Misinterpreting Narcissus

During our family vacation on Cape Cod this summer, I visited Sunday services at an interdenominational liberal-mainline church. The sermon was about feasting on the body and blood of Jesus, a more orthodox and specifically Christian topic than I expected from a church with Unitarian roots. I was happy that a synthesis of inclusiveness and orthodoxy existed somewhere, and sad that it didn’t matter to me as much as it once did. Evangelism needs an opponent, a counterfeit treasure to compare to Christianity’s pearl of great price, and that straw man is often called self-love.

In the preacher’s retelling of the myth of Narcissus, the beautiful youth starved to death because he became obsessed with his own reflection, just as we spiritually starve when we focus on ourselves rather than relationships with Jesus and the community. This moralism reminded me of evangelical self-help writers who discourage psychological introspection on the grounds that it’s self-centered. The term “narcissism” is frequently and imprecisely used in Christian culture to derail critiques that the church isn’t meeting someone’s needs.

But a person who is self-sufficient, and whose spirituality comes from within, is not a narcissist. Clinical narcissism has nothing to do with one’s belief, or lack thereof, in an external religious authority. Its defining trait is lack of empathy, an inability or unwillingness to understand that other people’s feelings and perceptions are real (especially when they differ from the narcissist’s own). “Whatever you think is good for you, it can’t be as good as Jesus” is potentially a very narcissistic statement!

Moreover, Narcissus didn’t die because he was in love with himself. He died because he thought his reflection was a separate person! He pined away waiting for the figure in the pool to return his kisses, not realizing that he already possessed all the qualities that he was desiring. If religion taught us to recognize ourselves as spiritually complete and worthy, instead of dwelling on our helplessness and incompleteness, might we finally be set free from projections of our wounded egos, and be ready to feast on God’s love as mature adults?

As for the object-lesson of the original myth, Encyclopedia Mythica says, “Narcissus is another example among several of a beautiful young man who spurned sex and died as a result.” Sermon, please.

greek mythology | This is a painting of Narcissus reaching out to touch his reflection ...:

“I know you are, but what am I?”

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