‘We watch in reverence’

You know that thing?  That thing that happens when something- a word, a person, a concept- comes into your immediate frame of reference and then seems to be everywhere?

You do.  You know what I’m talking about.

Way back when (it’s only been a few months, but somehow it seems like eons ago) I wrote a little bit of a thing about our selfie culture and what larger meaning and impact that whole mindset is having on us, communally-speaking.  I also wrote something- even longer ago- about our current sorta mayor and his particularly heinous form of self-aggrandizing.  I don’t want to think/talk/write about him right now.

I also noted, much more recently, there are (at least) two great bloggers out there writing about narcissistic personality disorder, who have seen fit to acknowledge my own humble scribblings hereabouts.  As I said, I know little about clinical narcissism, myself.  From a psychological and/or diagnostic perspective, anyway.

But the subject keeps popping up…

Just today, for example, it appeared in my Facebook feed in a HuffPost article.

There’s a double-edged sword to all the potentiality for wonder and discovery in this world of ‘information sharing’ that we have happening.  There are SO many great sites- fiction, non-fiction, poetry, music, essays, opinions… there are myriad variations on endless themes out there.  But, as I’ve also mentioned, the lack of editorial control sometimes means that there is content out there that requires that we look at it quite critically  (certainly with a keener eye than is our general practice) to ensure that the material is coming from more than a troll-ish imagination that seeks attention and cares little for source checking or anything like documented support to ideas and statements.

There are also those sites that are devoted to pure vitriolic hatred- but they are easy enough to spot and avoid.  The pages of those with narcissistic leanings can be a little more insidious (like narcissism itself), since, needing attention, they have learned to disguise their manipulative ways by claiming to be talking about something else.

One such page was brought to my attention recently.  Generally I would have had a look and then dismissed it from my mind never to visit again.  But this page… In addition to the fact that it is poorly written (the grammatical and spelling errors are almost physically painful) the blatant pandering for attention is out of control.  Again, not normally my concern.  Except that such poorly-written blogs can be a little like a train wreck- and it can be hard to stop looking out of sheer amazement and morbid curiousity.  They often remind me of some of the more classic (using the word loosely) assignments I received while I was teaching, and so provide an element of nostalgia alongside the horror.

This one has stuck with me since it seems to be an exemplar of specific narcissistic tendencies- in particular the pathological drive to maintain contact and receive attention (if the ship of positive attention has sailed, then, evidently, negative attention will suffice) from those who have terminated relationships with the narcissist.

It’s such an inexplicable response that I can’t even wrap my head around it.

Ursula, at An Upturned Soul, wrote a post that helped me understand this propensity, at least a little bit.  She also noted that narcissism, as a theme/buzzword, appears to be the newest popular ‘trend’ in pop psychology.  For those who have experienced life with someone with narcissistic personally disorder this must be met with mixed emotions.  Everyone may be jumping on the bandwagon of late, but, as Ursula notes, overexposure and then boredom with the subject (side effects of our limited attention spans) will happen and something new will fill the void of topical psychological diagnoses.

I have had little personal experience (thankfully) with NPD.  But the other day a colleague asked me to define ‘narcissism’, so I inquired about the context of the question.  A mutual friend described the person she is involved with as a narcissist- and, not having even basic internet search skills, she didn’t know where to begin to look to discover what such a designation might entail.  I explained that there is a significant difference between narcissism as a character trait and narcissistic personality disorder as a pathology, though both terms come from the same source (it turned out that the person in question, while something of a ‘vain peacock’ does not, likely, have NPD).

You know I love words- and I’m all about the myths from which some of them originated…

Narcissus was the son of a river god and a nymph.  Something more than human, and, by all accounts, quite something to behold as far as physical beauty is concerned anyway.  He was also a jerk.  He delighted in the effect that he had on those foolish enough to think that a pretty face meant that he might have a heart/soul to match.

The version of the story that most know comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  The mountain nymph, Echo, sees and loves Narcissus, who spurns her advances and leaves her lonely and existing as little more than a remnant of her true self- a hollow reverberation that is the source of our word for the (partial) repetition of a sound or thought.

The goddess in charge of revenge- Nemesis- is unimpressed by this behaviour and causes Narcissus to fall deeply in love with his own reflection- his exterior love mirroring his interior love of himself.  Since this love would forever remain unrequited, Narcissus died alone and in agony that it could never be fully realized or properly addressed.  He pined and wasted away because his self-centredness was so encompassing- both before and after Nemesis played her little trick-  it never allowed for the presence of another person in his life.

