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Dusky Liriope, the Naiad… this loveliest of nymphs gave birth at full term to a child whom, even then, one could fall in love with, called Narcissus. Being consulted as to whether the child would live a long life, to a ripe old age, the seer with prophetic vision replied “If he does not discover himself.” – Ovid, The Metamorphoses, Book III.
You know the story of Narcissus, right?
Narcissus, Nemesis and Echo walk into a bar… Oops, sorry, wrong story. Here’s the right one, or at least the short Wikipedia summary of Ovid’s 2,000-year-old version of the ever-popular Narcissus myth:
One day Narcissus was walking in the woods when Echo, a mountain nymph, saw him, fell deeply in love, and followed him. Narcissus sensed he was being followed and shouted “Who’s there?” Echo repeated “Who’s there?” She eventually revealed her identity and attempted to embrace him. He stepped away and told her to leave him alone. She was heartbroken and spent the rest of her life in lonely glens until nothing but an echo sound remained of her. Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, learned of this story and decided to punish Narcissus. She lured him to a pool where he saw his own reflection. He didn’t realize it was only an image and fell in love with it. He eventually recognized that his love could not be reciprocated and committed suicide.
A while later, the story goes, no one can find Narcissus’ body, and in its place grows a narcissus flower. You can still see that pale, beautiful flower near river banks and on lake shores, admiring its own reflection in the water.
This all-too-common case of self-love gone wrong has inspired poets and writers ever since. In his play Twelfth Night, Shakespeare describes his character Malvolio—who winds up an imprisoned lunatic—as being “sick of self-love.” Shakespeare obviously satirized such narcissistic self-love in a famous line from the play: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, uses the same theme. The poet Rainier Maria Rilke employs narcissism as the central idea in many of his poems. Salvador Dali painted Narcissus, Keats wrote about him, Melville’s great novel Moby Dick identifies the Narcissus myth as “the key to it all.”
It seems, judging from the ubiquitous, two thousand year old nature of this meme/story/myth, that many human beings may have a streak of narcissism and self-love. You think? Maybe the timeless, universal quality of the Narcissus story can tell us something about ourselves. Have you ever gazed at yourself in the mirror, regarding your own reflection? Most people have. What do you see? Do you have a realistic picture of your inner and outer self, taking all your strengths and weaknesses into account—or do you just see, admire and revel in your positive qualities? Do you acknowledge your faults, or gloss over them? Do you have healthy self-esteem, or do you, like Narcissus, really love what you see?
Most well-adjusted people, as they mature, learn to accept their good qualities along with their not-so-good qualities, and they find ways to do so without feeling defective or depressed. That gradual process of self-acceptance, which usually takes place throughout adolescence and early adulthood, allows us to learn to tolerate our flaws and imperfections, realistically perceive our unique individuality and develop a dose of healthy self-esteem. Some psychiatrists call that a balanced sense of self-love, which allows us to return love to others and accept their flaws with equanimity and understanding.
But the mentally-ill narcissist, for some reason, fails to make this important developmental transition. Instead, he continues to expect and demand absolute perfection from himself, with grandiose assumptions of fame, wealth and approbation. “I deserve to be successful, renowned, wealthy,” he thinks. He focuses entirely on his own needs, has an inflated sense of self-importance, and projects his own desire to be perfect onto others. When they don’t turn out that way, the narcissist suddenly sees others as all bad, deserving of fury and rage. Many mass murderers, random school shooters and killers of the innocent display this exact constellation of narcissistic character traits and severe mental illness.
What about the rest of us?
We all have some amount of narcissism, mental health professionals point out. Controlled, mild, healthy and adaptive in most people, it can translate into confidence, self-awareness and self-sufficiency. On the other, far end of the spectrum, though, narcissism sometimes turns toxic. Vain, entitled and self-obsessed, those with narcissistic personality disorders can take self-love to its pathological heights. In a tiny percentage of the worst examples of this kind of mental illness, it culminates in a gesture of deadly mega-violence, venting narcissistic rage and trying to achieve a measure of notoriety at the same time. Drive-by shooters, suicide bombers and mass murderers often share the same insane desire to take the lives of as many innocent people as possible, and go out in a dramatic “blaze of glory.”
From a spiritual perspective, this disorder of extreme selfishness represents one of the most malignant diseases of the human mind and spirit. The Baha’i writings say that excessive self-love and narcissism can actually destroy the soul and cause every positive character trait to “fade or pass away.” In a letter to a Baha’i who asked about this crucial subject, Abdu’l-Baha said:
All these wishes are well worthy of asking, especially the rescue from self-love. This is a strange trait and the means of the destruction of many important souls in the world. If man be imbued with all the good qualities, but be selfish, all the other virtues will fade or pass away, and eventually he will grow worse.
I hope the beloved of God and the maid-servants of the Merciful will be entirely freed from selfishness. Should this become their nature they will indeed become manifestations of great bounties and the doors of divine grace will open. – Abdu’l-Baha, from a tablet to an American believer dated 30 November 1904.
How can we avoid the dark scourge of narcissism? How can we get rid of it when we see it in ourselves? How do we keep our children from developing it? How do we deal with it when we encounter it in other people? How do we stop it in those about to explode?
In tomorrow’s essay in this series, we’ll look at those critical questions and try to find answers.