narcissism and image

All Humans Are Narcissists

I want to suggest that all humans, like Narcissus, look at their reflection and make too much of it. This is obvious in some behaviour and more discreet in others.

In my own experience, my narcissism is easily spotted when I think, feel, talk and act as though my own thoughts, feelings, words, opinions (blog posts!?), needs and achievements are – even a little bit – more important than others. In a less obvious way, my narcissism can hide behind all the ways in which I down-play myself. Narcissism is being increasingly recognized as lying behind many – of course not all, or even most – forms of depression.

In sum, I’m suggesting here that when humans play themselves up or push themselves down, some form or degree of narcissism – passive or active – is probably at work.

The Middle Way of the Imago Dei

Narcissism constitutes a form of idolatry. The self is made into an idol in an obvious way when we put ourselves on a pedestal. However, arguably, the self is just as much an idol when the self is abased. When we tell ourselves grand stories of how ‘low’ we are, we can still be making a big deal out of ourselves; we can see ourselves as being just as great as our suffering.

Charting the “Middle Way” between the narcissistic extremes of idolatrous self-aggrandising and idolatrous self-abasing, the Judeo-Christian tradition has the provocative notion of the Imago Dei. As scholars of the book of Genesis have contended, the opening chapter of Scripture depicts the Creator God building a temple, three days of forming the tohu (formless) and three days of filling the vohu (empty/void); and rather than finishing it off with a idol, the Creator God made humans (male and female) in God’s image.

The up-shot of this is that when we look at another human being, or more to the point, when we look, like Narcissus did, at our reflection, we should not merely see and fall in love with ourselves as he did, but rather should also see – and also love – the Creator God.

crutches are useful

If you think you are well, then you won’t find much use in a crutch.

But if you have learned to understand your brokenness, then you will appreciate how immensely helpful – even indispensable! – they can be for your healing.

two paths

It is becoming apparent that there are two distinct paths, two very different ways of being in the world.

Sometimes, I can focus on what I do not have or something I feel should change.  I strive for and grasp at what I want or what I want to change.  I perhaps (or often) feel that I deserve the thing or conditions that I want.  I am entitled to them.

If I allow myself to, I can let my emotions devolve.  It can start with boredom, which is based on an assumption that I ought to be experiencing excitement.  It can then morph quickly into frustration, stress, resentment and anger.  The end of this progression is murderous rage, where I am cut off from myself, others and God.  The whole spectrum is that of being continually and increasingly pissed off.

Thank God, other times I focus on what I do have, and surrender the impulse to change that thing, circumstance or person.  This is the path of gratitude.  I see the things that I have as gifts, rather than possessions I’m entitled to.  I don’t expect to have much, and am grateful for having enough.  This is also the path of acceptance.  I don’t have to agree with everything or everyone, but I do need to accept things outside myself.

The emotions associated with this path are very different.  Peace, calmness, serenity, attentiveness, joy, contentment, freedom.  The end of this road is a growing relationship with God, others and self.  I am free to greet life as it is, accept difference, and free to help where I can.

world + flesh + devil

The world, the flesh and the devil.

These three entities have been said to be the three sources of sin and temptation for Christians.  That is to say that when we get it wrong, we can point to the influential lure of culture (the world), the weakness of natural desire (the flesh), and the overarching conspiracy of evil (the devil).

I say ‘and’ instead of ‘or’ because I don’t see these three as mutually exclusive.  When a person does something wrong – let’s say: gossip at work – they can point to a) the culture of gossip at their work or in the ‘world’ generally, b) their own tendencies to want to stay ‘in the know’ about what’s going around the workplace, and c) a trans-historic, trans-cultural, quasi-personal gravity gently and subtly pulling people away from healthy and honest communication.

If we neatly point to just one of these three, we open the door to a) victim-hood (“Poor me, it’s so hard to be good in this world/workplace…”), b) shame (“Why am I such a horrible gossip?”) or c) blame (“It was an outright spiritual attack…”).

