Is There Someone Else, Narcissus?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, April 29, 2007
But I will admit that I’ve looked at an issue of the New Yorker now and then, but (unlike other magazines) I don’t read it for the articles. It’s the cartoons I like. New Yorker cartoons are in a class by themselves. Sometimes, they’re even funny.
One of my favorite of all time goes back into the mid-70s, I’d say. I clipped it out, and it was given pride of place on various bulletin boards and refrigerators and office doors of mine over the years, but then, somehow, I took it down, and filed it away, and lost it, and now I can’t find it. Which is too bad, because I had wanted to use it as the cover of this morning’s order of service (I had to settle for the painting of Narcissus by Carvaggio instead.) But back to the cartoon:
It showed, very simply a nice looking young man and a nice looking young woman, sitting by the side of a pond in an idyllic garden, back in ancient Greece (you could tell it was Greece because there were columns and they had flowers or something in their hair and they were dressed like Greeks). The pair were Echo and Narcissus, you now know from this morning’s reading. Both looked, in spite of the beauty of their surroundings, quite glum. And the young woman is saying to the young man: “Is there someone else, Narcissus?”
Well, the answer was as clear as the reflection of the face of Narcissus in the pool of water before which they sat.
“Is there someone else, Narcissus?” Well, yes—and no. For Narcissus was too in love with himself to pay much mind to poor Echo.
Or, as t-shirt I read about recently (and now want) reads: “ONLY YOU CAN PREVENT NARCISSISM.”
Narcissism is the word we use to describe an extreme form of self-love, one that cuts a person off from being able to relate to others, and be with them, and love them, too. It comes, of course, from the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus, the beautiful youth who was so enamored of his own reflection that he was unable to love any other, and so, withered and died.
In his book, People of the Lie, M. Scott Peck describes these narcissistic individuals in a little more depth. They are, Peck says, people who:
Or, as Rev. Barry Bloom has put it: “They constantly run away from their evil by putting themselves in a position of moral superiority and putting the locus of evil on others.”
They’re like the Pharisees Jesus speaks about in the New Testament: They’re so worried about the speck in other people’s eyes that they can’t see the log in their own. Or they’re like the woman at a revival meeting John Buehrens tells us about in one of his sermons: She loved hearing the preacher denounce all of the evils of the world. He’d denounce drinking, and she’d holler, “Amen, preacher!” (And take a little bit of snuff.) Then he’d denounce smoking, and she’d rock back and forth, and shout out “Amen!” and dip some more snuff. And so on, through taking drugs, and gambling, and fooling around, and even gum chewing—for all of these “sins” she’d shout out, “Amen!”. But when the preacher talked about “That deplorable habit of snuff-dipping,” the woman in the front pew stopped swaying, and stood right up, and said: “Hold on a minute there, preacher! You’re not preaching anymore—you’ve gone to meddlin’!”
For a narcissist, whatever bad things happen to them—or to others—or to the world—is always somebody else’s fault; it has nothing to do with them.
Now, our first inclination might be to think that such narcissists are no fun to be around. The great social activist William Sloane Coffin once said that “There is no smaller package in the world than someone who is all wrapped up in himself.” Or, as my friend and colleague Deane Starr once put it, “When we worship at the altar of our own egos, we worship at a very small altar.” Which isn’t to say that the egos of some narcissists are all that small…
Here’s a more recent caption from the New Yorker. A woman is speaking to her friend. She says: “I just spent an hour with my manicurist and pedicurist, after having done a ninety-minute work out with my personal trainer at the gym, a lunch with my low carb support group, and now I need to go for my botox injections and yoga class. I just don’t have any time for myself any more!”
More truth than poetry there. Often, it is in our mad, frantic campaign to “find ourselves” – doing this; doing that; taking this course; reading that book; listening to this tape; going to that workshop—that we are most likely to lose ourselves instead. A life which is turned in completely on itself, which thinks “It’s all about me. It’s all about my wants, my needs, my requirements, my self-development,” is, more often than not, a life which will eventually wither and die from its isolation from others—from the genuine, mutual nurture and care which only total sharing with others—total immersion in the rough and tumble struggle of life (in which we’re not supposed to get our way more than 50% of the time)-- can bring.
Now, I have nothing against self-cultivation, self-development, self-actualization, self-discovery call it what you will. There is much to said in favor of paying attention to who we are, each of us; of liking who we are; esteeming, even, who we are; being at peace with ourselves; knowing ourselves as a unique being in the cosmos, unlike any other, with particular gifts and talents and treasures of our soul. We shouldn’t hate ourselves or loathe ourselves; a certain amount of ego helps us to get through life in a self-confident and effective manner. Constantly berating ourselves, and denigrating ourselves, and putting ourselves down, and apologizing for having been born (for taking up space) isn’t very healthy, either; it is, really, an insult to our Creator, a form of blasphemy, really.
There is much to praise in various self-esteem movements throughout history. These movements have freed us all—especially those so long fettered by the yoke of oppression. They have freed us all from the nonsensical notions that women had nothing to offer to the public discourse—or that people of color were somehow “inferior” to whites—or that homosexuals were somehow “misbegotten creatures”, or freaks of nature, or mentally disturbed.
