It’s been almost 30 years since Christopher Lasch first published his groundbreaking book, “Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations.” Although it’s a rather forbidding title, its message is clear: We Americans, faced with pervasive social problems and vague but indescribable fears, are turning in upon ourselves. The result is that we end up disconnected, set adrift from each other and from any real sense of past or future. In other words, when we lose our bearings, we get lost in ourselves.
In mythology, Narcissus was a beautiful young man who left a trail of brokenhearted lovers. His basic problem was that he was incapable of loving another person because he was in love with himself. One day, Narcissus came upon a clear, still pond. Looking into the water, he saw his own reflection and fell madly in love with what he saw. Totally absorbed with his own image, he literally dissolves in self-love. The only thing left, according to the story, was a beautiful flower, known to this day as the narcissus.
Lasch may have overstated his case, and most of us will point out plenty of examples of selflessness in the world. But as in most overstated cases, his is a warning message of what we could become.
Psychology speaks today of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The description of this malady is that of an empty person with no real sense of self, who develops a complicated array of behaviors designed to elicit the approval and admiration of others. At a distance, such people can be impressive and gain the respect of others. However, those who know them well come to realize that, in spite of the impressive exterior, life really is all about them.
Lasch was prophetic, I think, when he predicted a “third great awakening,” the growth of a new spirituality. Unlike the first two such awakenings, however, this one would be constructed around the Self. Worship would be designed to entertain. Churches would be organized around “meeting our needs.” We would prefer being entertained to having our prejudices challenged. Hasn’t it always been the case that we would rather have sermons comfort the afflicted than afflict the comfortable?
The more I observe life and think about this thing called faith, the more I am convinced that true faith leads us away from preoccupation with ourselves and toward our fellow human being. The more faith gets hold of a person, the more that person becomes convinced that life really isn’t all about them. That’s why humility remains one of the true marks of a believer.
Of course, humility is the one unconscious virtue. If you think you have it, you don’t.
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