Acknowledging all three can help us to appreciate afresh the need to stand apart from culture (Romans 12:1-2), the need to acknowledge our culpability for our actions (1 John 1:9), and to be on guard against the old serpent up to its typical schemes (2 Corinthians 2:11).

good fear, guilt and shame

There are obvious reasons why fear, guilt and shame have a bad reputation inside and outside the Church.  There is really no need to illustrate this point, but…

Fear of judgment, rejection or punishment can be crippling.

Guilt that is exaggerated, overly-negative or simply mistaken is paralyzing.

Shame, too, when it is insulting, degrading and merciless, can be dehumanizing.

But that’s just simply not all there is to Fear, Guilt and Shame.  They can be not only unavoidable feelings that one will eventually encounter in life, but even helpful and self-protective tools to help us grow.

Fear can be protective.  It can keep us from doing things that we know will harm others or ourselves.  The opposite of this protective fear is selfish carelessness.

Guilt can be honest.  It can reflect the willingness to admit we have done wrong and the need to set things right.  The opposite of this honest guilt is the excusing or hiding sin.

Shame can be empathetic.  It can connect our logical awareness of wrong-doing to a heart-level grief that together can motivate (through God’s grace) our work to amend our ways and undo the harm done as much as possible.  The opposite of this empathetic shame is a calloused, arrogant or narcissistic heart.

grace and human effort

At the heart of the Christian faith is a conviction that salvation is God’s doing.  God takes the initiative in establishing, maintaining and perfecting the relationship with all of creation, and humans in particular.  Without God, there would be no salvation.  Period.

This conviction has tended to be accompanied by an emphasis that downplays the importance of human effort.  Most of all, it seems that in order to defend Grace, some feel the need to oppose any prescriptive statements about what Christians ‘ought’ to do, particularly when those statements are a) specific, b) all-encompassing, or c) strong.

I’m not going to get into the broad issues of biblical theology despite how relevant they are here.  Instead I want to focus on the basic compatibility of Grace and human effort.  And none of the following has anything to do with being under the Jewish/Mosaic “Law” (i.e. keeping kosher, observing Sabbath, or males being circumcised).

Augustine perhaps said it best:  “Without God, we cannot.  Without us, God will not.” (Google it)

Like a loving parent whose love moves them to refrain from doing everything for their children, God seems to require our active participation in our growth.  “God will not” do things for us against our will.

This not only means we must participate with Grace, but also that being exhorted, instructed, urged, or encouraged to do specific things should be a normal part of our training and instruction in Christian community.  This happens through preaching, teaching, discipleship and mentoring.  We need to be told what we should be doing.

Trusting in Grace doesn’t mean resisting being told what to do.  Quite the contrary, actually.

Yes, it is possible (and too common, actually) that “telling people what to do” is done from a negative posture of power, ego and control that runs against the values of the Gospel.  But it is also possible (and more common than we may admit) that “telling people what to do” is resisted simply due to our pride and arrogance of not wanting to do what we should.

The Grace and Love of God is so overwhelming, beautiful and true that it should cast out all forms of fear, including the fear of being told what to do.

Being told what you are doing wrong and what you ought to do instead, can indeed be a “gift”, and expression of Grace.  It can be a very practical way that God offers the power, assistance and help toward the transformation, healing and growth that all disciples of Jesus should experience.

political Christianity

Let me open with an if/then statement.  If Christianity is anything more than B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth), and I heartily believe it is, then it necessarily has to do with how the wholeness of life is played out in the here and now.  This means Christianity necessarily has a political component to it.  And here’s a yes/but statement.  Yes, there is vastly more to Christianity than politics, but it is not apolitical.

The sweeping Story of Scripture presents a Gospel that cannot be contained by any single political party, even a ‘Christian’ political party.  Indeed, the values and imperatives of Scripture cover pretty much the entire political spectrum.

The ‘right’ end of the spectrum will find its emphasis on personal responsibility affirmed and strengthened by Scripture.  Consider Proverbs 6:6-11 as motivation to as right-wing folk will say, “get off your rear and work as much as you can, and stop relying on the government.”

