Rooted in Christ, we encounter the Paschal Mystery - the death of the narcissistic and demanding self

As published in the Northwest Indiana Catholic on June 17, 2018

 

      The Mayo Clinic website defines narcissism as “a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships and a lack of empathy for others.  Behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that is vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”

      One of its symptoms is a sense of entitlement, which seems rampant in our culture today. You see it in the aggressiveness of drivers, the instant rage when something goes wrong, the lack of gratitude for a favor given, employee theft at work, unreasonable demands made, apologies never offered and a categorical refusal to ever take responsibility or ownership of a problem or failure. 

      The difficulty that some folks have in ever apologizing or thanking is particularly troublesome.  Every day presents me abundant opportunities to say "I am sorry” and “Thank you very much.”  If one cannot say these words and truly mean them, it points to a profound lack of empathy.

      Empathy is the innate ability to put one’s self into the experience of another, to imagine what they feel, understand what they need, and respond from the heart. True compassion is to “suffer with” another,” requiring the purposeful setting aside of one’s own ego, presumptions and needs in order to lovingly enter into the spiritual world of another.

      Narcissists are not able to authentically empathize because they can never get out of themselves and humbly stand on the sacred threshold of another person’s hurting heart. They must always be the center of attention, dominate every conversation, use up all the oxygen in the room, in order to feed and prop up their fragile sense of self.

      Why do I mention all of this? 

      Clearly, narcissism is the antithesis of Christianity. Sin is the false self, turned inward. Christ is the emptied self, turned outward. Entitlement constantly demands more. Saints give themselves away in love.  Self-importance demands attention, admiration, even worship. Humility seeks to disappear into the beauty of God’s immensity.  Self-assertion grasps forbidden fruit from a tree. Self-abnegation surrenders all on a bloody cross. Authentic ministry puts Jesus, the Gospel and the Church at the center. 

      Narcissism preaches itself, always seeking to satisfy extravagant ego needs at the expense of everyone else.

      When I was preparing an engaged couple for marriage or a seminarian for priesthood, I would focus attention on the fundamental need to have a healthy, integrated sense of self. To succeed and bear fruit in any vocation, profession or job, we must be steadfast in our disciplined effort to eliminate our narcissistic tendencies, to allow our ego needs to be integrated and healed through the love of God, to surrender our self-importance and conquer our false-self. 

      When we can do this, we find joy, love, fulfillment, gratitude, peace and freedom. We discover the exquisite ecstasy of the saints who fell in love with God and gave themselves away.

      If we cannot defeat our narcissistic tendencies, we will never know joy and peace. Our marriages will fail because we cannot enter into a complementary relationship of respect, mutuality and self-gift. Our ministry will be a disruption and source of conflict because it will all be about us and not Christ. 

      Because narcissists cannot be servant leaders, their presence on a work team, in an office or part of a project will always be the monkey wrench in the smooth function of a mission or a task. If we are incapable of getting out of ourselves, we will always be trapped in the loveless prison cell of our ego, suffering broken relationships, never truly serving and loving others, always wondering, “What’s in it for me?” A sad, lonely, broken life!

      The Good News of our Christian faith is that Jesus Christ came to save us from such despair, darkness and emptiness.  If the false self tells us that getting what we want all the time is the path to fulfillment, the Son of God tells us to surrender our selfishness. In a world where many are rushing to get ahead or come out on top, Jesus descends to the bottom. 

      If narcissism is all about self-assertion, Christians speak less and listen and love more. In the vile world of obscene name-calling, absurdly fake news, power politics and vitriolic disrespect, we must root ourselves in the love and mercy of the Sacred Heart.

      The greatest philosophers and saints of history tell us that the most radical revolution that needs to occur is the death of my demanding ego. This holy desire to find authentic freedom drove hermits, monks and nuns out to the Egyptian desert in the early centuries of Christianity: Saint Benedict to a cave in Subiaco, Mother Teresa to the Calcutta slums, Francis of Assisi to the lepers, Henry David Thoreau to Walden Pond, Thomas Merton to Gethsemane Trappist Abbey and Dorothy Day to the Depression-era tenements of New York City. 

      In handing ourselves over to Christ, we will encounter the Paschal Mystery - the death of the false, narcissistic, demanding self and the rising of the authentic person, the child of God we all are, freed and forgiven, loved by Jesus, imbued with the Holy Spirit. We will possess a servant’s heart, ready to love and give.

 

       + Donald J. Hying