Taking Up the Cross Part 5 – Polarization and All That Jazz

The improvisation that is central to Jazz performances is a great metaphor for mimetic relationships that are humming smoothly along. Friendships, partnerships, romances, you and your barista – all these involve an easy rhythm of shared desires. You learn from and reinforce each other’s desires and take delight in what you have in common. These relationships are anything but static – they grow and deepen with time and shared experiences. It’s a beautiful thing and they are a true source of happiness. 

Shared desires are great but – you knew there was a but coming, didn’t you? I knew your instincts were good! So, yes, shared desires are great unless we imitate one another’s desire without mercy. Sometimes a generosity of spirit is required when our desires converge on an object that’s a one of kind or that we want to possess for ourselves even if there’s lots of it. In other words, if we are consumed with greed. 

The Ten Commandments totally get this most human of dynamics. The first three are all about directing our worship – in other words, centering our desires – on God. We already know that that’s the key to resisting peer pressure. 


What you may not have realized is that the last two commandments are about desire. That’s because most translations use the word “covet” as in, “Do not covet your neighbor’s wife” but covet is just an old-fashioned word for desire. So the commandments are all about whose desires we should imitate – God’s and not our neighbors’.

What happens when we imitate our neighbor’s desires instead of God’s? We lie, steal, dishonor our parents, kill, betray our friends – get it? It seems like the writer of the Ten Commandments was trying to list all the things we shouldn’t do and then said, aw, heck – let’s just stop coveting each other’s lovers and all their stuff because that’s the cause of all the bad things we do to each other.

The Olive

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Problem is – and my apologies to the Ten Commandments – you can’t prohibit coveting! We are hard wired to imitate one another’s desires and so coveting is just going to happen. What we can do, however, is be merciful towards our models. Because without mercy, well, we end up with the hyper-partisanship and political gridlock facing the US right now.

Even though Republicans and Democrats insist with all their might that they are absolutely nothing alike, they are actually identical in the most important way because they covet the same thing: winning. Paradoxically, the more each side insists on how different they are from each other, the more they resemble each other in their anger, hard-heartedness, and ruthless tactics.

We often mistakenly think that we are not in relationship with the people who we call our enemies, but it is as deep a relationship as friendship or love. But there’s no jazz in it. No improvisation only a hardening of positions that we righteously defend until violence becomes a real possibility. Imagine a band playing the same four notes over and over, louder and louder until your eardrums burst. In the shared desire of love, each of you flourish in a dance of mutual affection. In rivalry, your heart becomes hardened and nothing can grow in the shadow cast by you and your rival.

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