Self-love in a Narcissistic Culture
‘Could it be that our righteous rejections of narcissism and love of self cover over a mystery about the nature of the soul’s loves? Is our negative branding of narcissism a defence against a demanding call of the soul to be loved?’
These are some of the opening questions Thomas Moore poses in an exceptional book called Care of the Soul.
Narcissism, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘the habit of admiring yourself too much, especially your appearance.’ This is personified in the figure of Narcissus from the Greek myth Echo and Narcissus, but there’s a lot more to the myth than most people think. Here’s Thomas Moore again:
‘Narcissus was the son of a river god and a nymph. In mythology, parentage can often be taken as holding poetic truths. Apparently there is something essentially liquid or watery about Narcissus, and by extension, about our own narcissism. When we are narcissistic, we are not on solid ground (earth) or thinking clearly (air) or caught up in passion (fire). Somehow, if we follow the myth, we are dreamlike, fluid, not clearly formed, more immersed in a stream of fantasy than secure in a firm identity.’
So when Narcissus comes face to face with his own image reflected in a pool of water, he also encounters something of his divine essence. Where does the boundary of a person lie? The skin? The skull-encapsulated ego?
The soul is more than human, and when Narcissus finds that pool in the woods, he catches his first glimpse of the more-than-human mysteries of soul. It’s not only his own face that he sees, it is his face held by the water, suffused and surrounded by the light of the sun spilling through the leaves of ancient trees. His face, his body, has a context that includes the rocks and fishes that live in the pool. Does he glimpse a little silver trout moving through his skull?
‘In symptomatic narcissism there is no reflection and no wonder. But now, as it undergoes transformation into a deeper version of itself, the narcissism takes on more substance… The image Narcissus sees is a new one, something he has never seen before, something “other”, and he is mesmerized by it, charmed… What the narcissist does not understand is that the self-acceptance he craves cannot be forced or manufactured. It has to be discovered, in a place more introverted than the usual haunts of the narcissist.’
Today, social media is the usual haunt of the narcissist, and since the culture we’re marinated in is narcissistic, you’re probably a little odd if you don’t have at least some narcissism in you. Those little dopamine hits when someone ‘likes’ you are a lot more insidious than meets the eye because they key into something I’m going to call ‘blessing deficit disorder’.
Blessing Deficit Disorder
Imagine if it was normal for the whole structure of our late-stage capitalistic world to have this as its guiding question:
How can we create the conditions in which the unique calling of each individual is encouraged to reach its fullest expression? Not to maximize GDP, but for the sake of the divine spark that resides with all human beings and the rest of nature.
Since our civilisation and its institutions don’t tend to have this deep care for its citizens, so our culture is afflicted with a dearth of blessings.
I feel that one of the sacred responsibilities of being a parent is to pay one’s child a quality of attention where they intuitively feel this reaction:
I am loved. I am enough. I don’t need to do anything other than be myself.
This is a blessing, but if a parent isn’t around, either physically or emotionally, then the blessing cannot be given. Ideally the community, the culture, the feeling of being in the world would also act as a blessing. If those things are present then the sacred responsibility is shared out. If they’re missing then the blessing of parents becomes even more vital. Without those blessings, there is a void in the child’s heart that does not go away when he or she becomes an adult and has children of their own.
In the absence of true blessings, we’ll settle for false ones, such as those facilitated by social media. Social media is best understood is a constellation of demons, a sentiment I feel echoed in this rigorously researched article from The Consilience Project:
‘Some of our most popular technologies are becoming a means of mass coercion that open societies cannot survive… Digital environments have been designed to capture your attention, deploy surveillance, and then deliver your brain over to stronger, more knowledgeable, and overtly strategic parties for microtargeting.’
Keying into a narcissistic desire for external validation is just one of the ways social media captures our attention. What would Narcissus have done if instead of encountering a numinous image held in water, he stared at heavily filtered photographs of his own face on Instagram?
That pool of water is important. Picture it now, hidden inside an ancient forest. If we take the image as a guide then it may inspire questions, as it did for Thomas Moore.
‘Is there something in me that is like this pool? Do I have depth? Do my feelings and thoughts pool somewhere so off the beaten path that it is utterly still and untouched? Is there someplace wet in me, not the place of dry intellectualism but rather of moist feeling and green, fertile, shady imagination? Do I find myself in rare moments caught in a place of reflection where I have to take a break for reverie and wonder and there catch a glimpse of some unfamiliar face that is mine? If so, then the myth of Narcissus, the cure for narcissism, may be stirring in me.’
For a culture not to be afflicted by blessing deficit disorder, some new relationship to self love will need to become common, and it’s not going to happen on social media. Dark Forests may help, but don’t forget the water.
This short essay was originally published in: