We talk glibly about someone being “a narcissist.” We detonate the word like a Catherine wheel on Hallowe’en; toss it over our left shoulder like a pinch of salt, and like the origins of Hallowe’en or the ritual of tossing salt over our left shoulder, we’re unaware of the moist kernel of meaning beneath the brittle husk. It’s a label that sticks tenaciously in the Victim Perpetrator model of relationships, and in a culture of self-aggrandisement that puts Self above all other sentient beings. It multiplies like an algal bloom in a culture where we consume other people’s ideas, gobble down advertisers’ enticements. We’re plugged in, eyes down, thumbs moving. Tuned out to silence.
In a particular brand of blame and shame psychology that has lodged unquestioned, unexamined in mainstream consciousness, a narcissist is our boss, our ex, a friend who has offended us in some way. They’re the ones who are utterly self-absorbed, aggressive, and abusive. They’re the cause of our divorce or our unhappiness at work. Despite popular assumption, a narcissist does not truly love herself. She doesn’t even know who she is . In her self-absorbed flaunting, in his amplified bravado, in her need to stand apart in her frenzied desire to need to be seen, is an emptiness, an isolation, that echoes pitifully across the babble of voices that tweet and twitter and stare into the glazed eyes of a masturbatory Selfie.
As human populations flourish across the surface of the earth, millions of souls jostle for space, air,work and food in Gotham Cities all over the world. We contract our energy, seal our body space, tune out the noise, the smells, avoid the eyes, the bodies, as we weave and glide over dirty streets, plugged into our I Pods, eyes down, caressing the smooth surfaces of our Tablets.
Therapist Esther Perel suggests that the merge model of relationship is challenging to the Millennials. I would suggest it is challenging to so many who ascribe to The Cult of the Individual. Working in collaboration with someone requires compromise, empathy, and an ability to accept that being “needy or weak or vulnerable” is part of our humanness.
Solitary bliss has an elusive, dreamy quality that advertisers have crafted into a make-believe bubble of desirability, perhaps even mandatory if we are to be normal well adjusted, differentiated human beings. The pursuit of Happiness has become a full-time occupation in the affluent Western World, the belief that we are worth it, that we have the right to have something more.
According to authors of The Narcissism Epidemic, Keith Campbell and Jean Twenge, we are living in an age of entitlement. “The symptoms of the disease range from the extreme (hiring fake paparazzi to follow you around for a weekend) to the more ubiquitous, garden-variety solipsism (Twittering what you ate for lunch or hiring a professional photographer to take your Facebook photo). Translated into the realm of romantic relationships, the message comes across as: I’m great, and you’d better be, too.”
Esther Perel elaborates, “the culture of narcissism is about your personal happiness coming first and your partner coming second,” says Esther Perel. She adds, though, “Narcissism is actually a clinical personality disorder affecting 1 to 3 percent of the population, not an occasional attitude.”
We pay lip service to self-esteem with Botoxed lips and smooth shiny foreheads. We still look outside ourselves for validation and approval. And if we don’t get it, well then, damn you! To find ourselves has become the Holy Grail. We meditate, go to therapy, do yoga, with the same zealous application our great grandmothers used to bleach stained linen. We invest time, money and energy into ourselves. Why would we want to share our Obsession with someone else? We follow our bliss with the same single minded blinkered zeal that our forefathers used to hack down the great forests, alter the courses of rivers, decimate, or convert the indigenous inhabitants. Yet in the frenetic rush to get somewhere, be someone, there is no time, no silence to be still and go within.
For me, myths and fairy tales are repositories of wisdom. These age-old stories carry the unperturbed truths that ripple through our lives today. They teach us that nothing has changed, nothing is “trending”. And that all our neurosis is just a minute piece in the large tapestry of evolution and transformation. The story of the beautiful youth, Narcissus, is a tale of self-absorption, spurned lovers, arid intellectualism without conversation with the moist wetness of our soul. So the story begins, as so many good stories do, with a concerned mother of an extremely beautiful young boy. She asks the blind prophet Tiresias “will he live to an old age?” to which wise Tiresias replied, “as long as he does not know himself.” So she hides all the mirrors in their home and her precious boy Narcissus grows up to be extraordinarily handsome, adored by all who meet him. Because he has never seen his own face, he depends on the reactions of others to tell him how beautiful and desirable he is.
Positive self-delusion has resulted in evolutionary leaps in technology, science, medicine and commerce. The bleached bones of many narcissists lie loosely in graveyards decorated with flags marked with marble tombstones. Today narcissism is a me-first Ivy-league requirement for Alpha males and females who deftly play the corporate chess game. It’s a must for those who hanker after their fifteen minutes (or more) of fame or infamy.
“A reality shaped around your own desires — there is something sociopathic in that ambition,” writes Zadie Smith in her superbly crafted essay Find Your Beach. Our self-absorbed ambition pushes impatiently through the crowds. Our desires Tweet and Like. Don’t question.
In doorways and under bridges of our metropolises the homeless are unseen and unheard. I was struck by the poignancy of a plaque placed on an unremarkable cement bench along the river in Nashville today. I wondered about the woman who chose this name for her baby and the little girl who grew to be Tara Denise Cole, homeless on the streets of this American city. I wondered, did she live and die unseen, unheard, un-reflected in the shimmering green waters of the Cumberland River.
Lana Del Rey – Damn You