Narcissus Revisited

Narcissus Revisited
Rev. Douglas Taylor
February 26, 2017

I have spent the past several years, the past several months in particular, speaking from this pulpit about the importance of compassion for the ‘other,’ kindness for ‘the least of these,’ forgiveness, and the importance of ‘loving your neighbor.’ All my words about being an ally and resisting injustice are rooted in the most basic and universal of ethical guidelines: the Golden Rule; the call to love your neighbor as yourself. And I am not going to step back from that, but today I am going to step deeper into where that all starts.

Self-care is essential not only for healthy living and spiritual wellbeing; it is also critical for sustained social action and justice-making in the world. The phrase from scripture says to love your neighbor as yourself. Thus, I must begin with loving myself.

It is your own center that you caress,
[Our choir sings this morning.]
Your own reflection gives you light.
And in this way, you show us how Narcissus is redeemed.
(Dirait-on from “Les Chansons des Roses” by Morten Lauridsen)

Our choir offers us this song as part of our consideration of the topic. “Your own reflection gives you light … Narcissus is redeemed.” I think bringing up Narcissus strikes at the very heart of the problem presented by the concept of self-love.

The story of Narcissus has been reduced to a warning in our culture today. There are various versions of the Greek myth but in essence, the man Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection in the water. In one version Narcissus spurns the affections of a would-be lover and as that lover dies he asks the gods to curse the vain Narcissus. The curse the gods choose is that Narcissus must fall in love with the next person he lays eyes on, and then the gods trick him to look at his own reflection in the water. Narcissus is vain and loves only himself. The story is a warning from antiquity against the vices of self-love and vanity.

Occasionally an ancient story like this can still shed light on contemporary experience. I spent a bit of time looking for updated or modernized versions of this story, something that might capture the struggles of today’s society but echoing themes from this old Greek story. All I could find was the psychological profile of a narcissistic personality disorder.

Self-love in our contemporary times is characterized as a disorder. I soon feared my sermon might be reduced to a complaint against narcissism in our nation. Yet since I am here anyway, let me say: I think it is a mistake to try to be armchair psychiatrists labeling celebrities and politicians with mental illnesses. What we really want to do is name moral failings as moral failings.

And while such political commentary will not be our focus this morning, it is related in this: the old story of Narcissus has, unfortunately been reduced to a single interpretation. It is a warning story: be not vain like Narcissus, don’t fall in love with yourself. As such, there is little nuance nowadays between feelings of self-worth and selfishness. Yet the choir sings this piece about how “Your own reflection gives you light. And … Narcissus is redeemed.”

Narcissus redeemed? What would that look like? It would perhaps be something about self-love being a virtue rather than a moral failing, yes?

The only way I see to redeem Narcissus is to shift the story away from the theme of romantic love and certainly away from the theme of personality disorders. Can we perhaps shift the story into the perspective of ethics? The self-love I would speak of in redeeming Narcissus is not love as a romantic feeling, affection, and attraction; rather it is love as unconditional positive regard. Here I am making the distinction between two Greek concepts which are both translated into English as the word love: Eros and Agape. There are indeed several Greek words translated as Love in our English language, but for today let us focus on these two

The teachings of Jesus, in particular the ethical sayings found in the Sermon on the Mount, have stirred the souls of many religious people – Christian and non-Christian alike – through the centuries. It is in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:43-48) that Jesus says to love your enemies. He asks “If you love only those who love you, what good is that?” The Greek word in these verses is not Eros or any of the other Greek concepts we translate as love; it is Agape.

The most famous discourse on Agape love is found in Paul’s first letter to the congregation in Corinth. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude … It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” People use this passage at weddings all the time – but it was not written to lovers, it was written to a congregation. In this letter from Paul, the word he uses is Agape, the same word the gospel writer used in writing down Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Of course, Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Greek – so I can’t tell you that Jesus was steering at this particular interpretation of Love, only that the authors of the gospels intended us to see it as such. Though, in fairness, the context of Jesus’ words about loving our enemies does fit with the Greek concept of love as defined in the word Agape.

