Wednesday, June 27, 2007

On Narcissism OR Why Doesn't the World See How Marvellous I Am?

In a recent public lecture an eminent New York City cleric, while musing on the famous John Donne quip “No man is an island”, perceptively opined that, today, everyone is an island. He suggested that the “ modern” is so turned in on himself that he becomes the center of all things. Everything is measured in terms how “things” affect him personally. He is deep into “peak experiences” which might be rollerblades, trendy restaurants or BMWs. Because of his involvement with himself, he is increasingly alienated and lonely in the superbusy Megapolis which is “Today.” In spite of the numerous gadgets and technical toys he may have, the Modern is often markedly depressed and unhappy. Why is this? Conrad Baars has suggested that the culprit may very well be Narcissism, the modern day disease. Quite correctly, I think, the twentieth century has been called the Age of Narcissism with its intense self centeredness and hedonistic questing.

The term Narcissism comes from an old myth wherein a handsome youth, Narcissus, falls passionately in love with his own image reflected in a pool. Because of his preoccupation with himself, he is unable to hear anyone else say to him “I love you.” He ultimately pines away and dies. He, however, leaves behind a recognizable blueprint for an unhappy psyche, which has been seduced by an infatuating self love and which is accompanied by a tragic unrequited hunger for the ideal lover whom he can never find. Contemporary psychology uses the term to describe a vain preoccupation with self or a preening self centeredness, even slipping sometimes into the auto erotic. The usual triad is vanity, exhibitionism and arrogant ingratitude. Look everybody—here I am! Look, everybody, watch me perform! Why should I be grateful? The world owes me. I deserve it all. And everybody has to like me! I am “teed off” if they don’t pay attention to me and appreciate me! Take care of me, first!

How many times I, like so many others, have seen the juvenile behavior of a 50 year old teenager demanding attention, grabbing the social spotlight or raging because of some kind of “perceived” slight. As one such narcissist told me once, “Say anything about me when I am not here, but don’t ignore me when I am here…” Perhaps such behavior stems from a deep and underlying sense of insecurity. Perhaps, the “bad guy” was poor mothering. Or a poor sense of self esteem and self value. Or perhaps it is as H. Kohut (1977) taught. It is a failure in normal development of the earliest internal images of self and significant others. And there is always the real enemy. Inordinate pride. Or put differently, it means that the narcissist needs some deep instruction and guidance on the meaning of the basic virtue of humility. There are clear parameters of reality, even if unclear to the narcissist, which were established by God Himself. If the Lord’s Reality is not seen, personal chaos necessarily results. It is absurd to believe that I am the Center of the Universe. Yet, in effect, this is the emotional position of the one who suffers (and inflicts suffering on others) because of a narcissistic orientation. He doesn’t seem to know that God is the Center, not the human “I”.

What impels, for example, the high powdered A-type personality, the business tycoon, the educator, the cinema star, the cleric to rush to the “booze” in times of stress? From my own practice dealing with such people, it seems to me that there is a real correlation between heavy drinking and some kind of subjective belief that he is not being sufficiently appreciated, loved or acknowledged. What drives the seductive and insatiable behavior of the person who is competing for the affection of the world? Even his own circumscribed world? There seems to be a huge need to be constantly reassured that he is loveable or capable or appreciated. Narcissism or the exaggerated sense of self importance might well be the villain.

If, in an earlier age, society believed that we are all responsible to some degree for each other in that every word, deed, thought [1] and omission somehow ripples out and affects everyone we meet, the today theme is more “I don’t want to get involved” or “Let George do it” or “ I got mine, Mac.”

In today’s society, it is almost axiomatic to hold that each of us has the right ( by some kind of cosmic, consensual dynamic) to say or do or not to do or think or desire or ignore ----anything we want , whatever we want —regardless of any impact on others. It is almost enough justification to say merely that I desire something to make it acceptable. If I want it, I should have it—otherwise I will be damaged emotionally. The old fashioned but healthy principles of “waiting” for the fulfillment of one’s needs with self restraint and of understanding the notion of delayed gratification, seem quaint and out of step. There is a powerful demon in our midst which demands, not delayed gratification, but instant gratification. Despite the bleeding heart “Human family” drumbeat and the pious lipservice (usually done on the high flown abstract level mode [2]) there is a widespread culture of frightening self centeredness in our Land. We suspect, in agreement with Baars, that the damaging Enemy is Narcissism.

As always, however, there are the beautiful social pockets of altruism which reject selfishness and inspire others to the doing of the “Good.” For example, where we have legal support for abortion for those loathe the inconvenience of birthing and rearing a child, we also have the multitudes of women who unselfishly and lovingly give life and love to little kids who will live forever. Generous and unselfish people? See the Sisters of Life who lovingly take care of the losers and the unwanted. See the Friars of Benedict Groeschel with their youthful, enthusiastic and generous care of the poor, the unwashed and angry poor. See the many volunteers for soup kitchens, nursing homes and meals on wheels. We have the candy stripers in hospitals and high school students who read to the blind. We have the Habitat for Humanity. We have the young undergrads who pray outside abortuaries, risking insult and arrest because they care for others.