It is good to be able to stand on that mountaintop, and proclaim to all the world: “I am somebody.” Remember when that poem was first read: by Rev. Jesse Jackson on Sesame Street in 1971. He read it to children who needed to hear it: children who were poor; or black; or Hispanic; or who had parents who always fought; or who were always drunk or strung out; or who couldn’t find work; or who were on the verge of being evicted from their homes, and ending out on the street. To them, those words—
But I Am
I Am Black
I Speak A Different Language
But I Must Be Respected
were a revolutionary manifesto of selfhood. They are a call to all of us to cherish ourselves—but also—to cherish all of those with whom we are called to shared this world.
It is one thing to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It is another to bask solely in the glow of our own light. Too often, then, we end up dwelling in our own shadows instead. That is, I fear, may be the direction in which much of our society is heading.
In her book, Generation Me, psychologist Jean M. Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University, tells about studies that narcissism among college students has increased by 30% between 1982 and 2006. (Not that the “roaring 80s” were exactly the height of selflessness themselves!) In one particular survey, more than 16,000 college students were asked whether they identified with statements like: “I think I am a very special person.” Or, “If I ruled the world, it would be a better place.”
In her book, Dr. Twenge reports on the whole “self esteem movement” which has been such an important influence in American education (and American life) since the 1980s. “Preschoolers sang [songs like] ‘I Am Special’,” she reported. Well, that’s not so bad, is it? But in other schools, according to Twenge, teachers “even took it further by not correcting [students’] mistakes because they didn’t want to hurt [their] self-esteem.”
She also cites “guidelines” for teachers in which they are instricted to avoid using the color red when correcting papers, because seeing all that red ink, apparently, is “traumatic” for students, and also lowers their self-esteem by making them feel like failures.
Well, I’m sorry if I sound like a completely reactionary, bitter old man on this one—but when we make a mistake (on a school paper, say) we are failures—not in any cosmic or metaphysical sense; not in a sense of our worth as a child of God or a loveable, capable human being—but in the context of that particular answer, on that particular paper—yes, we have failed. I always thought it was a teacher’s job to let us know that (so we wouldn’t get it wrong next time)—and if using red ink facilitated that process, then so be it! But I am just hopelessly old-fashioned and insensitive, I suppose.
The problem with our culture, Dr. Twinge says, is that children have been taught that they can do anything they want—that they are “entitled” to whatever they want. You know what: it’s not true. Whatever various New Age gurus might tell us, the universe is not just a catalogue from which we get to pick and choose all the things we want for ourselves.
The universe is an interdependent web of creation, in which our energies are intricately linked with those of all others, and our destinies are intertwined with theirs in the most complicate manner imaginable (actually, it’s not imaginable to our mere minds). We are each creating our reality, and following our bliss, constantly, incessantly, all together—which means we are not meant to get all that we want, all of the time. Sometimes, we get what we need (which can be very different, indeed). Sometmes, we are taught lessons of humility, and silence, and emptiness, and pain, and unanswered prayers.
Self-esteem is great. It’s important. But it’s the first step on the journey toward self-actualization, and not the destination. Getting stuck in the rut of self-love all our lives is like being stuck in a perpetual adolescence. Sooner or later, if we are to lead full, healthy lives, we need to grow up. We need to let go of childish things. Childish dreams must end, so that we can become adults, and begin to dream again.
People in earlier generations didn’t have what’s been called “the luxury of narcissism”. As anobserver named Robert W. Godwin has put it this way:
Living the materially comfortable lives most of us do, we have become sated on our pleasures, hoarding more and more stuff, and prestige, and honors, and power, and privilege for me—me—me.
We have increasingly become emotional misers, cut off from others through the fanatical defense of our own little piece of turf. As Mother Teresa was completing her first visit to America, she remarked that she had never seen such a society of isolation, on the verge of spiritual bankruptcy. “The reason you have no peace,” she said, “is that you have forgotten that you belong to each other.”
Or, as the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said: “For those who are awake the cosmos is one and common. But those who are alseep turn aside each into a private cosmos.”
We are, each one of us, simply lovely human beings. We’re amazing creatures, each one of us, really. Blessed with such awesome powers to think, to create, to build, to love.
But the greatness of our souls only comes to full fruition in relationship to others. We are not meant to hoard our souls.We’re meant to spend them—to pour them out onto the face of the Earth—even to give them away.
Anthony DeMello tells the story of a man who was considered very holy by all those around him. He lived a life that was very strict and austere, to the point that, every day, he would let no food or drink pass his lips while the sun was still in the sky. In what seemed to be a sign of heavenly approval for his actions, a bright star shone on top of a nearby mountain, visible to everyone in broad daylight, though no one knew what had brought the star there.
One day this holy man decided to climb the mountain. A little village girl insisted on going with him. The day was warm and soon the two were thirsty. He urged the child to drink but she said she wouldn’t unless he drank some water, too. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t want to break his fast until sunset; but he worried about the child, and didn’t want her to become sick from thirst. Finally, he drank; the little girl did, too.
For a long time he dared not to look up to the sky, for he feared that his star had gone. So imagine his surprise when he finally looked up, and saw two stars shining brightly above the mountain.
“For those who are awake the cosmos is one and common.” For those from whom love radiates outward from their inner selves to all the world, the sky is filled with stars too numerous to count, and blessings too abundant to imagine.