The left end of the political spectrum, with its convictions about basic rights and freedoms, will find just as much support from Scripture; from the golden rule of treating your neighbour as yourself, through to the more sharp and radical command to love your enemies.  Everything from social welfare, ecological preservation and non-violent pacifism have direct links to Scripture.

Even a controversial issue such as same-gender relationships finds the whole spectrum covered by Scripture.  Conservatives will find their convictions about sex, marriage and gender affirmed by passages which echo through in both the Old and New Testaments.  Progressives will find abundant biblical support for their passionate concern for the protection of the person-hood and identity of all regardless of any of their personal characteristics.

In addition to offering support all along the political spectrum, Scripture also offers subversion and opposition at all points as well.  To the arrogant ‘conservatives’ wanting to stone the woman caught in adultery, Jesus the ‘liberal’ steps in to defend her basic freedoms with non-condemning, patient love, whilst at the same time pointing a stinging finger at the hypocrisy of those who are more interested in shaming someone else for their sin than they are at humbly acknowledging their own.  To any and all at the progressive ‘left’ who slide into complacent and compromised affirmation of things that go against Scripture, Jesus represents someone who held to the authority of Scripture, even as he sought to direct people past erring traditional interpretations of it.  Jesus was not interested in building a theocracy to manipulate people into obedience, nor was there any ‘moving on’ from fundamental Jewish convictions to make the faith palatable.

In other words, the Gospel of Scripture is always big enough to offer both comfort and challenge to everyone.

shame and suicide

In Aotearoa New Zealand, the recent loss of loved television presenter Greg Boyed has raised again the topic of depression and suicide.  Aotearoa, the “land of the long white cloud” has high suicide rates, particularly for teens aged 15-19, where it is the highest.  Too many of us have loved ones that have brought this issue directly into our lives.  It is an urgent topic and healthy and honest thinking is therefore urgently needed.

I don’t think there is one single emotion or social dynamic at work behind suicide.  A unifying theme however, is quite simply the feeling – which can swell up fiercely and quickly – of wanting to be free of whatever toxic cocktail of pain one is facing.  I want to focus here on one type of pain, the pain of shame.

Many who take their own lives will have been overcome by shame.  Whether the shame is connected to past or recent behaviour or a sense of not measuring up personally to a perceived standard of personal worth, the sad reality is that too many people respond to shame by isolating and withdrawing from others.  Tragically, suicidal feelings themselves may be accompanied by shame, thus making it even harder to seek help and community.

I’ve been thinking about shame recently.  In summary, I think it is often treated simplistically.  Shame = bad.  I get the logic behind this.  But could it be that shame (and pain in general) is simply an unavoidable part of navigating life?  I’d even go so far as to say that there are times where we want people to feel shame for what they have done.  Just as healthy guilt (as opposed to unhealthy guilt) helps us recognize in our minds that we need to take responsibility for our actions, so also helpful shame (as opposed to harmful shame) happens when we not only think about the wrong we’ve done, but actually feel remorseful about it.  Healthy guilt plus empathy equals helpful shame.

What on earth does this have to do with suicide?  Well, I guess I’m wondering if one way to reduce unhelpful shame related to suicide and depression is to recognize and appreciate the role that shame can have as a normal, everyday and even healthy emotion.  This, I think, is what is intended by the slogan “It’s OK to not be OK.”  If there is no such thing as being “not OK”, if everything and everyone is expected to be in a constant state of “everything is awesome” then there is no more shame-inducing thing than the everyday reality of not feeling OK.

If we can reclaim that it is OK to feel shame, then maybe a few more people will feel less ashamed of their shame, their guilt, their suicidal feelings, and will maybe, just maybe, take steps toward, rather than away from, the help, support, and community that we all need.

why so angry

I know almost nothing about the two speakers booked-for-but-now-banned-from the Powerstation in Auckland.  What I do know is that a lot of people are angry about them, their message (whatever it is), and the prospect of them having a platform to share it.

All this anger actually piques my curiosity.  It makes me want to find them on YouTube and learn what they are about.  It doesn’t make me want to ignore them.  I wonder if the angry protesters realize this?

Agree with them or not, if you resist them with too violent of language (or venue-cancelling maneuvering?) you will make a victim out of them and effectively help create a platform for them.

