The Anti-Mimetic Act of Obedience
Our Desires Are Not Our Identity
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Our desires are not our identity. Believing that they are—believing that if we desire something that it is therefore “who we are”—is a sickness of modernity that I believe stems from a false notion of freedom.
I have wanted many things in my life that I believed at the time were good, but which left me completely miserable once I had them. (It’s enough to look at pictures of myself in high school to see my folly...)
So I am extraordinarily grateful that I am not my past desires; and I am especially grateful that the people who cared about me the most (my parents) took my desires seriously, yet never identified me completely with them.
Desires are a signpost. They tell me something about myself and the world around me. It’s tragic to mistake the sign for the thing itself. That’s part of the reason why—among many other things—it’s so concerning to me that millions of young children today are not only being told that their desires are who they are—they are even being encouraged to make irrevocable choices based on them.
How did we get here?
Everything in our culture is built around the idea of the Sovereign, Imperial Self—to the point that most people are willing to bend reality around their 'desires. We rebel strongly against any notion of external authority that would require us to listen and respond to an Order that we feel is foreign to the Disorder of our unhealthy (and often highly mimetic) desires.
To put the problem another way: either the world must conform to my desires, or there is a created order to which my desires are able to respond.
But there is a further distinction to make: this created order, if it exists, can be perceived as good, bad, or neutral. If it’s neutral—or even worse, if it’s bad—then why should we conform our desires to it? Why bring a child into this world if it’s a cruel, inhospitable place? There would be no reason to do so.
But if it is good, then our focus turns outward. The process of self-discovery becomes less about finding ‘my true desires’ and more about entering into a created order—namely, other people—that is outside of myself. It involves dying to the desires that keep me from experiencing this world, and that keep my locked inside myself.
I think this is why standing on the shoreline watching a beautiful sunset often leads to self-forgetfulness. Beauty breaks us out of the prison.
The best way to cultivate thick desires, I have found, is to spend less time thinking about them and more time putting myself in places and situations where I am exposed to the people and things that draw me out of myself—out of the thinness of the shadows of my everyday, unintentional living.
The word obedience comes from the Latin “obedire”, which means to listen or “to pay attention to”—to attend to reality and respond to it. In the Hebrew bible, the closest word is shema, which means to hear and respond.
Obedience is a strange thing for adults to consider. It’s something we did as children; and it’s something we expect our children to do. But should obedience be relegated to the realm of childhood? Is it something we can safely discard as adults?
No, of course not—and doing so is detrimental.
I realized early on in my career that I am “not good at working for other people.” I started my first company shortly after. And it was my ego driving almost all of my decision-making.
While it’s true that the boss I worked for (and whose private equity firm I left) was not a good man, it’s also true that I would’ve been just as miserable and disobedient had I been working for a saint.
I mis-identified the true nature of the problem. I scapegoated other people whenever it was convenient—whenever they wanted something that didn’t accord with my own selfish ideas.
Then, as a founder and CEO, I thought of myself as the needed Sovereign who, strangely—and hypocritically—expected obedience from others even while I was rebelling against anything and everyone myself.
It took me many years to realize that this spirit of rebellion and disobedience was fundamentally mimetic in nature. There was no person worthy of obedience in my mind—not even God himself would have been a sufficient one.
We either imitate disobedience (which is modeled everywhere), or we find models of positive obedience to imitate. There is no other option. Today’s newsletter, then, is a challenge to think seriously about our relationship to obedience and what, or who, we might be rebelling against.
If we’re honest, we may find that our rebellion is against ourselves and our own limitations. Limitations which, if we were able to humbly accept them, would lead to the kind of freedom that most never know.
There are people in authority who don’t govern with love or wisdom, and who don’t give a damn about the people under their care—they likely haven’t even taken the time to get to know them.
What, then? Is it necessary to be obedient to these people if (for whatever reason) they exercise some authority over us?
In many cases, yes. One of the hardest lessons of life to learn is that the submission of the will—sometimes, maybe even often times, to people who we may not agree with, or people who may not seem smart, or people who don’t seem to us to have earned their authority—is the way.
New military recruits who don’t understand this basic principle are the first ones to fall out.
Now I am not claiming that anyone should obey unjust commands or carry out orders that do harm to other people; yet there is also something to be said about the importance of suffering injustice well—because in life, we will find ourselves on the receiving end of plenty. And don’t we all know those who react to each and every instance with fire and fury and a desire for retribution? Those for whom bearing something loving is an affront to their dignity? This mimetic response to injustice is a recipe for exhaustion.
It’s easy for a rebellion against injustice to turn into rebellion as rebellion—a rebellion that knows no objects; it is pure rebellion against anything and everything that threatens the will. The tiniest offense is treated as an act of aggression—even if it’s unintentional.
