The tragedy of self - the postmodern dilemma
Updated: Nov 11, 2018
In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a hunter who was known for his beauty. He was proud and disdained those who loved him, causing some to commit #suicide to prove their unrelenting devotion to his striking beauty. Nemesis noticed this behaviour and attracted Narcissus to a pool, where he saw his own reflection in the water and fell deeply in love with it, not realising it was merely an image. Unable to leave the allure of his reflection in the pool and having developed an unrequited love that could never be reciprocated, Narcissus lost his will to live and committed suicide. Narcissus is the origin of the term #narcissism, a fixation with oneself and one's physical appearance or public perception.
We live in a postmodern world characterised by the elevation of the royal ‘self’. Self-actualisation, self-esteem, self-awareness and the increasingly popular self-ie are the order of the day. As I ponder the story of Narcissus, the temptation is to take an existential viewpoint and sit in judgment of him. However, taking an honest account of myself does not allow me such a luxury. As I think about Narcissus, I find a sense of solidarity with him that is both confronting and sobering. I realise that no matter how much I try to convince myself that going to the gym is about being healthy, there is an underlying desire to be perceived as physically attractive by others. I often find myself scrutinising my social media posts to ascertain how many people have seen, liked and made comments. But it gets even better because I have found myself on occasion comparing the public responses to my posts to those I perceive to be my competitors. My mornings typically begin with a desperate perusal through my phone for that addictive validation high. So why is that? Does this make me a narcissist?
I wonder whether there is a #validation seeking monster called insecurity that creeps into my life at times and tries to rob me of my identity. In my last blog I spoke about how I identify relationally. Perhaps when I feel unseen or unheard or even uncared for in relationships, this monster is able to rear its ugly head sending me to the pool of narcissus. I wonder whether this has something to do with the increasingly high rates of suicide, #divorce and #infidelity. Relationships that were once built on a covenantal foundation where commitment was a natural consequence of the nature of the lover, have been replaced by contractual ones where if I am not getting what I want then I either go searching for greener pastures or I simply break the contract and get out.
A quick scrutiny of #socialmedia reveals the reality that Narcissus and I are not alone in this. So, if indeed this situation is as epidemic as the rates of suicide and infidelity suggest, the question begs, how do we fix it?
I suspect that a lot of infidelity is driven by a pursuit to regain a sense of self that has been lost in the context of relationship. A lot of suicide is driven by an overwhelming sense that no one really cares, and the belief that the world would be better off without me. I realise that I can have thousands of friends on social media and yet still feel devastatingly lonely. I am terrified to show the world who I really am in case they don’t like what they see and yet at the same time I have an intrinsic desire to be accepted as I am, warts and all. I project a palatable and at times even embellished version of myself to the world and then feel a real sense of disappointment because deep down I know the version of ‘me’ that they like isn’t really authentically me. We put #filters not only on our photos but on our whole lives. And more disturbing is the fact that as #parents we put filters on our kids and inevitably send the message “you’re not good enough as you are”.
In this kind of world, I wonder whether one of the greatest ways to combat all this is to actually stop and see others. To occasionally shift the focus away from myself to the person next to me. To once in a while look up at the person next to me on the train or on the bus instead of down on my phone. To look at that homeless person and see them as a real person just like me. To see my colleague who may be struggling, not as pathetic but with empathy and concern. To see that ‘annoying kid’ as a child in need of #love and #acceptance. To understand that the irritating serial social media presence is simply someone looking for validation and love just like everyone else. It may be that we live in a context where the greatest miracle we can witness is when we actually see each other. To truly see past the filters, past the facades and find solidarity in our common humanity. That we begin to actually ‘like’ the #authentic other. And that we show each other and especially our kids that they are seen, that they are cared for and that they are good enough just as they are.