If you’ve been connected with Street Psalms for very long, you’ve heard us quote the poet E.E. Cummings, “The beautiful answer is always preceded by the more beautiful question.”
Beautiful questions yield beautiful answers. They open space for the Spirit to work, and involve us in our own transformation. Ultimately, they free us to see in new ways and act creatively. On the other hand, small questions yield small answers. The Japanese word “mu” can be understood to mean “un-ask the question.” Mu is the appropriate response when the question is too small fortruth to emerge. Throughout the Gospels Jesus is, in effect, saying “mu.” He is helping us find larger more beautiful questions, and he uses questions of his own to get us there.
In this week’s text, Jesus asks perhaps the most beautiful question of all. “What do you want?” Given that Bartimaeus is blind, the question may seem rhetorical, but if you’ve ever tried to answer the question honestly, you know how difficult it is. It’s a query that plumbs the depths of his being. Jesus is asking Bartimaeus to locate and name his desire.
Transformation always happens at the level of desire.
Rene Girard* recognized this exact thing: what makes us human is our highly developed capacity to imitate desire. He argued that unlike instincts, (i.e. survival, food, reproduction) which are hardwired into our biology, desires are “mimetic;” in other words, they are imitated and socially constructed. To put it more clearly, we do not have our own desires. Instead, we imitate or borrow the desires of others—what Girard would call “mimetic desire.”
Of course, it is hard for us to admit that our desires do not originate in us; doing so directly contradicts the romantic lie we tell ourselves—that we actually have our own desires and therefore we truly are an autonomous self. We, especially those of us from highly individualistic cultures, want to believe that there is a distinct and stable “I” inside us that is separate from all others. We tell ourselves this lie so that we don’t have to face the fact that we are socially constructed beings, largely dependent on others to tell us what we want.