The Sanctity of Dissent
by Paul James Toscano
The Pandemic of Narcissism
“The Pandemic of Narcissism” was originally presented on 29 March 1979 to honors students, faculty, and guests attending the annual closing Honors Program Banquet at Brigham Young University.
[p.1]It is a strange twist of fate that I have been asked to address you. I was never a member of the Honors Program. Nor was my membership ever solicited. Nor was there ever any reason for my membership to have been solicited. In 1963—in the dark ages when the BYU student body population was about 15,000 strong and freshmen were required to wear beanies during orientation week while registration was accomplished manually in a marathon session in the George Albert Smith Fieldhouse—back then, I accidentally signed up for an honors freshman English course. But someone discovered the mistake, and I was asked to drop the class and take something more in keeping with my achievements. Wounded pride moved me to resist this request. I eventually managed to convince the teacher, John S. Harris, to let me stay and prove myself. This I did in a way. I earned a C. I am not sure I have ever entirely recovered from what was my last encounter with the Honors Program until this evening.
[p.2]So you see why I feel a bit strange speaking here tonight. It reminds me of a little known historical fact. In 1904 the Ogden, Utah, School for the Deaf and Blind joined the Utah Basketball League. They played right along with BYU and the University of Utah. I don’t know how they did it. But, certainly, the blind students could not have done the playing. As I reckon it, the deaf students must have played while the blind cheered. Obviously, this arrangement had its drawbacks. Undoubtedly, the cheers of the blind were badly timed. But this probably did not matter much since the players would not have been able to hear them anyway. Perhaps this is how it will be for us. You may not be able to see exactly when I’ve scored a point, but then again it won’t matter much since I am more or less deaf to cheers and catcalls.
Let me begin with an old story. Long ago, in the land of Thespis, Greece, there was born to a nymph an uncommonly beautiful child whom she named Narcissus. The beauty of this child never abated as he grew older; instead, it increased. By age sixteen, Narcissus was probably the most beautiful mortal that had ever graced the world. He was loved and sought after by women and men both, but to no avail. For, though he loved admiration, he rejected all lovers and all friends. He was very proud of his beauty and could find room in his heart only for himself.
A lovely nymph named Echo was among the many whom he rejected; as a result, she dwindled to nothing more than a voice, capable only of repeating the words of others.
One day, while hunting, Narcissus chanced upon a lake whose smooth, sheer surface made a marvelous mirror. Tired and thirsty, Narcissus approached the water’s edge to drink, and there he saw his own reflection. It was love at first sight. He reached out and attempted to embrace and kiss himself [p.3]and presently realized that he was looking at his reflected image. This realization, however, did not deter his fancy. He was enchanted and enraptured. He gloried that he was himself but was grief-stricken that he could not possess himself as he might possess another. This fact tormented him. But he clung to this tormented love, choosing it rather than any means of escape because he believed that he, at least, would remain true to himself, whatever happened.
In some versions of this story, Narcissus, like Echo, pines away and vanishes. In others, he becomes so hopelessly addicted to himself that he, distressed that his self-love can never be requited, plunges a dagger into his bosom saying, “Ah, youth, beloved in vain, farewell.” His blood is said to have spilled upon the ground and on his death-place there grew up white and red flowers from which a narcotic extract is distilled. The flower is called the Narcissus to this day.
An analysis of the Narcissus myth provides a nearly complete catalogue of the paradoxical spiritual ills that beset our own generation: a pride in self coupled with a terrible sense of inferiority; an obsession with youth and beauty; an avoidance of genuine love in favor of sentimentality; the proliferation of human relationships that are self-serving, manipulative, and often cruel; an intense demand for fulfillment and admiration coupled with a disregard for admirers; a rejection of whatever does not serve or preserve the self; addictive behaviors and a literal reliance upon narcotics; and a fundamentally suicidal disregard for both the past and the future.
These symptoms of narcissism are so widespread in our day that it may be fairly concluded that narcissism itself has reached pandemic proportions, infecting nearly every facet of life. Few, indeed, are those individuals and institutions that have demonstrated any immunity to it whatsoever. We Mor-[p.4]mons, if anything, have demonstrated an unusual susceptibility to it.
