“OUR SOCIETY IS NARCISSISTIC, THEN, IN A DOUBLE SENSE. People with narcissistic personalities … play a conspicuous part in contemporary life … these celebrities set the tone for public life and of private life as well … The beautiful people … live out the fantasy of narcissistic success …. Modern capitalist society not only elevates narcissists to prominence, it elicits and reinforces narcissistic traits in everyone.”
So historian and cultural analyst Christopher Lasch concluded thirty-six years ago in his influential book, The Culture of Narcissism. The intervening years have only more deeply ingrained the trends Lasch identified and analyzed, as I have tried to show in my earlier posts on narcissism in politics, sex, and religion.
I CAN ALSO KNOW IT IN MY OWN NARCISSISTIC TENDENCIES. The psychological study that tracked the rise of narcissism over nearly three decades used a Narcissistic Personality Inventory, which you can take online here, and that is still being used to track the upward trend of narcissism. The scale runs from 0 to 40. I scored a 9, the median score on the skewed curve of compiled scores, near the top of the curve, which puts me right in the middle of the pack, narcissistically speaking. But I’m really worse than that. A skewed curve indicates test bias—a completely accurate assessment would be indicated by the symmetry of the standard Bell Curve, with a median and mean of 20. We are all more narcissistic than we claim or believe ourselves to be. And as I took the test, it was not that hard to identify answers that would be interpreted as indicating narcissistic tendencies—or a lack of them. While I like to tell myself I can objectively assess myself, there seems to be enough anecdotal reporting in my past that I’m no better at it than anyone else. Perhaps I selected answers more in my favor. I’m pretty proud of myself for being able to admit this . . . and then annoyed at myself for being proud and feeling self-sufficient. And being so capable of self-examination gives me a sense of superiority. But then . . .
THE APOSTLE PAUL EXPRESSED HOW HE HIMSELF WAS WRAPPED UP in this kind of twisting and turning in self-blame and self-justification: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate I do. . . . I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:15, 18-19). Paul doesn’t call out narcissism by name as the cause of his dilemma—though I think he could have; he identifies sin as the ultimate source of his frustration, and all of us are wrapped within sin and the death of self-absorption. “Who will rescue from this body of death?,” he exclaims, and then tells us the answer that found him: “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25).
MARTIN LUTHER DESCRIBED SIN AS INCURVATUS IN SE—the self turned inward on itself, and for itself alone: “sin, so deeply curved in on itself … so wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake” (Lectures on Romans). Narcissism, by any other name. The serpent told Adam and Eve they could be their own gods, making the rules by and for themselves, “like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). We are all self-absorbed “gods” of our own universes; spiritual black holes trying to draw all things to ourselves, and from which nothing escapes, especially not light.
IN HIS VISION OF HEAVEN, THE PROPHET ISAIAH EXPRESSED HIS COMPLICITY AND ENTRAPMENT in the overwhelming density and inescapability of self-absorption, narcissism, and sin: “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5). He saw God, and then he saw himself for what he truly was. Then there was hope.