The obvious question: if an ancient Greek motivational speaker had come upon Narcissus mooning over his pool, picked him up by the shoulders, given him a good shaking and said “Get over yourself!”, would it have helped? Based on the continuing prosperity of cosmetics companies, hair care product manufacturers and plastic surgeons, the answer is a resounding “probably not much.” If anything, narcissism, the personality trait (or in its extreme forms, psychiatric diagnosis) to which our hero has given his name, is on the rise, especially in western cultures. An obsession with ourselves seems to be hard-wired into the human animal. Let’s take a closer look.
On one side, having positive feelings about ourselves is a good thing. Evolution, both for groups and individuals, favors those who consider their own survival important to the general welfare of planet. Those who consider themselves unworthy to live don’t live long. But that’s just the surface of the story.
If you look at it a little more closely, Narcissus and Echo have the same problem. Narcissus isn’t in love with himself. He’s in love with his image. He can reach himself any time he wants. He’s already there. But every time he tries to touch the beautiful image he thinks he loves, it turns into water ripples and vanishes. Echo on the other hand pines away because the image of herself she’s looking for is her image in Narcissus’ eyes – and he deems her unworthy – unworthy of his love - unworthy to live. He’s her pool. We all have one. Our notion of ourselves is a projected image – maintaining a balance between accuracy and inaccuracy is tricky, and other people’s agreement or disagreement with the image we’re hanging onto can shake things up considerably. In order to keep up appearances for our audience, and even more for ourselves, we’ll go to great expense and occasional extremes (plastic surgery gone bad suggests that the goddess Nemesis is as active as she ever was). So what’s going on here?
The trouble with loving ourselves too much is that we’re hitching our wagon to a star that’s bound to burn out. Idealized images are perfect and forever. We’re neither. That’s a problem for us. It’s hard to love our digestive systems, our urinary tracts and our hangnails, not to mention our arthritis, lost hair and declining eyesight. We need a little smoke and mirrors up there on the big screen just to keep going. Vanity is good. But when we lose all connection to the blood, guts and mud we came from, we can get seduced by the image, forget who we really are, lean over too far and drown in the pool.
Where narcissism crosses the line is when we start seeing not only ourselves, but everybody and everything out there as nothing but parts of our own projection. The long standing human belief that the earth was the center of the universe only reflects the inner sense of every human born that “I”, me eternal, am the center of the universe, that the world only exists so I can have someplace to stand and that other people only exist so they can have the supreme pleasure of seeing and liking “me”. We all have a touch of it. We need it. What we don’t need is to get so caught up in “us” that we lose our ability to empathize with our fellow humans, other living things and the remorselessly burning out (just like us) chunk of rock we’re all standing on. When we do, we miss a lot. A steady diet of “me, pure me” can get pretty boring. The one we finally lose touch with, when we get too caught up with ourselves is, ironically enough, ourselves.
The best thing our old motivational speaker could have done for Narcissus would have been to throw a few healthy fistfuls of dirt at him. Once he saw his own image with mud on his face, our boy might have wised up, gone after Echo before she changed her mind and took her out on the town to make amends. And before he took her home, if he was smart, he’d have asked his buddy the motivational speaker to run on ahead and throw out every mirror in the house. Sometimes, you’ve got to play it safe - even if it is a little narcissistic.