Another thought is this.  My Dad always told me that in an argument, the one getting angry usually has the weaker position.  If these banned speakers have such bad ideas, shouldn’t it be easy to calmly (and succinctly) show where their logic goes astray?  The anger just makes you look defensive.

varieties of shame

Following on from the last post, I’ve been thinking more about possibly helpful – or at least unavoidable – forms of shame.

First, I want to acknowledge just how unhelpful some forms of shame can be.  I think shame is most unhelpful when it focuses on the person and not the behaviour.  “You should be ashamed of yourself…” “Shame on you!” “I hope you’re ashamed…”  All of these focus the shame on the person.

Behind these statements is probably some kind of distorted sense of protective fear that wants the person to see what they’ve done, to take responsibility for it, and to change.  But the problem with focusing the shame on the person is that it actually does the opposite.  It takes their focus off of their behaviour and onto themselves as being shameful.  They feel labelled, categorized, tagged-and-bagged as ‘bad’.  This make a person feel trapped in this ‘bad’ state, and can make them feel like ‘bad’ people are simply bound to keep doing ‘bad’ things.

Let me quickly say that I don’t think the opposite is helpful either.  To say with glee simplicity: “It’s OK, you are awesome!”  Such popular positivism is well-meaning, and probably intends on letting kindness make a space for people to be their own guide and learn in their own time.  However, it can also have the opposite effect.  I don’t think any of us can truly or completely silence our conscience which reminds us that we are not perfect.  Overly-positive commentary from others, whilst well-meaning, can actually end up reminding us of our negatives.

The goal is the acceptance of our behaviour and taking responsibility for it.  And some forms of shame may just be helpful, necessary or unavoidable for this.

I am happy to be shown otherwise, but maybe it is helpful for us to feel some kind of shame when we have done something wrong.  And I am distinguishing shame from guilt.  Guilt is, I think, a logical admission, a verdict, in our minds that we did something.  Shame, in this sense, makes our admission a felt reality, an experience, in our hearts.

But now… what about shame that is sourced not in our own judgment of our own behaviour, but shame that is sourced in the judgment of others, our family, our church, our city, our society?  Can that ever be helpful or healthy?  I am daring to suggest it can.

One possibly helpful example is an anti-smoking campaign in Aotearoa-New Zealand: “smoking: not our future”.  This, it seems to me, is a movement that attempts to use shame in a helpful way.  Rather than pointing the finger, negatively, at people who smoke, it signals the future, positively, at a society which smokes less.   In principle, at least, it should be a good thing to promote good behaviour and discourage bad behaviour.  Some forms of shame seem to be unavoidable for this, right?

How does this basic dynamic become unhelpful or even harmful?  I reckon it happens when people use shame in ways that are a) disproportionate to the behaviour, b) self-righteous, c) impatient or d) forceful.  In principle, even putting someone in prison can be done in ways that are a) appropriate for the crime, b) humble, c) measured and d) gentle.

So much moral discourse in our culture seems to assume that the way to help people avoid depression and self-harm is to avoid anything that makes people feel shame.  I wonder if some of our overly-positive language serves to trap people in their own prison of self-judgment?

What if we accepted that sometimes people feel shame for good reasons, such as to come to a place of surrender and acknowledgement and taking responsibility?  Our role is to empathise with one another in our mutually-experienced guilt and shame.  We all get it wrong all the time about all kinds of things.  It doesn’t have to be a morality contest… It can just be life.

Shame doesn’t have to be linked to self-hatred and self-harm.  Shame can be re-claimed in a context of self-care and self-honesty.

If shame is such a wrong thing to feel, then it only makes us feel even worse when we feel ashamed.  But if shame is a normal part of human living and learning, then maybe we are strangely enabled to not stay trapped in our shame, but to work through it to acceptance and change.

Theologically speaking, the Gospel of Grace doesn’t imply that we are ‘basically good’ people who have never done anything shameful.  Rather, it is precisely because we have done those things, and (hopefully) have a healthy sense of regret, guilt and shame about them, that the Gospel of Grace is such good news.