Fighting Narcissism

The Virginia Street Church began as a reading society before the Civil War.  We've been here at this address since 1886, but we were formed as a Swedenborgian congregation since the 1860's.  One of our founders was the third governor of Minnesota, William Marshall.  Why do so few people seem to know about us and why are we still an obscure entity in Minnesota history?

These are questions that I have puzzled over from time to time.  Other questions similar in nature often accompany them in my musings.  For instance, why do we humans overlook essential ideas the Lord has given us?  Why do we assume that they are our ideas, gained from our astute reflection?

I ran across one such idea the other day.  I found a book on our bookshelves at home I didn't know we had.  It's entitled The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.  It was written by Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell.  Their book details the study that has been done in American society regarding the personality disorder called Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, commonly called the DSM. Twenge and Campbell identify two types of narcissism, which they roughly define as introverted and extroverted.  Wikepedia lists the following symptoms:

"People with narcissistic personality disorder are characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance. They have a sense of entitlement and demonstrate grandiosity in their beliefs and behavior. They have a strong need for admiration, but lack feelings of empathy."

According to Twenge and Campbell, Narcissistic Personality Disorder was first identified by psychoanalytic theorist Heinz Kohut in 1971. They see the origin of what they call the current narcissism epidemic not occurring until the 1970's.  Is this something new in the history of humanity, this exaggerated feeling of self-importance?  Quite the contrary, I think that viewing this as a discovery of modern science is a typical example of the, if you will, narcissistic view of itself that modern science takes.  In reality the only thing that's new about the idea of narcissism is the DSM labeling it as a Personality Disorder. 

Narcissism is named for the Greek mythological character Narcissus.  According to the myth, Narcissus is an attractive young man who sets out looking for someone to love.  A beautiful nymph named Echo falls in love with him, repeating everything he says, but he rejects her and she fades away.  Narcissus goes on searching for the perfect mate.  Finally, one day he sees himself reflected in a pool of water.  He falls in love with his own image, and unable to pull himself away he gazes at it until he dies.  Twenge and Campbell write "The myth of Narcissus captures the tragedy of self-admiration, because Narcissus becomes frozen by his self-admiration and unable to connect with anyone outside himself - and his narcissism harms other people, in this case, Echo." 

But the recognition of the disease of self-admiration and its effect on both the narcissist and those around him preceded the Greek's myth. 

How far back in the history of human thought do we need to go to find the origin of this idea?

Emanuel Swedenborg wrote extensively about narcissism.  He just didn't call it that.  He called it what it is, self-love.  But this idea wasn't new in Swedenborg's writing.  He was telling us about the inner meaning of the literal text of the Lord's Word.  The Lord has been warning human beings about the evils of Narcissism throughout the entire history of humanity.

The book of Genesis is about Narcissism.  We are not to try to understand religious matters from our own ideas.  That is the message in the idea that we are not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  We are to eat only from the tree of life.  The tree of life is the perception of truth as the Lord reveals it to us.  We cannot find it through our own thinking.  But the conceit that we can pervades human history.

Twenge and Campbell wrote their book about Narcissism because their research showed that there is an epidemic of Narcissism in the world today.  It is particularly prevalent in western societies, especially the United States.

In the introduction to their book they cite some examples of evidence that Narcissism is rampant.  One example they gave was of a sixteen-year-old girl who wanted to have a major road in her city blocked off so that her entrance to her birthday party on a red carpet could be preceded by a marching band. 

Another example is a book called My Beautiful Mommy which explains plastic surgery to young children whose mothers are going under the knife for a Mommy Makeover. 

Did you know that you can now hire fake "paparazzi" to follow you around snapping pictures of you when you go out at night?  These services will even provide you with a faux celebrity magazine cover featuring the pictures. 

Twenge and Campbell attribute the recent home mortgage crisis that threw the country into a major mortgage market collapse on the narcissistic need to buy homes beyond the means of the purchaser.   

There have been numerous cases of high school students having a friend video record them beating up another student and then posting the video on YouTube.

Twenge and Campbell write of these examples, "Although these seem like a random collection of current trends, all are rooted in a single underlying shift in the American psychology: the relentless rise of narcissism in our culture.  Not only are there more narcissists than ever, but non-narcissistic people are seduced by the increasing emphasis on material wealth, physical appearance, celebrity worship, and attention seeking.  A popular dance track repeats the words 'money, success, fame, glamour' over and over, declaring that all other values have 'either been discredited or destroyed.' "

There are some myths prevalent in our society today surrounding the presence of narcissism.  One is that Narcissism is just really high self-esteem.