Life begins to be lived as a quest for justice (seemingly all American politics) rather than a quest of love.
Obedience is an act of the will. We do something that we might not necessarily want to do at the time, but something that we recognize serves the common good. This brings order.
If you get a bunch of people together in the same room to accomplish a task and each of them demands to engage only in the specific task that he wants to do, it’s a disaster. Every sports team is like this. Obedience to a coach is critical. Obedience to the rules of the team is essential. And some sort of submission of the will is required by every single member of the team. They must fit into a role and do it well; and the role that is asked of them may not be the one that they would’ve chosen were it up to them.
After giving a talk to a professional sports organization last year, one of the players—a well-known one—approached me afterwards and said something to the effect of (I’m paraphrasing): “I never understood that my superpower in this league is magnifying the abilities of others, just focusing on that; and when I do that, when we do that, a strange alchemy happens. When I’m less focused on “playing my best” and more focused on helping others play their best, I play my best. We play out best.”
It was this framing of the will and what he wanted—and the notion of sacrificing his own desires for the good of the team—that made him see his entire career in a new life.
In saying all this, I am obviously not trying to promote unhealthy obedience, like the kind in the infamous Milgram Experiment in which unknowing test subjects remained obedient to authority figures to the point where they would have inflicted severe harm or death on others merely because they were told to do so (against all of their instincts that told them what they were doing might be wrong).
Yet the horror of bad obedience has captured the popular imagination so much that we hardly think about good obedience at all.
One of the pivotal moments of my life was showing up to seminary, thinking that I had checked my ego at the door only to find it once again inflamed the minute I was asked to do menial tasks like clean the chapel or stock the vending machine.
When I entered onto this path, I had done my best to conceal my past—or at least to frame it in the most innocuous or least intriguing way possible—because I just wanted to be one of the guys. Yet when I was assigned tasks that I thought were beneath me, or which didn’t highlight my abilities, I wanted to raise my hand and say, “But I can do so much more than this! Don’t you want to maximize the potential of this place? Why waste talent?” It was anathema to everything I had ever known.
But I was misunderstanding the point. I was like the kid in a Chinese wuxia kung-fu film going up to master at the top of the mountain and being assigned remedial work that I didn’t see the value of—because I was looking at it all the wrong way; I didn’t yet have eyes to see the world in anything but my Silicon Valley-influenced, strongly utilitarian terms.
It seemed like a supreme irony to me that I was asked to stock the vending machines in the refectory. The first company that I co-founded was literally a new-concept vending business (the Rector of the seminary, who gave me the task, had no idea). My company had specialized in the distribution of healthy foods; now, my job was to load up the old vending machines in the cafeteria with junk food and Diet Coke.
I’m embarrassed about how much I bitched and moaned about it—not necessarily to anyone else, but at least to myself—without understanding the value of the work.
In the seminary, none of the people in authority asked “Who is the best at cleaning?” before assigning cleaning jobs. Nobody asked “Who is the most talented Microsoft Excel user?” before assigning a job involving spreadsheets. Nobody asked “Who is OCD or perhaps likes making sure the spines of the books in the library are all aligned properly and in the right sections?” No, these jobs were simply assigned—seemingly at random.
It could not have mattered less who did them. The point was not to maximize efficiency or quality. The point was to get the work done, and to remind us all that we are the work.
We’ll all need to choose which models we’ll be obedient to. Perhaps a challenge for each one of us in the days and weeks that follow, in the noise and policies and intricacies of these waning days of summer, is to offer ourselves up for some type of work that isn’t one that we’ve chosen but one that we simply show up to do.
What is our version of “showing up to the job site” and having a foreman hand us a shovel or a hammer? A foreman who trusts that we’ll do the job well? Who doesn’t care about our past? Who may not even care about our gifts and talents? Someone who just needs work done—even if it’s not the kind of work we think needs to be done.
Since I have not worked in this kind of job since I helped my uncle put up drywall one summer in high school, I have to go hunting for it now—I have to build in these experiences and actively seek them out in ways big and small. I treat them as adventures.
It can be an antidote, a healing balm, a reminder to recognize that there is a reality bigger than my desires.
Over the past year, as many of you know, this kind of work has come in the form of caregiving. But there are always opportunities around every corner. It sometimes takes creativity to find them.
Now excuse me, I have to go wash the dishes.
Closing Note: Paying subscribers are invited to join me and Thomas J. Bevan for a 90-minute Anti-Mimetic Salon next Tuesday at 12pm EST.
Also: the videobook of Wanting (a nearly hour long video presentation of core concepts in the book) is currently out. Paying subscribers receive it as a complimentary gift. Other readers may use the code “antimimeticvideobook1” for 60% off—enter it at checkout, here.
Thank you for reading.