As all of us know there are many deaths that befall us in our lifetime — the most permanent, as far as we can tell, being our physical death. So wounding is the loss of someone we love, so painful as we rest him or her back into mother earth, that it overshadows other seemingly less absolute deaths that cross our paths. To have one’s reputation subject to slur and innuendo is a loss, to forgo the presence of former friends, – usually because of small but hurtful misunder-standings is even characterized as a death of a friendship. Obviously to experience a major financial loss can be experienced as a death. But there is a more ominous killer among us, a killer that can alienate us not only from our friends but also from the struggle to make our way in our very complex world. A killer who can distract us from the struggle to find what makes us real, in life, rather than just reactive, what opens our minds to mystery rather than to formulas. Like a mutating virus, this killer has many forms: one of which psychoanalysis speaks about as the defense of specialness – which is characterized by the shorthand term narcissism.
Narcissism is the excessive need to be noticed, the unfortunate conquest of specialness over personal uniqueness. The unexamined conviction, for example, that only by holding fast and absolutely to one’s own interpretation of what is going on in the world does one thereby achieve some kind of lasting personal significance. There is something truly profound in the human quest for truth, yet simultaneously tragic when we are convinced we have it. The goal of a liberal education, throughout history, has always been to bring such a paradox to full consciousness. When one does not appreciate the complexity of human experience, one can easily experience suspicion if someone, for example, questions one’s worldview. In the arena of religion such suspicion frequently leads to the judgment of heresy; in politics, such suspicion frequently leads to name calling – “liberal” or “right wing”. We, in the West, classify different cultures as primitive simply because they don’t meet our technological standards. Even in academia, narcissistic righteousness dismisses alternate opinions. Interpersonally, we are all too easily injured or angry if someone does not support our worldview. So pervasive, and frequently so unnoticed is narcissism, much more so than the dramatics of sexuality, that it can shadow a whole life – a whole cultural outlook, frequently masking under the banner of truth. A truth that I (or we) possess!
To have found such truth is to steal a little of immortality for ourselves; to seemingly lift ourselves out of the day to day historical flow of experience into a realm where the task of finding, and refinding, of weighing and counterbalancing our thoughts and opinions, has been solved for us. We have, in effect, achieved an immortality of certainty. I am speaking here to the psychological underpinnings of narcissism, not to the philosophical issue of truth and its attainability. No one, no group is immune from this stalking, frequently unconscious killer called narcissism. Life can be experienced as an inviting mystery, who we are is worth constantly exploring rather than just asserting. Education has to lead us out of our house of mirrors.
Can we protect ourselves from such a psychological virus? I don’t really know. Certainly to be, as well as to feel, loved, offers some protection; to commit oneself to the life-long task of learning and questioning is also a great help. To be aware that absolutes, in any guise, are misleading is perhaps the equivalent of washing our hands, frequently, to avoid colds. If we are complacent in our convictions, we should be concerned that the virus has struck; to know without question that we are right and that others are unequivocally misguided, or evil, is to have the beginnings of a serious illness. Nationalistic or ethnic pride, as the twentieth century painfully exemplified, easily obliterates the conviction of our universal human connection. To experience religious insights as a confirmation, rather than an invitation to truth, is, in short, to act as if our personal path is the highway for everyone else. It is to succumb to a narcissistic infection that will close our minds and steal our hearts to the profound mystery we call life, — to the deep, even if troublesome joy, of celebrating human diversity.