We had several guests join us via Skype (Will Willimon, Lauren Winner), and even in person (Shane Hipps, Dr. Cynthia Lynder). We wrestled with the class in two parts: why church matters, and the meaning of a “culture of narcissism”.
Dr. Lynder defined narcissism as
a clinical diagnosis involving someone who is unable to distinguish
between their “multiple selves”—we all have multiple selves, like I am a pastor, but I am also a husband, father, son, brother, friend, etc. The Wikipedia definition includes one who has an unhealthy and grandiose sense of their own abilities and is unable to experience shame. At some level, I assume, there is a healthy aspect to narcissism (self protection, for instance), but too much and it becomes pathological. A question might arise as to whether it is a behavioral condition or a neurological condition. But as an astute parishioner of mine mentioned before I left, in this class we are applying this condition to an entire culture.
As the class progressed and we unpacked this whole concept, I began wondering if what we’re talking about is “a culture of narcissism” or something else.
I shared in class I am leaning toward considering narcissism (or some elevated sense of it) is a symptom of a much deeper issue: fear and anxiety. Does our fear lead to our anxiety, or does our anxiety lead to fear? I don’t know. But either way, both seem to be leading us toward separation in an effort to protect ourselves from getting hurt by that which we might fear or is making us anxious. As we separate, we isolate. As we isolate, we turn to ourselves or those we might trust in our inner circle, and then feed our perceived needs and desires without check or balance. We become what can be perceived as narcissistic or selfish, but ultimately it seems to me it’s about self-preservation (I get what I need, and I can’t bother with what you need because there might not be enough for me!).
I think what the church can offer is a place to come with our hurts, our loneliness, and have some conversation around the challenges (anxieties?) we’re experiencing. The church can be a place to gather in the midst of our pain that has the potential to send us off in a tail spin of self-preservation and isolation. The church can be a place to explore our deepest and most intimate hopes and fears in the chaos of life with others who are experiencing the same challenges.