The story of Narcissus – a Greek myth – is about a man falling in love with his own reflection. I strongly suspect the Greek word in the story is Eros. It doesn’t make sense as any of the other Greek loves. I suspect redeeming Narcissus might be found in a version of the story in which the character finds self-love in the form of Agape – self-respect and dignity which had not been present before.

Agape love, what Jesus, Mother Teresa, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others talked about, is not a feeling; it is a choice, a decision to treat others in a particular way. It is not a romantic feeling; it is a choice to be concerned for the well-being of others, to treat them with dignity and respect. A person may be difficult, mean, even cruel but you can still choose to offer this form of love to her or him by extending respect and a wish for that person’s well-being. With a modern global perspective, we might translate Agape using the Buddhist concept of loving-kindness. While loving-kindness is not quite synonymous with what Agape is meant to convey, they both carry the tone of unconditional regard.

So, do you extend that respect and treatment to yourself? Certainly the basic version of the Narcissus story warns against an unhealthy form of self-love: Narcissism. But perhaps there can be a story about the healthy version of self-love; a love that expands our capacity for all the other forms of love.

And maybe narcissism is merely the pale shadow of the true self-love every human being can and should have. The healthy version of self-love is that if you are comfortable with yourself, secure in who you are, then it is easier for you share your love with others. The pastoral and the prophetic mingle at this point. The ethical injunction to “wish for others what you wish for yourself” goes both ways. If you wouldn’t talk about others that way or treat others that way, why do you say negative things about yourself or treat yourself so poorly?

And here is why this matters. Public health issues ranging from addiction and depression to body image and cutting are rooted in some degree of self-hatred, a stark absence of this healthy form of self-love. Perhaps you do not have a connection to these things in your life, but such ills are becoming more prevalent in our society.

In our reading this morning (“The Radical Politics of Self-Love and Self-Care” by SooJin Pate) the author writes,

Love turned inward heals the scrapes and wounds you’ve accumulated through daily living. Love turned inward weaves a cocoon of protection, where you can recharge, rejuvenate, and restore. Love turned inward conjures a reservoir where you can tap into your own power and manifest the highest expression of yourself.
http://www.thefeministwire.com/2014/04/self-love-and-self-care/

When I caution people to be gentle with every soul they meet and to recognize that everyone is walking through their own private struggle – some successfully and some not so much. I extend that admonition not just for how you treat others but for how you treat yourself as well.

Self-love is the first ingredient of basic ethical behavior. Treating others as you would want to be treated begins with a positive appreciation of how you treat yourself. Hillel, the famous Jewish sage and scholar, articulated the balance of it when he said:

If I am not for myself, who is for me?
And being for my own self, what am ‘I’?
And if not now, when?

Hillel lived and thought about a generation before Jesus was born. He is remembered for the story in which a gentile challenged him to explain the Torah while standing on one foots. Hillel said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”

The interesting thing is how Hillel is also using self-love as the root for ethical behavior. All the Golden Rule examples throughout the world’s religions make the same assertion. Confusion says, “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” And it is written that Muhammed said “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” Buddhism teaches, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”  Aristotle said, “All friendly feelings for others are an extension of a man’s feelings for himself.”

Again and again the root is to begin with love for yourself, and understanding of what you want and do not want. From there you offer the same to others because you understand for yourself and you love yourself. From a religious perspective, spiritual health is the root of ethical health. Activists who would fight for justice would do well to know how to nourish their spirit as well, so they will be able to stay the course and not falter. Audre Lorde once said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

To redeem Narcissus is to enact the same story, but with the shift from Eros to Agape. It is to learn to love yourself not in the vain, self-obsessed manner we equate with narcissism, but instead with the positive regard and respect of Agape love. It is to choose to respect yourself. To redeem Narcissus is to see your reflection in the mirror and see your best self – not as a delusion but as what is possible. To redeem Narcissus is to love yourself enough to believe you can make a difference and that others deserve the same love, the same respect, the same compassion – not less.

To redeem Narcissus is to recognize yourself as beautiful because all the universe is filled to overflowing with beauty. And every human is a reflection of the universe. Even the least of these, even your neighbor, even your enemies, even you.

In a world without end
May it be so.