Why Do Babies Smile?
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith…
And you should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ.
-Paul (1 Cor. 11:1)
Babies are kind of stupid. I mean, I love them and I think they are wonderful and cute and immeasurably valuable…. but they can’t reason well at all. Have you ever tried to have a conversation with one? They just stare at you. It’s like they don’t even know what you’re talking about.
Until you smile.
Then, something really interesting happens.
They smile back. Why? We used to think that it was just because our joy was so contagious. And maybe it is. But now we know something else. We are all mirrors. And we have a hard-wired tendency to imitate what is in front of us. Facial expressions. Behaviors. Values.
It’s called mimetic desire, and it’s how we learn most things in life (for more, study Rene Girard).
So maybe those of us who are parents should stop emphatically asking:
WELL IF YOUR FRIEND JUMPED OFF A BRIDGE WOULD YOU DO THAT TOO?
Statistically speaking, yes. It’s likely.
Something in us is hardwired to copy. We see something in front of us and it immediately becomes more real and possible.
In the mid 1900’s running experts didn’t think the 4 minute mile barrier could ever be broken. It stood at 4:01 for a decade. Then Roger Banister broke it in 1954. Six weeks later, someone else brought it down another two seconds. Thirteen months after Bannister, three more runners broke four minutes- in one race. How is that possible?
When we see someone do something, two things happen.
1- We believe it’s possible.
2- Something in us is drawn to copy it.
We are mimetic people. Imitation is our reality.
This is why understanding discipleship is so important. In the Hebrew world, it was about so much more than knowledge. You didn’t want to just know what your Rabbi knew. You wanted to become who your Rabbi was. Discipleship was learning the actions and the behaviors of one who knew how to walk with God. That could only happen by imitation.
So when Jesus calls disciples to follow him, he does far more than talk. Over and over again he models a life that can be imitated. And he tells them clearly that part of what they are learning is to live the way he is living. We need a concrete example, so Jesus doesn’t simply talk about compassion. He shows it. He doesn’t just talk about prayer. He models it. He doesn’t wax eloquently about a self-giving life. He dies in front of them.
It’s no surprise then, that the writer of Hebrews implores his readers: “Fix your eyes on Jesus! He is the one who is creating this faith of ours!” We need to keep the life and behaviors of Jesus in the world so that we can believe they are possible, and have a real model to work with. And, like Paul figured out, we also need living examples right in front of us so that we can see something in order to practice it. The model of Jesus is good, but a living breathing person brings Jesus to life in a new way. We need people to imitate as they imitate Jesus.
What might it look like to move toward that this week? Maybe you need to dive back into the gospels, reading them and paying close attention to the actions of Jesus. Maybe fixing your eyes daily on Jesus will remind you of what love really is.
And who is in your life that you can learn Jesus from? What real models do you have around you that are worth imitating? They are deeply flawed individuals, as we all are, but maybe we need to walk a little more closely with other people walking with Jesus. And maybe, like one of those little mirror funhouse rooms, we can just encourage each other exponentially into eternity.
Keep smiling at babies, even when they are terrible conversation partners. And keep your eyes on Jesus, so that you can keep believing that all of this wild “on-earth-as-it-is-in-heaven" stuff is really possible.
Jesus, give me the strength to imitate you.
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