Episode 1. What Ails Us
These days, particularly in the affluent west, we’ve become so self-sufficient that narcissism has become the norm, de rigueur, if you will. Over the last half a century, which is most of my lifetime, we’ve seen people en masse switching from looking after each other to looking after themselves. And that, that’s has some devastating […]
These days, particularly in the affluent west, we’ve become so self-sufficient that narcissism has become the norm, de rigueur, if you will. Over the last half a century, which is most of my lifetime, we’ve seen people en masse switching from looking after each other to looking after themselves. And that, that’s has some devastating effects on our sense of self and our sense of well-being.
Narcissism is a term most of us have heard of but a good many people don’t really know what it is other than it sounds a bit nasty. Well, as things turn out, it is a bit nasty, more than just a bit actually. A narcissist is someone who has an excessive interest in or admiration of themselves and particularly their own physical appearance. Psychologists will tell you that it’s characterised by extreme selfishness. The narcissist has a grandiose view of their own talents and a craving for admiration.
The word ‘narcissist’ actually comes from the mythical Greek figure Narcissus, a handsome youth who rejected the nymph Echo and fell in love with his own reflection in a pool. He pinned away and was changed into a flower (that these days bear his name).
A narcissist is someone who is obsessed with his or her own image and so is constantly trying to become more beautiful, have more people like them, acquire more things, become more lavish in how they spend their money on themselves and their surroundings.
Now, narcissism is nothing new, it’s been around for a long, long time. But by necessity, as you look back over history, it’s been confined to the wealthy class and there’s a good reason for that. When you think about it, if you’re living in a poor agrarian village where most people live hand to mouth as subsistence farmers, you can’t afford to be a narcissist. People rely on each other within families, within communities, simply to survive. And when you rely on each other you know that in order to survive you need to pitch in and help other people when they need help. Because if you don’t, they won’t pitch in and help you when you need help in order to survive.
But the moment you become wealthy it’s easy to start believing that you don’t really need those other people anymore because if you run into a problem your money will get you out of trouble. Now all of a sudden it’s much easier, even becomes more natural to be self-obsessed or narcissistic. And since in our world, many many more people are wealthy, not everywhere but in many parts of the world, there are by default many more narcissists in this world.
I was watching a documentary about animal behaviour the other day and the researcher being interviewed made the point that all animals are pleasure seeking. Pleasure involves, basically, food and sex, that’s the animal drive. We were designed to eat lots of food when there was plenty in order to put on fat to carry us through the winters when there were meagre pickings.
We were designed with a sex drive which is pleasurable in order to ensure that as a species we would procreate, multiply, as God put it talking to Adam and Eve as it’s recorded in the Book of Genesis.
So God created human kind in His image, in the image of God He created them, male and female He created them. God blessed them and God said to them ‘be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. (Genesis 1: 27 and 28)
And that’s all well and good but the natural tendency of humanity is to seek pleasure and to become obsessed with our own image rather than the image of our Creator. To forget Him, to get busy with making ourselves comfortable and popular and happy and wealthy and of good reputation – well liked. And so our natural tendency, therefore, is to sin. Sorry, if that word offends anybody but it’s the right word to use here. Our natural tendency is to sin, in the extreme that turns us into narcissists.
But here’s a paradoxical tragic dilemma – the narcissist can never be happy ever because satisfying yourself will never actually satisfy you. Why? Well, I think it’s probably because God designed us that way.
I know many narcissists because I happen to be blessed with being born in a very wealthy country by global standards. And I can tell you that none of them are satisfied, none of them. And if they were honest with you they’d tell you exactly that. They’d tell you they were never truly fulfilled or satisfied, that they feel as though they’re missing out on something even if they can’t quite put their finger on what that might be.
Can I ask you very kindly but very directly, have you fallen into the trap of narcissism? Of putting yourself at the centre of the universe because if you have you probably relate to what I’ve been talking about, you probably feel trapped like you’re on a merry-go-round going round and round and up and down but always ending up back in the same place wondering, ‘Why do I feel trapped?’
Well, the answer is quite simply this, it’s because when you put yourself at the centre of your world, it’s as though you’re tethered to a stake on the ground. You can never get away from yourself and so all you can do is go round and round and up and down.
So how do you finally break free? How do you finally get free of yourself? The answer is Jesus. The answer is the call of Jesus to live not for yourself but for Him and in living for Him to live for other people.
Now that’s a radical change of direction because the whole point of following Jesus is that it’s nothing about yourself at all. Have a listen to what Jesus said. This comes from Matthew 16: 24 and 25:
Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any of you would come after me let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me for whoever would save their life will lose it but whoever loses their life for my sake will find it’.
Do you see what a radical change in direction Jesus is talking about here? The picture of us taking up our cross and following Him is the picture of Him dragging that brutal cross of His up to Calvary and dying for us. It’s the picture of self-sacrifice. It’s the picture of self-denial. It’s the complete opposite of being trapped on the merry-go-round of narcissism. And self and paradoxically, it’s the only place that you and I will ever, ever find the satisfaction that we’re looking for.
I was, to be perfectly honest with you, a narcissist for much of my life. I wasn’t so concerned with how I looked although I used to buy outrageously expensive clothes so I guess perhaps I was. But I was really concerned with what other people thought of me – my reputation, my career, my position in the Information Technology sector and becoming respected and becoming known. If you were to ask people about Berni Dymet back then, they would probably have said, ‘Well, we don’t like him all that much but he really is quite successful and confident. And I guess he’s pretty happy with where his life is heading I should think’.
Well, that was the outside view. But the inside view was far from that. I was so touchy. I hated other people succeeding. I hated it if I didn’t have the limelight. I never had enough. No matter how big the house was that I bought or how expensively it was furnished or how flashy my car was or how many conferences around the world I was invited to speak at as the keynote speaker, I never had enough.
I was like a cat on a hot tin roof, I was never content, I was never truly happy and satisfied and fulfilled. That didn’t happen until I met Jesus at age thirty-six and started taking up my cross and following Him. And out of that, came the biggest shock of my life. In that place I started to discover that the contentment and the fulfilment that I had been looking for (for all of my life) only happened in serving Him and in serving others.
I finally found what I was looking for and that was a complete and utter shock, I have to tell you.