Let me say, first, that narcissism should not be confused with rugged individualism or selfishness. The hallmark of individualism is independence from the group. Like Henry David Thoreau, the individualist cares neither for the animosity nor the admiration of the multitude. He or she wants to be alone, to eat beans in the woods. Narcissism is characterized by dependence on others for admiration and reinforcement, which is often unreciprocated or held in contempt. Narcissism freely receives, but cannot freely give. It does not deal in emotional donations, but in investments with calculated returns. Thus, narcissism is not mere selfishness; it is its most virulent strain. Selfishness can be mild and limited, but narcissism is not. The narcissist is not just egotistical or slightly grasping in one or two categories, he is consumed by an obsession to make all things serve his ends and fill his needs. It is the narcissist who must survive. He is not merely trapped in the prison of his ego, it is his obsession to draw all others into the penitentiary of his own contracted heart.
A look at today’s fads will provide as good an introduction to the modern effects of narcissism as anything. It was Christopher Lasch who pointed out that since people no longer believe that the world can be improved in any significant ways they have resorted to faddish little improvements calculated to preserve themselves. As Lasch observed in The Culture of Narcissism (New York: Norton & Co., 1978):
After the political turmoil of the sixties, Americans have retreated to purely personal pre-occupations. … getting in touch with their feelings, eating health food, taking lessons in ballet or belly-dancing, immersing [p.5]themselves in the wisdom of the East, jogging, learning how to “relate,” overcoming the “fear of pleasure” (4).
The narcissistic concern with self-image has made the personal appearance industry the third-largest in the nation. Blow-dry hair, ever-gloss lipstick, deodorants, colognes, the obsession with slim waistlines and expanded chests, all are part and parcel of the cult of self. Also on the popular level is the profusion of sentimental, narcissistic kitsch: the posters and bumper stickers with their assorted aphorisms that are devoid of any intellectual or spiritual content. We are encouraged to cope with the complexity of life by slogans like “This Is the First Day of the Rest of My Life,” when it may just as likely be the last day of the first of our life. Or “Every Day in Every Way I Am Getting Better and Better,” when the truth is that we are just barely maintaining the status quo. Or “I Am Really Special,” when in fact we are quite ordinary. Or “Happiness Is [Fill in the Blank],” as if any human could ever draw sustained happiness from any single source. Or “I Am Unique,” as if there were any value in uniqueness without truth or love. Worse yet are the sentimental anecdotes, the stock and trade of both the politicians’ platform and the preachers’ pulpit, the purpose of which is to pump up emotions while dulling discernment.
An example of such kitsch is the smiley button: the no-face face with its inane admonition to “Have a Nice Day.” This is really much more than a casual greeting. It is a form of soft coercion, a demand that everyone smile and be happy. The wearer seeks to be surrounded by smiles without contributing to anyone’s genuine happiness. A smile is demanded. But what kind? A mindless grin. The smiley face is a type of modern Gorgon. Picture it: thousands of smiling [p.6]faces all of stone, and on their foreheads the dark and insulting motto chiseled out in a casual script: “Have a Nice Day.”
But I digress. The main concern of popular narcissism is to be admired, to be pleasing. Even popular sports have degenerated from a contest of strength to a contest of strength of personality. Athletes are not as interested in winning as they are in having a winning image, maximum publicity, and a seven figure salary. Of course, Americans want superstars and are willing to pay the price. Only a minority are interested in ideas or current events. The majority is mesmerized by celebrity. That is why Life magazine has been replaced by People and Self. The emphasis today is on people who are admired for no other reason than that they are popular. They are listened to not because they have something important to say, but because they are important and are saying something. Witness the “Tonight Show.”
Narcissism has suffused itself into such areas as art, law, politics, education, business, human sexuality, and religion. In the realm of the law, narcissism has led to legal instrumentalism: the idea that the government should create laws not only to prohibit bad acts, but to compel good ones. America is rooted in a tradition of limited government—the idea that government should exist to prevent certain negative behaviors like fraud, murder, theft, conspiracy, not to mandate prepackaged outcomes. The concept of ordered liberty has degenerated to the concept of ordered order. The narcissistic consciousness of modern America has contributed to the decline of freedom and the rise of the therapeutic state. We have exchanged liberty for security and comfort. This has happened through the politics of narcissism. As citizens, our obsession for self-preservation is translated at the polls into demands for welfare legislation, while our politicians’ obses-[p.7]sion for admiration and personal power is transformed, in the legislatures, into people-pleasing programs passed to win votes of special interest groups. The vicious cycle begins: the need for celebrity and the demand of self-interest feed on one another. We give lip service to the idea that issues are really at the heart of American politics. But it is clear to nearly everyone now that politics has become a circus of celebrities, gossip, scandals—all centered around the most unworthy of all political concerns, the cult of personality.
