I have spent a life in the social sciences, psychology and sociology, yet it was not till relatively recently that I dug into the work of René Girard. Within his work one fundamental insight stands out: man is an imitator. This flies in the face of being an American, being modern and being independent. To imitate is to be dependent on another. Though independent people never want to be seen as dependent, this is a major shortcoming, especially when its power is not constantly taught.
It is extremely powerful. We imitate those we trust, even in small things and even when we don’t know much about the people we rate as trustworthy: In an art gallery we are more likely to go to paintings looked at by others whose faces seem trustworthy than to pictures looked at by those whose faces don’t seem trustworthy. This happens without our realizing it. The example of those we trust is powerful. We have yet to harness this power of imitation to mold the human soul. It phenomenon is worth cultivating.
We could help those in society who are being left behind by teaching them, not what to do, or how to do it (evaluation data shows that does not work) but, instead, whom to copy.
Children from the inner-city have few-to-no examples of children who grew up in their neighborhood and made it to college, or who got married. Without others to imitate they cannot imitate. This is the great poverty. Today, many of our inner-city poor have a material well-being way greater than the middle class of the 1960’s, but their real poverty has grown much deeper. Congress suffers the same poverty and all the mega-social agencies (HHS, HUD, DOE, DOJ, CDC) spend their behavior-improving-money uselessly (and the data show it so, again and again), because of the absence of an abundance of good examples.
When there are no good examples to imitate how do we break the cycle of bad choices made?
Stories abound of good folk who befriended those in need. But good folk don’t present themselves as examples to be imitated but rather are noticed as quietly go about helping. Those who receive the help and those who see the helping often get more from the example of their well-lived lives than from “the help”. I remember a Maryland pastor telling the story of his wife as a young girl. Her family was totally dysfunctional. All her siblings were in jail. She, however, was able to take a different path because of a kind couple who lived a on her street. With her parents’ permission, they took her in every weekend and brought her to church with them on Sunday, dressing her up for weekly worship. Those Saturdays and Sundays spent with that couple opened her eyes and she saw what life could be. The seed was sown and she cultivated it throughout her teens and into adulthood.
So how can the single mother break the cycle of single motherhood for her daughters? One way is to find single mothers who have raised daughters who married successfully and imitate them. How can the absent-father break the cycle of father-absence for his son? They find single fathers who have raised sons who married successfully and imitate them.
But for the inner-city poor these examples may be so infrequent as not to be noticed (only 9% of African American seventeen-year-olds in SE Washington live with their married biological parents, 91 % have a different example). How do we help them?
Netflix could get creative, could do great good with all the profits they are making. Uplifting human-interest stories are always enjoyable. They can make the careers of scriptwriters and directors. Masterpiece Theatre, if it pulled off something like this would bring a totally new meaning to its name. Bill and Melinda Gates, concerned that their spending may not be achieving as much good as they hoped, might invest in true stories of bravery and goodness and love giving birth to a stronger generation.
In a way, we all have this task of finding, and making known those hidden people who have achieved the worthiness of being imitated in their family life. We need others to imitate if we are to go forward to our next level of being better. We all love a good story, especially one of rags to riches (and most especially from family relational rags to family relational riches).