Narcissism is a common word in our cultural vocabulary, yet its origin is fascinating. Born of a river (Cephissus) and a nymph (Liriope), Narcissus was so infatuated with himself that he ignored the numerous mortals and immortals vying for his attention. Echo pined so badly that she withered away; soon all that was heard was the echo of her voice. Seeing this, Nemesis, the goddess of retribution, condemned Narcissus to stare endlessly at his own reflection in the pool — a fate he honored until dying, remembered by the flower that bears his name.
We often forget that staring into a pool was his punishment, not his choice, though loving his reflection appeared rather enjoyable. In a recent column, Arthur C. Brooks claimed that today, Narcissus would not fall in love with his reflection, but that "Narcissus would fall in love with his own Instagram feed, and starve himself to death while compulsively counting his followers."
Brooks states that since the '70s, our cultural tolerance for narcissism has dramatically increased. Research on related topics verifies this: Voters are attracted to those who talk the loudest and deepest. Such subtle cues, as well as the exploitation of negativity bias, sway our civic discourse. Of course, this does not always point to narcissism, but in our political climate, especially on the GOP side — the BBC story above notes that the most fearful tend to vote right wing — we’re witnessing the evidence on a daily basis: at debates, on the trail, and, this weekend, in the response to Antonin Scalia’s death.
As is the case with social media, Scalia’s sudden passing was immediately met with shock and, more efficiently, political posturing. Within minutes, itchy trigger fingers prevailed. Conservatives could not help declaring that Barack Obama will never appoint a new Supreme Court justice. The time for mourning, absent. The reflexive action was to demand and scream — a modern fixture in our political discourse.
Obama has been both successful because of social media and a victim of its uncaring banter. But this case is truly bipartisan. I learned of Scalia’s death thanks to victory cheers on my admittedly liberal-leaning Facebook feed. I understand the impetus: Scalia was reviled for his pro-religious stance against reproductive rights and marriage equality. I was personally aggrieved when he recently announced that the Constitution favored the religious over the atheist while speaking at a high school. In a country purported to represent an even religious and ideological playing field, Scalia always seemed poised to tip the scales, literally and figuratively, in his personal direction.
A case of narcissism: thinking the world should bend to your personal predilections. We often associate Narcissus with his good looks, but the thoughts behind that lovely face are equally relevant. All of which made me wonder, as I scrolled through my feed last night, is fighting narcissism with more of the same really an antidote?
Liberals run into problems here. I admit my own guilt. When you fight for socially progressive causes — women’s rights, gay marriage, religious tolerance — you want to believe you’re on the right side of history. But standing over the carnage picking away at the remains simply to feel justified is exactly what early Greek writers had in mind when dreaming up a mythological character to describe our penchant for egotism.
That point was driven home by this article, published last year, on the lasting and intimate friendship of Scalia and fellow justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Scalia’s professional bipolar opposite. Each had the ability to ruin the other’s life work on the basis of a dissent. And yet, they were able to look beyond ideology when enjoying the opera or taking vacations together:
"Seated next to Ginsburg on the stage, Scalia teased her about the minor uproar that occurred after they were photographed together on an elephant during a trip to India in 1994. 'Her feminist friends' were upset, Scalia said, that 'she rode behind me.'
Ginsburg didn’t let him have the last word, noting that the elephant driver had said their placement was 'a matter of distribution of weight.' The audience, including Scalia, roared with laughter."
A world, virtual or real, where everyone agrees with you is a dangerous thing. Too often I watch people proudly state that if you don’t agree with 'x' or 'y', they will unfriend or disassociate with you. Each time I remember Narcissus, so consumed by his own point of view that everyone around him withered in dismay. Debate not only allows you to help change someone else’s mind; it helps you change your own.
Joseph Campbell concluded his epic survey of the world’s mythologies, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, comparing Narcissus staring into the pool with the Buddha seated under the Bo Tree chasing nibbana. Both are requisite stages of the contemplative life. They are not final stages, however, merely markers along the path:
"The aim is not to see, but to realize that one is, that essence; then one is free to wander as that essence in the world. Furthermore: the world too is of that essence. The essence of oneself and the essence of the world: These two are one. Hence separateness, withdrawal, is no longer necessary."
As Eli Pariser writes in The Filter Bubble, the emergence of the personalized Internet is dangerous. Not only do you shape the media you witness; that media shapes you. A world without debate, just this endless screaming into an echo chamber, is a world in which nobody grows up.
Image: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images