“In the end, she’s just a mere mortal, just like all the rest of us, just like me…” It’s something we hear quite often, explicitly or implicitly, when people talk about “the rich, the famous and/or the geniuses” of this world. Why is it that we often like to read what tabloid newspapers write about these people? Why is it that we often like to gossip about our local or global heroes or celebrities? What kind of desire is satisfied that we enjoy this kind of thing?
Well, for one thing, we’re living in a world of internal mediation (René Girard). Modern democracy got rid of a social hierarchy – in principle that is – and now everyone can take everyone else as a model or mediator for personal ambitions. Premodern societies would not allow “the lower ranks” to compare themselves to the higher-ups, thus trying to keep an internal order and stability. Today, however, everyone can rival the position of everyone else, based on the premise of equal rights and chances for all. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) sharply characterizes this situation and its potential destructive consequences in his work Leviathan, at the dawn of modernity:
“From this equality of ability ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our ends. And therefore, if any two men desire the same thing which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and, in the way to their end, which is principally their own conservation and sometimes their delectation only, endeavour to destroy or subdue one another.” – Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (XIII).
“Competition of riches, honour, command, or other power, inclineth to contention, enmity, and war; because the way of one competitor, to the attaining of his desire, is to kill, subdue, supplant, or repel the other. Particularly, competition of praise inclineth to a reverence of antiquity. For men contend with the living, not with the dead, to these ascribing more than due, that they may obscure the glory of the other.” – Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (XI).
We constantly receive the message that “everything is possible with hard work and perseverance”. On the other hand we also experience that some people seem “ahead of others”. These so-called “winners” are often admired, but in other circumstances they’re envied (also by some of their admirers!) as they seem to frustrate the ambitions they awaken in other people. One way to deal with the frustrations arising out of the comparison with “the people ahead of others” is to downplay their status or success by convincing ourselves that “they are just like us” – mere mortals, with flaws, everyday struggles and problems. Or by convincing ourselves that “they are even less like us, we’re superior to them” – in moral terms, for instance, by portraying them as “decadent” or “corrupt”. One could say that the sociological function of the tabloid newspaper or of gossip in general is precisely that. It helps us deal with the fact that we are not part of the world of “the rich, the famous and/or the geniuses” by comforting ourselves with the thought that those people are, at least, “just like us”.
By downplaying the status of “stars” we try to elevate our own position, we try to reach the status we desire. We try to surpass the status we initially (sometimes subconsciously) admired and idolized, then came to envy and eventually resented. In yet other words, the position of others we sometimes initially idolized is replaced by a feeling of superiority of ourselves. Instead of idolizing the image of others, we idolize a certain self-image. That’s why we quite easily distance ourselves from those others who are perceived as “marginal people” – be it criminals, poor people, crazy people, certain sick people, refugees, drug addicts, or “sinners”. Contrary to our often initial reaction to “the stars” in the tabloids, our first response to a confrontation with “the marginal people” is often the feeling that “they are not like us”.
In both instances our sense of identity and self-idolatry arise from our spontaneous tendency to compare ourselves to others (made possible by our mimetic – i.e. imitative – abilities). One of the main reasons why people are scandalized by Jesus of Nazareth is that he constantly challenges these narcissistic self-concepts. See, for instance, Luke 18:9-14:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
In short, the narcissist – like the Pharisee in the parable of Jesus – distances himself from “the bad guys” (they’re not like me) while he downplays the geniuses around him (they’re like me), in order to idolize his self-image. Our ideologies and all sorts of so-called “spirituality” or “meditation” are often at the service of the untruthful, non-realistic ideas of ourselves. They make us “feel good” and “happy”, like some antidepressant pills we take, and they alienate us from ourselves and others. The ideology of a terrorist group like ISIS is but one extreme example of a false spirituality. “Snobbery” and the “bourgeois mentality” another. On the other hand, every true spirituality has to do with some kind of permanent crisis of the narcissistic self-concept or “Ego”. It shatters our self-righteousness and complacency, and makes us realize that we are never perfect, never complete, never finished.
