According to the Mayo Clinic, personality or mental disorders are what used to be called “character disorders” when we were more truly a Judeo- Christian culture. (Now, of course, we are a “pseudo-scientific culture.”) In Orthodox spirituality we would call a character disorder a “character flaw”—something to be worked on, changed, modified, and, if possible, eliminated. But by no means hopeless and certainly not to be ignored or neglected.
But in general, a personality disorder is a type of illness in which one has trouble perceiving and relating to situations and to people — including oneself. Also, there are many specific types of personality disorders, of which narcissism is only just one—or was, until it was eliminated from the handbook of mental illnesses.
Someone with a personality disorder has a rigid and unhealthy pattern of thinking and behaving no matter what the situation. This leads to significant problems and limitations in relationships, social encounters, work and school. In many cases, one doesn’t realize there is a personality disorder because one’s way of thinking and behaving seems natural, and others are blamed for the problems being faced. How this can not be seen as a mental illness is a mystery to me, but in any case it remains for Christians a spiritual illness and a sin, regardless of what the mental health industry says.
But it confirms something very disturbing about us: that we a seriously disordered and narcissistic culture and society, that we blame anyone and everyone else for our current problems, that we are self-absorbed, self-centered, and often paranoid. We have only to look at our politicians and our celebrities—both in the entertainment media and in sports—to see what we, as a people, value most. These pathetic creatures are our models, our heroes! They are the ones our children look up to, admire, and want to imitate. God help us all.
Severe narcissism causes much suffering both to the victim of this illness and to those who love him or her. It is the narcissist’s refusal to accept responsibility for his behavior and actions that cause so much pain for others. And it is his projecting of his own repressed feelings of self-loathing onto others and lashing out at as a sort of dumping or discarding of those pent up emotions that erode the self-worth of those around the narcissist. Eventually, they begin to question their own sanity.
I had to laugh when I saw another article, appropriately headlined, that the elimination of narcissism as a mental disorder is a “A Fate That Narcissists Will Hate: Being Ignored”!
Psychologically, narcissism is a pattern of traits and behaviors which represent infatuation and obsession with one's self to the virtual exclusion of others and the egotistic and ruthless pursuit of one's gratification, dominance and ambition.
Narcissism begins in childhood, actually as a normal part of development, but it becomes a coping mechanism for those who never outgrow it--a coping mechanism protecting the narcissist from earlier childhood experiences of feeling rejected, unloved, uncared for, hurt and punished.
This disorcer is named after the ancient mythological figure, Narcissus. The Roman poet Ovid tells us that a young girl named Echo fell in love with a vain youth named Narcissus. Worried for her son’s welfare, his mother consulted a prophet regarding his future. The prophet said, Narcissus "will live to a ripe old age, as long as he never knows himself."
One day, when Narcissus was out hunting, Echo followed the handsome youth through the woods, longing to address him but unable to speak first. When Narcissus heard her footsteps he shouted "Who goes there?" Echo answered "...goes there? ...goes there?" And so it went, until finally Echo showed herself and rushed to embrace Narcissus. But he pulled away and left her heartbroken; she spent the rest of her life lonely and pining away. Only her voice remained.
However, Narcissus then became thirsty and went to drink from a stream. As he saw his reflection, he fell in love with it, not knowing that it was he himself. As he bent down to kiss it, it seemed to "run away" and he was heartbroken. He grew thirstier but he wouldn't touch the water for fear of damaging his reflection, so he eventually died of thirst, still staring at his own reflection. The narcissus flower is named after him because, according to the Greek myth, it grew from the spot where Narcissus died. But in the Roman version it is suggested that Narcissus was transformed into this particular flower.
As I already pointed out, from an Orthodox standpoint, narcissism is a character flaw and a serious spiritual problem. Severe narcissism used to be regarded, as already stated, as a devastating mental illness. But the fact is that most of us suffer, to one degree or another, from narcissism, even though it may not be severe. It is to “the rest of us” that I address the remainder of my comments this morning.