Narcissists do have high self-esteem.  But there is a difference between high self-esteem and narcissism.  That difference is that while narcissists think they are smarter, better-looking, and more important than others, they don't think of themselves as more moral, more caring, or more compassionate.  These traits are not important to them.  Instead they think being a winner or being attractive is what is important.  High self-esteem by itself doesn't rule out caring about others.  Narcissism could care less about others, except how they can serve the narcissist. 

A second myth is that narcissists are insecure and have low self-esteem.  This misunderstanding of narcissism is based on the belief that a narcissistic sense of self-importance is just a cover for deep-seated doubts about oneself.  The reality is that studies have shown that narcissistic people really believe they are awesome.  The problem with this theory is that some believe that narcissism can be cured by building up the narcissist's self-esteem.

This fallacy has been behind the movement in our schools and advice to parents to artificially build the self-esteem of our children by a barrage of unearned praise.  Teachers in one community were required to recognize every student in their class as the hero of the week at some time during the school year. The unfortunate consequence of this kind of fiction has been a steady decline in the actual ability of kids to succeed.  Just showing up has been defined as success.  An example of this is the rise in the average grades of students in our school systems, while learning and skills have dropped.  We are telling kids they are special just because they exist, not because of anything they have achieved.

Another myth is that narcissism is healthy.  It isn't.  But does that mean we should all hate ourselves?  Of course not.  That's like saying that because Americans are becoming a society that is overweight, we should all become anorexic.  The fact is that self-hatred is just as bad as any other hatred.  We can like ourselves just fine without loving ourselves to excess.  Contentment comes from knowing we are living lives of love toward others, and there is nothing wrong with contentment that results from caring about others.   Loving ourselves at the expense of others might be a good definition of narcissism.  It does not lead to contentment.  Such self-love causes us to be constantly angered by little slights we perceive from those who fail to see that we are superior.  Narcissists are not happy people.

Another myth about narcissism is that it is just vanity.  While it is true that narcissists are vain, they are also materialistic, feel entitled, are overly aggressive when they feel insulted, and have no genuine interests in relationships with others. 

You might question whether it is true that narcissism is an epidemic in our society.  The casual observer has probably noticed a growth in self-promotion and in-your-face self-assurance on the part of many younger people.  Self-esteem and self-admiration seem to be a requirement for success in the modern working world.

Twenge and Campbell found a 30% increase in narcissism in the Narcissistic Personality Inventory scores among college students between 1982 and 2006.  They observed that the increase rate seems to be climbing also.  The rate of increase between 2000 and 2006 was especially steep.  The figures also showed that while men are still leading women in narcissistic traits, the women are catching up.  They compare the rate of growth to the obesity epidemic.  Americans seem to have accepted the fact that our eating habits have led to an increase in obesity in our society that can be labeled epidemic.  Well, the obesity growth rate is about the same as that of narcissism.

So if there is, in fact, an epidemic increase in narcissism in our society, what can we do about it?  The short answer is, probably not much relative to the forces working against us.

But the good news is that we don't have to do it alone.  The Lord has always fought against the forces that promote self-love and he will continue to do so.  Our responsibility is not to defeat narcissism in those around us.  Our responsibility is not to engage in narcissism ourselves.  As the apostle Paul told those to whom he ministered, "Be in the world, but not of it."  The materialism and self-promotion of our society are diseases of self-love. 

We can live within the society that adheres to these distortions of reality without participating in them.  We can look carefully at our options and choose those that serve our neighbor as well as our self, not our self at the expense of our neighbor.  The Lord has made clear to us through the writings of Swedenborg and the Word itself how we are to live.  Calling self-love narcissism and defining it in the DSM makes it impersonal.  Self-love is not impersonal.  It is something to which we are all susceptible.  We must continuously guard against it by self-examination.

The Lord gave us two commandments: to love him and to love our neighbor.  He did not command us to love ourselves.  Self-love is our inclination naturally.  To love the Lord and our neighbor we must first be reborn.  We must be given a new will that abhors self-love and seeks to live according to the Lord's plan for us.  Such a new will must come from the Lord.  Contrary to a narcissistic view of our own awesomeness, we cannot obtain it by ourselves. 

So let us pray.  Lord, help us to see our need for you and our need to love one another.  Amen.