicule is a good way to train children for the hard knocks of life. Laughter continues to be a bond between people, but it is a bonding at the expense of someone, a butt of jokes, a victim.

When he discourages laughter as a sign of pride, St. Benedict certainly had this darker side of laughter in mind, although it is possible that he had a blind spot for the value of spontaneous, bonding laughter. Certainly, when laughter is a put-on act to gain attention, it is the opposite of spontaneous and it is a prideful act, an act seeking to dominate by drawing attention to oneself at the expense of others. I discuss this at length in my book Tools for Peace.

We get so habituated to using laughter as a weapon instead of a bond of love that we hardly know what the latter is. One way back is to use the wit we acquire to learn to laugh at ourselves and help others laugh at themselves. At its best, a comedy does just that. In Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” discussed in an earlier post, laughter is used as a means to overcome mimetic triangles and tensions and bring reconciliation. Shakespeare does this sort of thing masterly in comedies such as “Twelfth Night” and “As You like It.” In “The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare sets a trap for the unwary, leading us into joining the persecution of Shylock before unmasking this derisory laughter for what it is.

Life is too serious and awesome a thing to be left to sourpusses who always want to be on top of somebody else. We all need heavy doses of spontaneous, selfless laughter shared with others.

 

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Renouncing Resentment

buddingTree1Since resentment keeps us locked into the groups and individuals who feel have hurt us, it behooves us to let go of our resentments, as I suggested at the end of my post “Resentment: the Glue that Keeps us Stuck Together.” As everyone who has tried it knows, letting go of resentments is one of the greatest challenges in life. Concentrating on letting go of our resentments is counter-productive as this technique keeps us focused on the very thing we are trying to get rid of. It is like the childhood game: Try to get through one minute without thinking of strawberry shortcake. Obviously, all one can think of for the next minute is strawberry shortcake.

The thing to do is think of something else, and/or think of the sources of our resentments in a new way. At the end of my last post, I gave an example of the latter by bringing in St. Paul’s recurring admonition to think of others and their needs ahead of our own. We can often gain a degree of sympathy of the people we resent if we see some of the brokenness they suffer and see our own brokenness mirrored in them. (It is this mirroring effect that often makes us wish to escape this truth through projecting it on to others.) The something else that is most effective for redirecting focus is, at least for a Christian like me, Jesus the Forgiving Victim. The emphasis here is on “forgiving victim.” Far too many Christians have used the memory of Jesus’ death as a cause for resentment with tragic results.

Actually, thinking isn’t really the way to handle resentment because resentment isn’t a matter of thought; it’s a much more visceral phenomenon. It isn’t that we decide to be resentful because it’s a nice thing to do and we can decide to stop being resentful at the drop of a wish. Resentment is something that grabs us before we know it has grabbed us and resentment does not loosen its hold on us easily. It is as if resentment, like a virus infecting one’s body, has its own blind urge for survival no matter what damage it does to anything else. So, when I talk about redirecting attention to Jesus the Forgiving Victim and to the people we resent in the light of Jesus who has forgiven them as much as He has forgiven us, I mean that we have to undergo a revolution of the whole, embodied person. I didn’t say that we should initiate the revolution; I said we should undergo it. That is, we have to let go in a very deep way so that the Desire of the Forgiving Victim can become our visceral desire, a desire much deeper than the desire of resentment which is locked into the same resentful desire of other people.

Basic spiritual practices such as liturgical prayer, deep reading of scripture and meditation (contemplative prayer) are, or should be, practiced at this same deep visceral level so that they can open us up to being filled with the Desire of the Forgiving Victim. Praying with others is a means of being in a group that gains cohesion by praying without resentment rather than persecution, which breeds resentment. The more solitary practice of meditation is still made in solidarity with others, thus seeking to relate us to God and other people without resentment. In a short blog post, renouncing resentment sounds like a simple matter. Well, it is simple, but it takes years of devoted practice.

Each time we allow the Forgiving Victim to remove any resentment we harbor, we glimpse a bit more of the new Heaven and the new Earth coming down from Heaven into the midst of our lives.

[I discuss spiritual practices in reference to the Rule of St. Benedict in my book Tools for Peace]

Resentment: the Glue that Keeps us Stuck Together

fireworksBeing carried away by the contagion of the crowd is an obvious enough danger to some of us try to escape this danger by avoiding whatever the Crowd does. People who reject the Crowd are often people who have been rejected by the Crowd, such as those of us who failed to be in the “in” group at school. The position of an outsider easily becomes a jaundiced view, a “sour grapes” kind of view that sees how silly the Crowd is or how dangerous it is or could become if it needs to reinforce its cohesiveness through going beyond ostracism to persecution. For one who sees these dangers, it seems that all one has to do is reject the Crowd and become independent, free of the contagion that has engulfed everybody else.