Keeping in mind that Orthodox Christianity is primarily a therapeutic spirituality—that is a spiritual system or practice whose purpose is to cure, heal, and restore to mental and spiritual health--n Orthodox therapeutics narcissism is called “vainglory.” Some say that this is a separate sin from Pride, but St. John of the Ladder says that these two are related, for, as he writes, “what pride remains in a man who has conquered vainglory?” (“The Ladder of Divine Ascent”) The great Western Father of the Church, St. Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome, also combines vainglory with pride. But St. John of the Ladder was one of the earliest Fathers to identify narcissism or vainglory as an actual character flaw or illness, and did so a millennia and half before Freud and Jung and the other pseudo-scientist of our time. St. John knew that vainglory is “the difference between a child and a man, between wheat and bread,” and he bluntly labeled it “the unholy vice of self-esteem, the beginning and completion of the passions.” (Ibid.)
Fortunately for us, St. John not only diagnoses this spiritual disease, but he also prescribes an antidote to this poison. First, he makes sure that we understand completely that “until the very day of [our] burial [vainglory or narcissism] rejoices in clothes, oils, servants, perfumes, and such like.” In other words, it is always there, just under the surface, waiting to emerge in the fullness of vainglory. In this case, St. John says that vainglory or narcissism is “a worm”, and he reminds us that “a worm, fully grown, often sprouts wings and can fly up high. Vainglory, fully grown, can give birth to pride, which is the beginning and the end of all evil.” (Ibid.)
With that clearly in mind, St. John then explains that the way to be free of this sickness is through meekness, simplicity and avoidance of hypocrisy.
The Lord said of Himself, "I am meek and lowly in heart." (Matthew 11:29-30) According to St. Paul, meekness is one of the gifts of the Spirit and it is the mother of humility. Meekness in our culture has come to mean “weakness”, even cowardliness—a kind of false humility, such as is so well portrayed by Dickens in the character of Uriah Heep in “David Copperfield.” But this is not the “meekness” of which Scripture speaks. Sometimes the Greek word for meekness is translated as “gentleness,” which is rather nice, but also implies a kind of weakness. But the truly meek person is not self-willed - not continually concerned with self, getting his own ways, ideas, and wishes, setting his own agenda. Meekness is the opposite of self-will, self-interest, and self-assertiveness. In Christian spirituality this is a sign, not of weakness, but of character strength. The meek person realizes his sinfulness and therefore he is willing to depend on God to meet His needs. It is the opposite of pride, haughtiness, and self-exaltation.
The second part of St. John’s antidote to the poison of narcissism is simplicity, which someone once defined as knowing when one more rock would be too many, and one less rock would be too few. But it’s not just knowing the right number of rocks; it’s also knowing which rocks are right, and how to arrange them. Thus the perfection of a Zen rock garden, a well decorated home, a lifestyle that is outwardly free of clutter, mess, disorder, and inwardly free of anxiety and complications. As they say in AA, “Keep it simple, stupid.”
And finally, the third and final ingredient in St. John’s antidote: avoidance of hypocrisy. Simply put in spiritual terms, hypocrisy means to present yourself as honest, upright and moral to the same degree that you are willing to put others down and for not having the same values, when in fact you are no where near what you pretend to be--you are in fact doing what you have reprimanded others for.
So this is the antidote to narcissism: meekness, simplicity, and avoidance of hypocrisy. As St. John says, “If you have the strength to take this step, do not lose heart. For now you are imitating Christ your Master, and you have been saved’” !
The fact that the mental health industry has eliminated narcissism as a disorder or mental illness in our country gives us, you and me, another reason to turn resolutely from the dominant culture around us (as if we didn’t have enough reasons already!) and begin the hard work of spiritual labor on ourselves. Remember: we are an incomplete work of art until we start to cooperate with the great artist, the Lord God Almighty, and begin to polish out the flaws and the vices in our hearts, minds, and souls.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.