While all of this might seem devastating at first, it is also liberating, especially when experienced in the realm of forgiveness. Once you realize that you are not that unique, that you are more like “the sinners” (the majority of mankind) than you would acknowledge previously, and that you are less like “the righteous” than you thought you were, you become less ashamed of yourself. If there is shame in this realization, then it is the shame of the hurt you brought to others while you were practicing the idolatry of a certain (self-)image. “To kill the idol of self-complacent narcissism” thus might be the beginning of a restoration of the love in and between ourselves and others.
René Girard explains how this realization in forgiveness (that people are more like “sinners” than they would acknowledge) is at the core of the conversion experience of Peter, Paul and the other disciples of Jesus. What enables Peter, Paul and others to become “saints” thus precisely and paradoxically is their realization that they are not “saints” (i.e. that they are far from ever being “perfect”). This truly spiritual experience, which enables people to face reality, is also the experience that guided René Girard himself throughout his life. René Girard gets to the essence of what a conversion to Christ should be all about in his explanation of the denial of Peter (click to watch):
An anecdote of C.S. Lewis (who converted from atheism to Christianity, as is well-known) also illustrates quite nicely how the acknowledgement that we are more like the so-called “bad people who bring misery upon themselves” restores neighborly love – thus is the inspiration of Christ:
One day, Lewis and a friend were walking down the road and came upon a street person who reached out to them for help. While his friend kept walking, Lewis stopped and proceeded to empty his wallet. When they resumed their journey, his friend asked, “What are you doing giving him your money like that? Don’t you know he’s just going to squander all that on ale (beer)?” Lewis paused and replied, “That’s all I was going to do with it.”
“To kill the idol of self-complacent narcissism” also opens up the possibility of further personal growth (contrary to the situation of the self-complacent person who thinks he “has arrived”) and a more truthful connection to reality as a whole. Indeed, our mimetic ability might stir some frustrations as we compare ourselves to others and find that we cannot achieve what they achieved, but it also allows us to discover the other as “other” than ourselves. Instead of reducing the other to a mere idol or puppet at the service of non-realistic ideas of ourselves (be it ideas of unworthiness or superiority, or both), we then also might discover the other as a source of inspiration. Once we find ourselves loved for who we are, we can enjoy the talents of others without feeling threatened, or without the tendency to downplay the unique gift they bring to the table. Instead of bowing to the false (because untruthful) transcendence of narcissistic self-concepts, we can then be inspired by the other who is not like us – and in that sense truly transcends us. The paradox is that this kind of relationship allows the other and ourselves to be uniquely “our own”. To put it simply: I don’t have to be the next Lionel Messi in soccer to be inspired by the dedication he brings to his craft. I can imitate his kind of dedication in my own “field” without becoming him, or rivaling him. On the contrary, loyal to my own unique “vocation” I can take his genius as a model, becoming more “who I am” than before. In short, next to all the variants of idolatry and detestation in our relationship to others, there is the attitude of inspiration and being inspired. The first find their source in love for one’s self-image, the second in love for oneself and others.
So yes, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Blaise Pascal, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Sebastian Bach, Francis of Assisi, Jesus of Nazareth and the Buddha are geniuses. They are “not like us”, they are “not like me”. And yes, they are “mortals” one way or the other, but they also gave something to the world from a realm “that lasts”. To be inspired by them is to be inspired to a life of an often demanding and difficult, but also enduring and eventually fulfilling love. A love that allows us “to find our own voice and genius” and enables us “to add something that lasts, even if it’s not directly visible or measurable”.
René Girard (December 25, 1923 – November 4, 2015), his person and his work, testified to Love in unique and humble ways. He will be among the sources of inspiration, together with “all God’s children” – the meek and lowly in heart.