Perhaps the direst symptom of the politics of narcissism is the development of a new and ominous concept of authority. Historically, Americans have been imaged as a people ready to resist any encroachment on freedom. But this is not true. Leaders on both left and right are willing to abuse the power of the state in order to achieve certain “moral” outcomes—whether decency or equality. People are willing to ignore power abuses so long as the powerful promise them benefits. Moreover, we tend to tolerate abuses of power and special privilege out of trust for our public and private institutions, even though there is significant evidence that many of these are, in fact, self-serving and untrustworthy. Perhaps we put up with the whip only because we hope to one day hold the whip handle.
Narcissism has also invaded the realm of education. Witness in the public schools the de-emphasis on discipline, the focus on fulfillment, the failure to tune-up minds, the obsession with entertainment and technological gimmickry, the concern with image and popularity, the unwillingness to make even reasonable academic demands—in a word, the shallowness.
The effects of narcissism are as bad in the colleges and universities, where a broad liberal education is now de-emphasized in favor of “useful” knowledge—which is any infor-[p.8]mation that leads to cash, power, authority, pleasure, and celebrity. A university is no longer a scholarly refuge from the world, but a materialistic microcosm of it. It is not a repository of truth. It is a career advisement center, a recruiting station for the big firms looking either to expand their inventory of human resources or to replace the worn-out parts. The litmus test for a successful university or professional school is the size of the income of its alumni. Moneymaking abilities are generally considered to be the chief indicia of the educated man. This explains, in part, why university officials are always inviting rich people to address students. It is a practical way of catering to the rich and cultivating them as donors. It is second only to the edifice complex: the practice of erecting for the school grand buildings that bear donors’ names, as if the buildings were family mausoleums. Both techniques are accepted ways of manipulating people and of going after the big bucks necessary to keep the institution solvent.
Educational institutions cannot be blamed for this. They are, after all, dealing with the wealthy who so often seek this form of celebrity. As a happy side effect, students are encouraged, by example if not by precept, to seek riches so they, too, will become rich alumni who can be later pursued for further donations. Thus, at the modern university, knowledge is not primarily sought for its own ends, or for the joy of knowing, or for the delight of discovery, but in order to prepare students for careers that will, in due time, redound to the financial benefit of the alma mater. Thus, the emphasis is on first-tier subjects like accounting, business, law, organizational behavior, public administration, and medicine. Second-tier subjects like political science, sociology, statistics, English, foreign languages, science, and technology, are encouraged because they are unavoidable prerequisites to the [p.9]really “useful” courses. Third-tier subjects like history, classics, ancient studies, philosophy, and theology are considered holdovers from another age (like academic regalia). These are not perceived as contributing in any way to either the university’s, the students’, or society’s positive cash flow. They are endured for the same reason any tradition is endured. They are nostalgic and set institutions of higher learning apart from other corporate entities. Also, it would take more effort to cut out useless courses than it would to let them die a slow death.
Educational utilitarianism gives rise to the faculty degree-seeking game, based on the principle that a Ph.D. is basically a ticket to a job, a higher salary, or greater benefits rather than a sign of competence in research and writing. There is, too, the prevalent practice of many academicians of building their careers on the research and study of their students (a kind of academic pimpery where the student does the dirty work for credit or slave-wages while the professor gets the celebrity and royalties). There are also the soft threats and subtle intimidations exerted on campus small-fry by campus big-fry who are anxious to preserve their own prestige. There is the intellectual dishonesty, pompous posturing, professional double-talk, filibustering, and the ever-present resort to authoritarianism—all of which are used as means to avoid the honest and open exchange of views that is essential to any serious quest for truth, but that is anathema to the narcissistic obsession with self-importance and self-image.
In the realm of business it must be seen that the narcissistic demands for admiration, success, power, and pleasure are demands that can be supplied. Narcissism has become a multi-billion dollar business. The best way to fill one’s own need for power, popularity, and money is to supply the needs of others—for a price. Consumerism is viewed as a kind of [p.10]therapy. If people feel down, they buy something new to bolster their spirits. Advertising has convinced us that products can actually make us cleaner, whiter, smarter, slimmer, sweeter, gladder, grander, tougher, smoother, and more regular-but above all sexier, for in the world of narcissism sexual gratification is the ultimate fulfillment and orgasm is tantamount to the second comforter. If narcissism were a religion, advertising would be its missionary program. The myth lingers on that advertising broadcasts product information to interested consumers. But advertising doesn’t spread information; it hides it, slants it, manipulates it. Its purpose is not to inform the market, but to create a market. It does not seek to persuade by argument, but to seduce by sentimentality, emotion, and appeal to our desire for superiority, success, and sex.
