‘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

‘So I went from day to day…’

Sisyphean.

It’s an awesome word.

Comes from a Greek mythological tradition about a hubristic king who set himself against the gods.  Thought he was better than them.  Trickier than them.

In various stories he got the best of Zeus, Thanatos, Hades and Persephone. The big guy on Olympus, DEATH himself and the king and queen of the Underworld.  He cheated death, escaped from Tartarus AND suspended death for ALL humans while Thanatos (or Hades) was chained in his place.

Not too shabby for a human.

As punishment for his puckish self-interest, Sisyphus had to eternally roll a huge boulder up a steep slope, never reaching the top- since the boulder would always roll down just as he was reaching the pinnacle.

An ETERNITY of frustration.  For challenging the gods.

Working against their will and their declared order of things.

Just like Prometheus. And Azazel.

But since Sisyphus was fully human, his punishment was meant to be even more cautionary- warning against striving too hard for the things that are beyond us.  And suggesting that making the gods look silly was not likely to end well.

The myth of Sisyphus has been interpreted as being about (among other things) the futility of the struggle for knowledge, the absurdity of human life, the emptiness of the quest for power and anything that a person might love and hold onto too much.

Pythia, the infallible Delphic Oracle, notes that “in experiments that test how workers respond when the meaning of their task is diminished, the test condition is referred to as the Sisyphusian condition. The two main conclusions of the experiment are that people work harder when their work seems more meaningful, and that people underestimate the relationship between meaning and motivation.”

(okay, that really came from Wikipedia.  I never met Pythia)

The first time I listened to Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill, I was dealing with the death of a friend of mine- far too young to have been taken suddenly and randomly.

Then, the lyrics seemed to be about gracious Death (Thanatos), coming to gently claim someone and take him home where he belongs.

I soon learned, of course, that the song was about Peter’s decision to leave Genesis and strike out on his own.  He had wrestled with the repetitive ruts, the fading into the background, and purposelessness of his situation, realizing that the known, the stagnant, wasn’t actually the freedom it seemed to be.

He let the boulder roll away and was able to reach the flat top of the hill and the reassurance that his change in direction was the right one- the one that would bring meaning back into his life and work.

‘Climbing up on Solsbury Hill
I could see the city light
Wind was blowing, time stood still
Eagle flew out of the night
He was something to observe
Came in close, I heard a voice
Standing stretching every nerve
Had to listen had no choice
I did not believe the information
I just had to trust imagination
My heart going boom boom boom
“Son,” he said “Grab your things,
I’ve come to take you home.”

To keep in silence I resigned
My friends would think I was a nut
Turning water into wine
Open doors would soon be shut
So I went from day to day
Tho’ my life was in a rut
‘Till I thought of what I’d say
Which connection I should cut
I was feeling part of the scenery
I walked right out of the machinery
My heart going boom boom boom
“Hey” he said “Grab your things
I’ve come to take you home.”
(Back home.)

When illusion spin her net
I’m never where I want to be
And liberty she pirouette
When I think that I am free
Watched by empty silhouettes
Who close their eyes but still can see
No one taught them etiquette
I will show another me
Today I don’t need a replacement
I’ll tell them what the smile on my face meant
My heart going boom boom boom
“Hey” I said “You can keep my things,
They’ve come to take me home.”‘

Wisdom imparted through example and a beautiful song.

Now if I can just figure out exactly how to stop being so damn Sisyphean…