Return to Self:
Narcissus and Beyond
Rea L. Ginsberg, LCSW-C, ACSW, BCD
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But if I am all for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?
~~Hillel the Elder,
1st century CE
My clients talked. We recorded their streams of thought. They agreed that some of those thoughts could be presented here because the ideas are interesting, important, informative and instructive.
“That hurts. Here we go again, living another loss.
“For some reason, I seem to attract people who are created in the image of Narcissus. They so love themselves, falling in love with their own reflection. The self-love excludes others. They quietly disdain those who love them. That is my fate, to be the best friend of people who cannot see me.
“I am used, used up, and unapologetically deserted. Discarded. This time, it is not death. It’s about crude, heartless, thoughtless abandonment.
“Where do I fit in? Who listens to me when I need to tell my stories? Who waits in readiness for the next outpouring, always? Who stays the course with me? Who keeps the promise of being there? Dependability. Reliability. Loyalty. Faithfulness. Devotion. Fidelity. Constancy.
“Is this too much to ask? Perhaps this kind of loyalty is anachronistic to modern Western life, especially to American life. How disconcerting. How sad, if so. How unnatural. How anarchic.
“I am happy enough when I give time and full attention to others. I was made to give, to love in this way. I see the joy it brings to others. And it should. How affirming to have someone listen deeply to life stories and the emotions that accompany the tales. Listening transforms lives. I want to be the instigator, the motivator, the incentivizer.”
If I am all for myself, what am I?
“Selfishly, I want to be responsible for making lives better. It feels good, makes me think I did something worthwhile, truly meaningful. So I listen and help people to listen to themselves. It is fulfilling for the talker and reverberates pleasantly inside my Self. It feels like deep, prolonged resonance. It is the ‘happy dance’ result of improving someone else’s life.
“And then, when I am alone, I sometimes want to talk to someone who will listen in the way that I try to listen: intensely, empathically, compassionately. I want the comfort of talking to someone who walks beside me, into the realm of self-awareness and discovery. Into the kingdom of transformation and beyond that to new and vibrant life. I want to sense the security and warmth of that walk and talk. I want to talk to someone who will remember what I say because they care to know who I am – and dare to witness who I will become. Who will love me?”
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
“The sensibility goes round and round. ‘I want’ is followed by the overpowering need to give to others, and then again tailgated by ‘I want.’ How frustrating and confusing – annoying and discouraging.
“Maybe these are echoes of a distant past, a childhood lost to socially acceptable, ‘correct’ adulthood. I bear my own load of narcissism, a self-love thin enough to wound and bleed easily. Not thin-skinned but too greatly exposed. Maybe I am looking for the idealized Mother, the omnipotent, omniscient Other who saves lives just by her presence and attendance. One who holds infinite power and knowledge. One who becomes the reflecting pool for the child’s presumed beauty. One who lives till the end of time. And when she does not appear, it hurts. As the infant wails, so does my inner child. The id is forever our frenemy.”
If not now, when?
Our lives will always be a work in progress. Grief is a lifetime process.
The story does not stop here. The ending is happier, and it is really not an ending. The original youthful instinct is self-centered, selfish. It is all about “me,” from start to finish. Yes. True. However, then comes the gradual transformation. Mental wellness professionals call it “sublimation.” Briefly, it is an unconscious defense mechanism in which unacceptable instinctual drives and wishes are modified into more personally and socially acceptable channels. It is considered to be a healthy feature of a mature personality. This psychological system ultimately enables us to live together in peace and civility.
Later, after childhood, the extreme infantile self-absorption can become mostly about the other, saving a life and helping it grow by giving, by listening, by compassion and empathic presence. In this instance, it is unselfish, the reverse or opposite of selfishness. My clients demonstrated this form of modification, this type of transforming. It occurs in part because of strong and steady social/environmental pressures. In the grownup world, ethical responsibility must flow from all human relationships. We agree to cooperate, to collaborate, and even to compromise. Community belongs to every member. It is our organizing principle.
Community means willingness to sacrifice, to forego some selfish pleasures for the sake of peaceful and useful coexistence. All of us are responsible for one another. This is a matter of collective self-interest for the common good. We are independent and also interdependent. We need others. We need to take care of others in addition to ourselves. We need to talk.
It is our fine fortune that a life of giving is a life of meaning as well, a life of feeling uplifted, strengthened, rooted. In giving, so we also receive and extend thanks that we were allowed to give. We gain more than we give. It is the essence of resilience. In this case, altruism appears largely to displace narcissism. Giving begets giving – and forgiving.
We also tend to trust those who encourage and support us and who consistently do what they say – not sometimes but approximately always. We become other-directed, influenced by, and influencing, the attitudes of others. Some say connection is why we are here. Better said, connection is how we are here and why we survive. Beyond the fractures of narcissism lies a moral victory.
No act of kindness is ever wasted. It speaks; kindness in giving and taking creates love. Where there is love, there lies Hope.
Without community, how then shall we live?
Grieving a loss and treating the pain,
Personal growth is the eventual gain;
Meet it, heed it, and know,
Whatever may come, you are not alone.
∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
End Note: the clients’ remarks presented in this paper are a compilation of discussions with three clients over several months. These communications are not current. The thoughts are chosen specifically to illustrate some common themes in grieving a loss, including non-death loss. They also protect confidentiality for the clients because they are undated, reorganized, and much conversation was necessarily omitted.
End Quote: “The paradox of altruism is that the hope we give others returns to us undiminished and enlarged.” [Rabbi Lord Jonathan H. Sacks, PhD]
Image credit: “Narcissus” (abstract art) by Amanda Hone: www.ebsqart.com
Tags: #narcissism #sublimation #altruism #resilience #kindness #Death&Dying #Non-DeathLoss