It is the narcissistic demand for gratification here and now that makes the national economic picture look dim. People are not willing to sacrifice in the present for a benefit in the future. Conservative investment is out. Pyramid sales and golden circles are in. We are living on tomorrow’s wealth. We are consuming tomorrow’s resources. We put into our pockets the money that belongs to our posterity. The present is swiftly becoming the future, and that future is already bankrupt. We plan on suicide tomorrow to avoid sacrifice today. It is the ultimate buy now pay later plan. That we are committing economic suicide should not surprise us. Remember the myth of Narcissus.
But the deepest and most pejorative effects of narcissism are on Christianity. These effects can be grouped into the following two categories: (1) the trivialization of redemption and growth of idolatry, and (2) the trivialization of doctrine and emphasis on service and sentimentality.
Christianity is a redemptive religion. It teaches that we [p.11]are fallen creatures who must be saved from death and hell by supernatural intervention. The Calvinistic view is that we are not just fallen, but utterly depraved and, thus, incapable even of choosing God or calling for divine help. Jean Calvin taught, therefore, that God had to choose humans. From this idea comes the doctrine of predestination, that God chooses some and not others. Joseph Smith contradicted this view. He taught that although humanity is fallen it is not so depraved that we are incapable of desiring good and choosing God. In fact, in Joseph Smith’s view, we are responsible for choosing God as part of our salvation experience. The Mormon position is that, though as humans we are enemies to God, we possess the agency and power to ask for divine help; and we must exercise that agency to receive the grace that reconciles us to God. The first point, then, is that Christianity is a religion that teaches that humans must be redeemed by God’s grace or deteriorate into devils.
Modernity denies this fallen condition. It holds that we are either naturally good or capable of solving our own problems. Both views manage to sidestep the sacrifice of a broken heart and contrite spirit—which are, in the Christian view, necessary prerequisites to the divine transformation from spiritual sickness to spiritual health.
Those who believe that we are basically virtuous see God as a lawgiver who, if obeyed, will help maintain our pristine purity. This is religious legalism, a view held by the pharisees and scribes as described in the gospels. For legalists, righteousness is not in Christ, but in the law and the law-abiders. Religion is, therefore, a matter of living the rules—doing good deeds and avoiding bad ones. Repentance is a ritual for regaining one’s former purity, rather than a transformation into an altogether new spiritual creature in Christ. Legalism is narcissistic because it denies the need for deep spiritual [p.12]transformation. The human spirit is seen as essentially good and all that is needed to improve our condition is human reformation based upon re-education and behavioral modification. Legalism denies that we lack the divine power necessary for spiritual perfection.
The other narcissistic alternative to legalism is humanitarianism, which sees salvation in terms of economics, psychiatry, sociology. This view promotes relief, but not joy. It wishes to assuage guilt rather than avoid hell. In this view, immortality is a matter of genetic engineering; eternal life is a matter of psychocybernetics. The shaman, the prophet, the healer are replaced by secular priests-doctors, lawyers, financial managers.
Whether legalistic or humanitarian, the narcissist, though believing, cannot accept a redeemer, cannot relate well to Christ. For him the Messiah is an enigma. A wise man? Yes! A moral teacher? Certainly! The Son of God? Yes—in the sense that we are all sons and daughters of God. But a divine being? No. At best, God is like Zeus, or to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, God is a senile old benevolence who likes to look down and watch his kids having a good time. For the narcissist, God’s main role is not that of a divine physician who will cure us from our mortal ills. At best, God is only a cosmic talent scout who roams through the world helping people to develop their inherent potentialities. He is like the genie in Aladdin’s lamp, one who can be summoned to grant a wish, fulfill a need, satisfy a fleeting curiosity, or otherwise deliver the goods. At worst, God is a whipping boy upon whom can be blamed the self-made evils of humanity.