Other versions of the story- both contemporary with and earlier than Ovid’s- end even more bleakly, with Narcissus actively killing himself when he realized that no one would ever live up to his self-idealization and replace himself as the centre of his own universe.

The takeaway from all versions of this story is that extreme selfishness/self-involvement/self-love- whether stemming from pathology or personality- is never going to end well.  As one of my blogging buds said a while back (I’m pretty sure it was Beth Byrnes- check out her post that I reblogged earlier today- awesome stuff, always), the historical pendulum- that has seen our societies move from a norm that was community-centric to one that highlights the importance of the individual- has swung too far.

We need a happy medium.  Yes, one must pay attention to the needs of oneself in order to effectively contribute to the addressing of the needs of the many.  Definitely.  No argument at all there.  A little selfish hedonism every once in a while is certainly acceptable and to be encouraged- provided it is done without completely ignoring our responsibilities to those with whom we share the planet.

Our systemic self-interest is directly connected to our lack of historical awareness and engagement with the lessons that have come before- those that are recorded in our collective myths and the events of significance that we can all access, should we be bothered to stop thinking only about ourselves and take the time to actually and actively LEARN something.

I know.  I’m lecturing.

It isn’t all about ‘ME’.  It CAN’T be all about the individual.  Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, our societal structure is in real danger of crumbling beneath this misperception- that the things we do need benefit us and us alone.  We are encouraged in this belief by our leaders- mainly through the lies rhetoric that speaks about people looking for ‘handouts’ or a ‘free ride’- at the expense of ‘the rest of us’.

Systemic selfishness is NOT an acceptable way of approaching the world.

Back in the Dark Ages (or the 1970’s), a band called Genesis (which then included Mr. Peter Gabriel) recorded and regularly performed an epic song that is both a work of musical genius and employs lyrical imagery that alludes to our shared histories and mythologies over the course of its 23 minutes.  It’s a commentary about- among other things- religion/spirituality, society and personal journeys.

Section IV- entitled ‘How Dare I be So Beautiful?’– references a solitary person, seemingly obsessed by his own image and evokes the story of our friend, Narcissus.  The heroes of the song witness his transmutation into a flower and are, themselves, pulled into their own reflections in the water.

The next section- ‘Willow Farm’– sees them emerge from the water and find themselves in a new reality- where everything moves and changes quickly and everyone seems mindlessly busy.  With each random blast of a whistle, everything changes into something else.  (Keep in mind that this was written in 1972.  Holy prescient view of the technological future in which we now find ourselves, Batman!)

After passing through the Apocalypse (there’s that apocalypticism creeping in- societal discord seems to make that happen), Magog is ultimately defeated by the forces of good.

It’s a powerful piece- made even more so by its employment of the imagery and archetypes that are drawn from our shared mythologies.  Its length (given the shortness of attention spans these days) and the fact that it alludes to all kinds of cool stuff, likely renders it unapproachable- to too many people- these days.  Like so much else of value.

Part of understanding the value of the Humanities is the necessary comprehension that we NEED to look outward- as well as inward- to really manifest our connection with this world of ours.  The fact that narcissism- with all its meanings- is such a topical term of late seems to be profoundly illustrative of the fact that this reality has been neglected- to our extreme and dangerous detriment.

And the fact that our putative leaders encourage and lead us by example into these behaviours?

Sing it, Pete.

So we’ll end with a whistle and end with a bang

And all of us fit in our places

With the guards of Magog swarming around

The Pied Piper takes his children underground

Dragons coming out of the sea

Shimmering silver head of wisdom looking at me

He brings down the fire from the skies

You can tell he’s doing well by the look in human eyes

Better not compromise, it won’t be easy

666 is no longer alone

He’s getting out the marrow in your back bone

And the seven trumpets blowing sweet rock and roll

Gonna blow right down inside your soul

Pythagoras with the looking glass reflects the full moon

In blood, he’s writing the lyrics of a brand new tune

‘You probably think this (song) is about you…’

So many great words come from Greek origins.

Hubris.  That’s a really good one.

We tend to associate it with pride and arrogance- with the suggestion that neither are remotely warranted.  In ancient Greece acting against the laws regulating hubris could get you brought up on serious charges.  Why?  Because such violations persecuted someone else.  They were more than the act of displaying (illegitimate) overestimations of one’s own competence, accomplishments or capabilities in manner that is completely disconnected from reality.  Hubristic acts messed with the freedoms and honour of others.