So even though Baars is probably right, not everyone is an island. There is great hope under God for altruism because there are good people in our World and God’s Grace is ever available. Nevertheless, Baars is right in positing that something has happened to the “Western” Judeo-Christian soul to make so many of us turn back into ourselves where things are evaluated, basically and concretely, in terms of “Me.” In my eighties, I was saddened (and even shaken) to note a news story about my old alma mater, NYU, in the Village. A survey taken shortly after 9/11 indicated that a large sample of the student body definitely avowed that, even in extreme war circumstances, they had no intention to serve their country. The common theme was “Let someone else do it.” And “ I have to take care of my own career..”

While in my youth (the Pearl Harbor era), there were some scattered “Gold brick” types who personified the “Let George do it” mentality, the overwhelming majority of the population was eager – in some way—to give of themselves to help others. Even to the point of serving in the military. Today we have truly magnificent volunteers in the service, female as well as male, who are willing to donate some years of their lives ( even under very dangerous conditions) to protect God’s good world. However, their numbers are comparatively few.

Narcissism is hardly confined to military service. It is everywhere. In families. In schools. In the pulpit (with the built-in stage for exhibitionism with the startling success of many preachers and evangelists). In offices. Extraordinarily in the theatre. In politics. In the athletic world. In short, wherever you find human beings, you will find selfishness, self magnification and self involvement. And all human beings are flawed and self -concerned because of a great aboriginal calamity that occurred long ago in the beginning of the human race. Catholics call it Original sin. As Captain McNeill told his brilliant, bald Lieutenant in a episode of the TV series “Kojak”, “Theo, this is an imperfect world and I have a lifetime membership in it.” So, of course, our concern is more with degree than with “kind.” Obviously, Narcissism exists in all of us but hopefully might be minimized for everyone’s benefit. But what is possible?

Some analysts suggest that Narcissists contribute a measure of sparkle and wonder to life and should we restore them to the elusive criterion of “ normality,” we would lose their electric contribution to our world. Such advisors counsel that we should accept these persons as they are, love them and appreciate whatever great things they actually do. A colleague of mine suggests that, with an elastic concept of “normal”, they should be considered “normal” if they can keep their “abnormals” to a minimum. Nevertheless, narcissists are not as happy as they seem. They often feel empty and frustrated because of their unfulfilled longings. Psychotherapy is marvelous up to a point but is certainly limited since, by a Catholic definition, it merely clears away the path for further and higher growth. Counseling and therapy should be “vestibule” work. The real answer, as implied above, is in the spiritual world.

How to proceed? Can I get my Narcissist to want to grow out of his misery? Can I get him to pray to Jesus for help? And to the Holy Spirit for enlightenment? Can I introduce to him the concept and later the affect of the Cross of Jesus? And its meaning and its liberty? How can I help him see that there are others in the world, often far more destitute (which can take many forms) than he? How do I get him to see that his glass, like everyone else, is half full and is usually right under his nose as he keeps looking for greener fields? How can I help him to be content (not smug) with his life? How can I help him understand the joy of empathy wherein he might see things through another’s eyes? How can I open to him the joyful glorious feeling of helping others? How can I get him to see/feel the profundity of gratitude? How do I get him to relish the simple things of life, the walking, the smelling of the Rose, the feel of rain on his face, the beauty in so many things, the Presence of God? How do I get him to learn the great art of “offering it up”? The Art of freedom from others’ approval? The art of knowing that ultimately only God’s approval matters?

How do I help him see the suicidal results of living in the “entitlement” mode? How do I get him to sense –even remotely—that God, His Father, loves him with an implacable love even though he is often such a complete schlep? How do I get him to see that Home Runs are not necessarily what make people happy, but rather simple contentment with the deal given them by the Lord of Life? Bottom line, how do I get him to appreciate Reality and its limitations? Or in my terms, how do I get him to see, not only by the aha phenomenon, so beloved by shrinks, but also by the eyes of Faith that he has value—eternally—proven by his Lord dying for him in a terrible, incredibly painful way? This is the Humility we all need. The truth of ourselves with our plusses and minuses but with our beauty before God.

Such idealism! Yet that is the goal. If you know how to implement these ideals as stated, please instruct me. Mean while, I shall pray that the narcissism we all share will be, as my colleague suggested, kept to a minimum.


[1] Contemporary psychotherapy, unconsciously or not, underscores in a subtle way the Jesus observation that merely lusting for another without external actions is certainly a form of “behavior” which has consequences.
[2] It is usually safer to espouse causes away from the actual site problem. The arm chair and the martini make for comfortable and uninvolved Social Indignation. The limousine liberal in Chappaqua is a good example.

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