What hidden impulse drives your actions without you even knowing it? From your latest shopping binge to the trendy new expression that keeps popping out of your mouth in every conversation, your actions spring from a deep-seated human behavior that claims more control than any of us recognize—or would like to admit.
You have been shaped by this impulse since the moment you were born. You learned to eat, to walk, and to speak in this way. Your style, your facial expressions, your tone of voice, and even your friendships are quietly, almost invisibly, imprinted in this way.
The impulse? Imitation. Every one of us is a born imitator. We see this human trait in a 6-week old infant who mirrors her mother’s smile for the first time. We see it in the 6-yearold girl who clamors to wear her mother’s lipstick. We see it when the 16-year-old girls all show up at the prom in strapless gowns, turning sideways with one hand on a hip in the photos. We see it when young moms find themselves saying the same things that their mothers said to them. We also see that imitation is at the heart of how we learn anything, from the steps of an algebra problem to the proper way to hit a volleyball.
As powerful and pervasive as it is, we are largely unconscious of our constant tendency to imitate. But the evidence is everywhere when you stop to consider it. Have you ever found yourself yawning in response to another person’s yawn? In this case, it is an uncontrolled reflex. Importantly, we must see that even our desires often stem from imitation. In the sandbox, you were not interested in the pail and shovel until your sister grabbed it. That guy from the varsity baseball team did not seem all that interesting until your best friend developed a crush on him. We simply do not recognize this impulse at work in our daily lives.
However, this tendency is no accident. We are imitators because we are made as an image: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:27)
Christian thinkers have puzzled over the strong human tendency to imitate, and what it might mean. Gil Bailie poses the questions thus in “The Imitative Self”:
What can be said of the creature who is made in the image and likeness of another? Surely this: that this creature can only fulfill its destiny by becoming like someone else…. If we really are made in the image and likeness of God, such a desire, dangerously fickle though it might be, could well function … as the key to our sanctification.
The key to our sanctification? A startling thought. If this is true, then so is the opposite. What we imitate might also be the road to our ruin. We must be on our guard with the kaleidoscope of cultural influences that we unknowingly imitate; we must each search our conscience for the behaviors and opinions that slip in without our conscious consent.
The reach of social media makes the pressure to imitate and conform much more oppressive than ever before in history. We are inundated. We feel compelled to be up-to the-minute on the latest meme, the latest shoe, the latest politically correct crusade.
No facet of our lives is shielded from the tendency to imitate. Among fashion’s top trendsetters, even those who feel themselves individualists are no doubt subscribing to some code: the boho crowd, the Athleta crowd, the couture crowd. We see how fashion trends spread with lightning speed, even when they are objectively ugly. In our daily language, what vulgar expressions creep in because we get so used to hearing them? Our attitudes about moral issues can mirror what is popular rather than holding true to what is right and good. If everyone is doing it, how can it be so wrong?
Behavior, too, is powerfully imitated for good or for ill. Schools see clearly that the “alpha” students set the tone for the entire grade’s experience. Nasty bullies are imitated right down the pecking order. The “popular” remain on top even when they deserve no admiration. Sarcasm spreads like a plague of negativity through a class.
That is, unless someone has the courage to step out of the imitation game, reject the oppressive pressure to conform, and offer another model. We cannot say we believe in God when our actions contradict that claim. As our society continues to scorn Christian virtues, it certainly will take courage and commitment not to follow the crowd blindly.
The good news about imitation, however, is that it can be a tremendous force for growing in holiness when we are attentive to our models. We have been given the most perfect human, the Blessed Virgin Mary, our Mother, whose “fiat” at the Annunciation led ultimately to her crowning as Queen of Heaven, Queen of all Saints. She lived her life not just by doing the will of the Father, but by living in the will of the Father. We also have countless saints and martyrs who demonstrate the possibility of overcoming our own human failings by loving God with our whole mind, our whole heart, and our whole soul.
We have a choice. We can immerse ourselves in what is true and good and beautiful because this is what truly feeds our soul and helps us grow toward the Source of all that is good and true and beautiful. The things that consume our time and attention are the things we grow to love and to imitate, and vice versa.
So, we should repeatedly ask ourselves two questions: First, whom and what are we imitating? Second, what are we offering to the world that is worthy of imitation?
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1-2)
Elisabeth Sullivan is happily married to her college sweetheart and is blessed with three sons and a daughter-in-law. She is the Associate Director of The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, which helps Catholic educators renew their tradition by seeking Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in all things.