But how free are we when we reject the Crowd? Not as free as the one who tries it thinks. Rejecting the crowd sucks us back into it at least as firmly as it sucks those who mindlessly allow themselves to be carried away by it. Actually, the attachment is usually even stronger than it is for the one who is carried away because rejecters are obsessed with what they reject. The name for this attempt at alienation is resentment.

What I have said about mimetic desire and the connections it creates with other people as soon as we are born and are capable of conscious thought tells us that we simply cannot, no matter how hard we try, break off these connections with others. Trying to pull away only adds to the tension, like a stretched rubber band, only the rubber band of mimetic desire is unbreakable. This is why children and teens who are relegated to the “out” group remained tied to the people who rejected them. Both the rejecters and the rejected use each other to define themselves. It is the scenario of the royal family who does not invite their unpopular relative to the child’s christening and the rejected relative comes anyway, bearing a curse that immobilizes the kingdom. Likewise, the tension of resentment freezes a social system, leading to a breakdown such as happened with the US government this month.

Resentment, then, tends to make the resenter the mirror image of the crowd. The resenter hates everything the crowd likes and does because the crowd likes it and does it. The resenter is prone to persecuting the crowd in thought and sometimes, tragically, in deed as much as the crowd persecutes its victims. When resenters get together to form their own anti-group, they tend to reproduce the persecutory dynamics of the crowd. I should, know, my high school memories are filled with this sort of thing from the viewpoint of a resenter.

The bottom line is that we cannot gain freedom from others by pulling away. We only tighten their hold on us and ours on them. Neither can we gain freedom by seeking power over the crowd by being the one who sways the crowd. The crowd sways the leader as much as the leader sways the crowd. The only way out I can see is to seek to gain freedom with other people. Following St. Paul’s admonition to think of the needs of others is the way to do this. In seeking the needs of others, we seek their freedom. We can only do this by letting go of resentment. Seeking the freedom of others leaves us vulnerable to those who do not reciprocate. However, by renouncing our own resentments, we already gain a measure of freedom that cannot be taken away from us. It is this freedom that makes it possible for us to use our connectedness to others to move the social system in a dynamic of mutual giving and receiving.

See Mimetic Desire and Mimetic Rivalry

Cast Out by the Outcasts

altarDistance1Jesus encounters the ten lepers between Samaria and Galilee. Luke often uses geography to point to a spiritual landscape and this is a particularly apt example. Jesus meets ten marginal people in a marginal space. The broader geography is that Jesus has “set his face” to Jerusalem, the center of meaning and power, where he will be crucified.

But some outcasts are cast out more than others. One of the lepers was a Samaritan who would presumably be marginalized by his marginal companions. Sort of a double whammy.  In this marginal place, Jesus tells the lepers to go to the center of power, to the very people who have declared them unclean, for validation that they are clean. I can’t help but suspect that Jesus was being sarcastic, grumbling at the lepers to find out how they really want to be “healed.” When they suddenly find themselves clean, only the marginalized Samaritan returns to Jesus, who is still standing in the marginal space. That the other nine would go straight to the priests, at the center of power, is the strongest indication of how the Samaritan was treated by them. The Samaritan was healed, not only of leprosy, but of the social and religious system that required that some people be declared unclean so that others can be “clean.” This is the healing that the other nine former-lepers miss out on.

Jesus and marginality come up so many times in the Gospels, giving us the occasion to preach about it many times, that it starts to sound like a cliché. Instead of falling asleep, we need to wake up and really listen. Surely the Gospels hammer this theme so many times because we need to be healed of being hard of hearing.

This story prompts us to reflect on what we do when we find ourselves in marginal positions, having been cast out and declared unclean in some way. Do we band together with other outcasts in a constructive way? Or do we band together in resentment at the establishment? Does our little outcast group amount to a mini-establishment with people divided between clean and unclean? Do we run back to the establishment that exiled us if we get a chance to do so?

That only the Samaritan returned to Jesus to thank him raises the question of what causes gratitude and what hinders it. I suggest that a system that divides people between clean and unclean inhibits gratitude. When we live with this kind of mindset, we inevitably feel entitled to our advantages and delude ourselves into thinking we have earned them. We also inevitably feel that lepers have “earned” their marginalization. If returning to the center of power is what we want, then gratitude is the last thing we feel if we manage to do just that.

Of course, the Samaritan had to advantage of not having the same option of going to a priest to be declared clean as his fellow lepers did. Being cleansed wasn’t enough to take him out of the margins. Remaining in the margins gave him the opportunity to give Jesus another look and let Jesus be the one who decides if he is clean or not. Giving Jesus this sort of authority is an exhilarating thing to do. It is also dangerous. Jesus just might tell us that not only is each one of us clean, everybody else is also clean and we have to live without our lepers.