Losing our way – narcissism

A room full of mirrors

The writer Emmanuel Carrère (see previous post) readily acknowledges that there is a fair amount of narcissism in his books. Here he is not talking about what has been called narcissistic personality disorder where there is a serious inability to empathise, or see the view of the other person, but rather what we might call a more everyday narcissism, a form of self-absorption where our self and our ideas are put to the fore in a defensive way. This then excludes anything that might disturb the self, and so we are closed off from the world of human relationships and indeed from relationship with the divine. So, there is a tendency for this narcissism to deaden spiritual growth, and leave us stuck in a room full of mirrors.

Clearly, we all have some of this narcissistic tendency to different extents, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that we hold ourselves in high regard. Often there is awareness of some deficiency and something lacking within oneself; a brittleness and lack of resilience at the core. This narcissism inhibits us living life in a way that is openhearted, vital, and properly receptive to all that surrounds us.

In ‘The Seven Storey Mountain’ the early autobiography by Thomas Merton, he indirectly writes a bit about this, and also about the breakthrough in his narcissistic tendencies that took place just before his conversion to Catholicism. A student at Columbia University, Merton signed up for a course in French Medieval Literature and bought a book called ‘The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy’, Horrified that it turned out to be a Catholic book from the imprimatur at the front, Merton is tempted to throw the book out the train window on his way home, but in fact reads it and is deeply affected by some of it. Why?

In it he reads about a ‘big concept’ that ‘was to revolutionise my whole life.’ This is ‘aseitas’ which he explains as the:

‘… power of a being to exist absolutely in virtue of itself, not as caused by itself, but as requiring no cause, no other justification for its existence except that its very nature is to exist. There can be only one such Being: that is God.’

In other words, God, as an infinite Being who transcends all our conceptions, exists whether you or I, or indeed Merton, believe in Him or not. God is ‘more than ourselves’ and beyond the narcissism that tries to keep control of our thoughts, feelings, and events. Merton writes about how some people, perhaps especially intellectuals, are repelled and offended by statements about God which they are not able to understand or own, and which are experienced as an attack on the narcissistic constructed self, and, that has to be defended against. Merton writes:

‘They refuse these concepts of God, not because they despise God, but perhaps because they demand a notion of Him more perfect than they generally find: and because ordinary, figurative concepts of God could not satisfy them, they turn away and think that there are no other; or worse still, they refuse to listen to philosophy, on the ground that it is nothing but a web of meaningless words spun together for the justification of the same old hopeless falsehoods.

What a relief it was for me, now, to discover not only that no idea of ours, let alone any image, could adequately represent God, but also that we should not allow ourselves to be satisfied with any such knowledge of Him.’

Jimi Hendrix puts such an opening up away from narcissism like this:

‘I used to live in a room full of mirrors, where all I could see was me. I take my spirit and crash those mirrors and now the whole world is there for me to see’