The little boy is terrified. Everyone is looking to him to lead, and he’s not sure he can. Tears well up as he folds his arms and starts rocking. Everyone is looking at me. His heart races. His jaw clenches. I hope I don’t pass out. His face burns with a fire that reaches up through his chest and wraps itself around his head, squeezing. I can’t do it. I can’t. I’m too scared.
And then in an instant he declares, “Welcome friends!” as the congregation stands, eager for his leading. Everyone is looking at me, and it feels so good. His heart races. Adrenaline releases like lightning through his tense body. The little boy fades as he commands the stage. “God is good, isn’t he?!” he exclaims. They love me.
The little boy or little girl lurks within each of us. Our fears lurk within. Our shame lurks within. A sense of deficiency lurks within. If we are relatively healthy, we befriend our fear, our shame, and our deficiency, becoming an integrated person. If not, we flee from these emotions like threatening strangers, living instead from a contingent self, polished and put together, disconnected from our core, true self where God dwells. But while this contingent self feels the momentary bliss in its detachment from the inner storm, it is in truth not free at all but stuck on never-ending hamster wheel, acting out the same script day after day.
The myth of Narcissus tells the story well. While the story is often told as a tale of excessive self-love, it is precisely self-love – a healthy self-love – that Narcissus was lacking. It is instead a story of being stuck, immobilized, fixed in a death-dance. In his youth he ran free, hunting in the forest, loved and desired by young women. But he would let no one touch his heart. Such is the wound of shame. One who is ashamed cannot connect. He is untouchable.
Narcissus finds himself thirsty one day and makes his way to a clear pool for a cold drink. It is in the water that he sees his reflection, an image so striking that he reaches in to embrace it. But the image is lost when the water is disrupted, as it is with each future effort, leaving Narcissus all the more desperate. Immobilized, he pines for the image which will never return his love, eventually succumbing to the neglect of his basic needs.
Terrence Real articulates the tale’s meaning well when he writes:
People often think of Narcissus as the symbol of excessive self-regard, but in fact, he exemplifies the opposite. As the Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino observed in the 1500s, Narcissus did not suffer from an overabundance of self-love, but rather from its deficiency. The myth is a parable about paralysis. The youth, who first appears in restless motion, is suddenly rooted to one spot, unable to leave the elusive spirit. As Ficino remarked, if Narcissus had possessed real self-love, he would have been able to leave his fascination. The curse of Narcissus is immobilization, not out of love for himself, but out of dependency upon his image.
Narcissus becomes dependent on his image. He is trapped in a vicious narcissistic feedback loop. The name Narcissus comes from the Greek narc, which means numbness, a kind of stupor. It is the sting of addiction Narcissus experiences.
Healthy self-love would have motivated him to befriend every wounded and weary part of himself. Self-contempt motivated him to search in vain for what he thought he needed to live, only to die from neglect of what he really needed. But even this story is not without hope, for out of the death of Narcissus emerges a flower. Everyone is capable of a redemption story, and every redemptive story of a narcissist is a story of death to resurrection, death to ego-centricity and resurrection into vulnerable intimacy with God and neighbor. Perhaps this was the story of King David and St. Paul?
In one sense, narcissism is an addiction to self – not our True Self, hidden with Christ in God, but a grandiose, entitled, part of us that takes over like a rogue sailor who declares mutiny. One who is diagnosably narcissistic is out-of-touch with their deepest core, inaccessible, immobilized, incapable of real intimacy. They inflict pain on those closest to them because they cannot love, because they are not living in Love.
But I learned a long, long time ago not to forget that God is in the business of redemption stories. Even after multiple toxic experiences with narcissistic men that left me angry, cynical, and at times plotting creative plans of payback and revenge, something in me refused to let the story of judgment overcome the Story of Hope. In twenty years, I’ve had narcissistic clients and parishioners (particularly angry husbands who blamed me for enlightening their wives to abuse) rage on me, stalk me, threaten to sue me, send me threatening letters, have their lawyers send me letters, subpoena my files, threaten my employment, attack my reputation, spread false rumors, and more. But to do this work, you’ve got to be able to see beyond the proud, manipulative, and grandiose false self to what Buechner calls “the original, shimmering self…buried so deep.”
The Dutch Jew murdered at Auschwitz, Etty Hillesum, gives me the capacity to hope even when I’ve lost it. From the cozy confines of my clinical office, replete with all of my privilege, I can sit back and judge, I can label, I can decide who is worthy of hope and who isn’t. Etty Hillesum, however, had no such privilege. Her captors and would-be murderers were her enemies, and yet her own deep union with God and newfound intimacy with Jesus did not allow her to write anyone out of the Story. These words from her breathtaking journals pierce me every time I read them:
Like us, they too, are bearers of the Divine image however deeply marred and buried it may be, and so they are people to whom we belong. To remove from the mind the label of ‘enemy’ is like removing the blinds from a window and letting the light in. If you will not hate them, then you may begin to see them.
I can think of few narcissistic debris fields more ugly than that of Hitler and his henchmen. I’ve seen so much debris in my years, so much abuse, so much hopelessness, that sometimes my own soul chooses cynicism and despair over hope and love.
But there is a larger Story, and a prodigious God who seems hell-bent on a revolution of Love. I participate in this redemption story in fits-and-starts, because my own spirit bears wounds. Yet, the reminder is that I, too, am Narcissus, stuck in a much smaller story, narrowly focused on what I can control rather than open to the Mystery of Love. As Rilke says, I must be defeated by continually greater things.
Perhaps the redemption story must begin with my death. Maybe I must plunge into the pool of water, and be raised again. Then, maybe I will have the eyes to see what Etty saw, “bearers of the Divine image and people to whom we belong.”