In a society in which the concepts of honour and shame were a presiding reality, a person’s honour was tied up in all things- identity, familial connections, business transactions.  Every aspect of life was connected with the maintenance of the honour that was afforded by one’s station in life (however highfalutin or lowly that status may have been).  Likewise, shame (usually associated with the women in the family) was tied into the fabric of societal interaction.  To interfere with this balance was to create societal discord- not something that the authorities were all that enthusiastic about.

Hubris, in ancient Greece, was a crime perpetuated by humans against other humans.  The gods were not accused of hubris, and did not punish those who were guilty of the extremity of arrogance and sense of entitlement.  They left it up to us humans to figure out the penalties for that particular crime ourselves.

Whether or not one believes in any sort of divine justice or theodicy (I don’t, for the record), hubris is a transgression that must be handled by us.  And it must be done immediately in order to prevent further damage.  Although we may not live in a society in which the dynamics of honour and shame are a ruling focus, it’s past time we took steps to restore some honour to the offices of our political leaders who have shamed us all in their unwillingness to accept responsibility for their actions.  Or inaction, as the case may be.  We should no longer have to be ashamed of the actions of another- even if that shame is hardly the point.  There are far more serious things at play here than being the continuing source for late night talk show jokers (as apt and clever as they may be).

I’ve read a number of editorials lately that talk about Toronto and its transformation from a town in which the ‘old, white elite’ looked to maintain the status quo while sitting in their urban enclosures (our affluent downtown neighbourhoods), as they always have done, into a truly amalgamated mega-city that offers all things to all people.  This has been the perception– both at home and on the international stage.  There is tension between the city and the suburbs, for sure.

This guy was duly elected as a reactionary response to some of these things.  Even though it was the WRONG thing to do, I get that there were those who thought his claims and promises were the right thing for the city.  I also get that there is (currently) no apparatus in our system of municipal government that permits the removal- against his will- of someone who was elected to the post.

Therefore, short of higher intervention (from the provincial government- not a deity), it is up to the person in question to truly accept responsibility for his actions and words and step down.

That isn’t looking like it will happen.

He says he’s going to continue doing the job he was elected to do.  He loves his job.  Good for him.  We should all be so lucky to have a job that we love.  I don’t- yet I get up every day and go in and do the best I can to fulfill my responsibilities so the bills get paid.

In his case, what’s not to love?  Rolling into work at noon, leaving meetings to coach a football team (although he doesn’t do that any more- at the request of said team), having a grand old time at public events, travelling to exotic locales (if Chicago and Austin may be deemed as such) as the city’s representative, being able to blow off major city events (Pride for e.g.) to head to the family cottage, having a staff that seems willing to put up with never ending demands that have little (if anything) to do with his actual role as Chief Magistrate, spouting off ad nauseam on a weekly radio show (although that has also stopped), throwing expensive barbeques that allow his ‘Nation’ to feed his narcissistic personality… and all this, while pulling down something like $170K/year.

Narcissist.  There’s another great word, again, inherited from the Greeks.  Its root, the Greek word ναρκη (narke) meaning ‘sleep’ or ‘numbness’, is also the root of the word narcotic (coincidence?  I think not).  Narcissus, the mythological character who is the poster child for this particular pathology, was self-fixated to such an extent that it led his own destruction.

Is any of this sounding familiar?  I’m certainly no psychologist, but that Oracle of All Information (the Wikipedia) defines narcissistic personality disorder as ‘a personality disorder in which one is excessively preoccupied with issues of personal adequacy, power, prestige and vanity.’

I’m sick of thinking about these things.  Yet I realize that fatigue of this nature is what allows people in power- especially those who are abusing that power- to remain where they are.  While one might feel as though there is no point in continuing to talk about things like vulgarity, consorting with criminals, criminal behavioursextreme lapses in judgement, bullying of employees, misuse of common funds (just pulling random examples from no particular source)… it is part of our responsibility as vigilant citizens of this world to do so.

He seems completely and pathologically unaware that the right thing to do is to step down and get the help he needs.  Or not.  Whatever personal stuff he is dealing with is absolutely within his province to either address or let fester.  But he does NOT get to force the rest of us to continue in this spiralling fall with him.  By all accounts and actions thus far demonstrated, he is incapable of understanding that this is not about HIM.  It is about what is best for this city he claims to love.  It is about the needs of all of us who call Toronto home.  Regardless of what he wants.

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes well you might find
You get what you need

And I went down to the demonstration
To get my fair share of abuse
Singing, “We’re gonna vent our frustration
If we don’t we’re gonna blow a 50-amp fuse”

Sing it, Mick.