Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Are You a Good Narcissist or a Bad Narcissist?

The question that titles this post reminds me of a question put to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz: Are you a good witch or a bad witch? Many years ago I played with the metaphor in a sermon for More Light Presbyterians during the Wichita General Assembly, in the wake of the controversy over the Re-Imagining conference where Christian women “dared” to re-imagine God. My sermon title was, “Which Witch is Which in Wichita?”

Narcissism is much discussed these days, from national leaders to everyday postings on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Long before that, I have wondered about my own narcissism in writing a blog. At its inception I intended that it not be about me, but about enhancing the spirituality of progressive Christians—a kind of grounding for who we are, what we believe, and what we do. But I soon found I couldn’t leave myself out of the equation. I need to write about who I am, what I believe, and what I at least try to do.

For years I carried in my wallet the best counsel I’ve received in a fortune cookie: “Your romantic life is interesting only to you.” The thought makes me smile, and keeps me in check when I begin to assume too much about my own experience, not just romantic.

I believe it was the author John Updike* who said writers believe our lives are interesting. That is certainly true for me, but I would qualify Updike’s assertion by saying writers just plain believe that LIFE is interesting. We try, with mere words, to capture or reflect or reveal the wonder, passion, beauty, complexity, humor, and drama of it all. But, to invert Gertrude Stein’s famous phrase, if there is to be a “there there,” we have to put ourselves in the midst and mix of words. I believe this is true even in, and perhaps especially in, writing fiction.

This is not unlike any artist or preacher or performer who needs to be center stage to accomplish their art, proclaim the gospel, or entertain. When any of these persons do not seem to be “present,” they are accused of “phoning in” their performance. So a touch of narcissism—awareness of how we are perceived, how we wish to be perceived, or how we perceive ourselves—is needed to put ourselves “out there” and put ourselves “on the line.”

The current conversation about narcissism wisely distinguishes “good” narcissism from “bad” narcissism. Bad narcissists are those who are so full of themselves and so focused on their own needs, desires, and plans that others are either ignored, derided, destroyed, or exploited. In contrast, good narcissists humbly offer themselves and their stories in hopes of improving others’ lives. (An excellent example of this is Henri Nouwen’s many books on his life events and experiences.)

I believe it was in the hope of improving others’ lives that Jesus reportedly said, “I, when lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). The gospel writer John, the mystic, and patron saint of Celtic Christianity, gives us a Jesus who knows his place in the cosmic drama of “one-ing” us with God. 

Whether or not we believe John’s word of Jesus’ certainty, almost all of the stories we have of Jesus in the Gospels suggest he had a strong sense of what God was asking of him, of us. As we who follow Jesus have our own sense of call deepened, bad narcissism will be recognized as “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1) and good narcissism will be revealed in faith, hope, and especially, love.

*The closest Updike quote to this I could find is from an interview in a Zagreb literary magazine in 1979, later translated in English in The New Yorker in 2009: “Every man’s life is infinitely precious, at least to him, and somehow infinitely interesting. … Maybe the wish to write is somehow connected with…I wish to say that life is sacred.”

On each day of Holy Week this year (March 26-April 1), you might want to reflect upon these earlier posts on Jesus’ Seven Last Words from the cross:

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