In Mormonism we find a curious brand of Christian narcissism. We seem to relate much better to God the Father than to God the Son. We sing again and again the childhood hymn “I am a child of God.” We like to remind ourselves of [p.13]our family connection to the head of the universe. In this way we wish to avoid the harsh teaching that we have been disowned from that family. “If God is my Father,” we say, narcissistically, “then I really must be special.” Of course, then everyone is special, for everyone is a child of God. But the real message of Christianity and Mormonism is not that God is the Father (pagans believe this, too), but that Christ is Redeemer. The gateway to God is Christ. Though the world is in sin, God so loved the world that he entered the world in the incarnation that through him we might be born again into the divine family. This is the redemptive core of Christianity that is so repugnant to the narcissistic point of view-the need for a redeemer.
Our failure to see Christ as central is the cause of idolatry. Once Christ is out of the shrine something must fill the void: the family, the church, the social programs, the temple, the music, the text, the authority, the ritual, the ethics, the culture. The list goes on. But without Christ, the family becomes the mafia, the church apostatizes, the social programs fail, the temple crumbles, the music becomes banal, the texts become confusing and corrupt, authorities become tyrannical, the ritual becomes meaningless and sentimental, the moral code becomes harsh and inflexible, and the culture putrefies. So long as Christ is the head, the parts of the body of Christ are healthy. When the head is cut off, the parts die. “I am the vine, ye are the branches.” We cannot obtain from the bodily parts the enlightenment and life that can only come from the head. It is idolatry to try.
The marginalization of Christ is usually accompanied by the trivialization of doctrine. Narcissism despises Christian doctrine, first, because in order to understand it, one must concentrate on something other than oneself and, second, because Christian doctrine insists on one’s fallen nature.
[p.14]Besides, doctrine is divisive. It brings unpleasantness, which damages image and drives away admirers. There can be no celebrity without admirers.
As we Mormons have become more narcissistic, our attention turns from doctrinal teaching to the telling of anecdotes that encourage obedience and service. What we fail to understand is that the absence of Christian charity is not remedied by the promotion of humanitarian service. The best way to enlist people in the service of others is first to preach the gospel so they can feel their spiritual connection to God. What humanitarians fail to see is that the love of God automatically includes the love of neighbor, but the love of neighbor does not necessarily include the love of God. The greater includes the less, but not vice versa. Narcissism is not interested in the love of God, for that love cannot be subverted to selfish ends. Humanitarian service can. The McDonald’s hamburger jingle summed it up: “We do it all for you.” But in the background one can hear the ching of the register. Yes, it is easy to serve others to serve ourselves. This is priestcraft: to serve the cause so long as the cause serves us.
Another narcissistic symptom in Mormonism is sentimentality. As G. K. Chesterton observed seventy years ago, when truth quits the field, sentimentality, not error, takes over. Sentimentality was defined by Hugh Nibley as a “tenacious clinging to pleasantries.” It is a state of mental torpor characterized by a craving for meaningless but pleasant stories and sayings. It is a craving for emotional experiences without regard to their source, their truth, or their value. The best example I can give of this is a short movie marketed by BYU called “The Sacrifice.” The storyline is this: A little boy is hit by a train while walking over a trestle to be with his father, the switchman. The [p.15]conflict in the story comes when the father must decide whether to let go of the switch and save his little son at the cost of the passenger train or whether to sacrifice his son and save the train. He decides to save the train. At the end of the movie, a caption overlays the closing scene, proclaiming, “And God so loved …” Obviously, the film is intended as an atonement analogy. Although well-intentioned (and sentimentality is usually well-intentioned), it succeeds only in being maudlin. It tugs at the heart-strings but does not edify the spirit. Why? Because the analogy is false. Jesus is not a mindless or disobedient child who wandered onto the train trestle of the universe to be accidentally flattened by a blind, indifferent cosmos. God the Father was not a powerless technocrat caught in the press of circumstances beyond his control. The relationship between them was not that of an infant son and a youthful father. The emotions the movie calls forth are nothing like the emotions the real participants felt, as reported by those who knew them best. It is false from top to bottom. Its net effect is to take our attention off truth and fix it upon our own emotions. It seeks only to induce a pleasant sense of spiritual euphoria—the kind of feeling we get when we hear about poor people being helped in far away places, but not like the feeling we get when we actually go to far away places to help the poor. The movie does nothing to further anyone’s understanding of the nature of the Father and the Son, or of the Atonement, or of the love of God, or of anything that is spiritually significant.
Whether in the form of films, books, pamphlets, or pulpit rhetoric, sentimentality represents a rejection of truth and love. Its net effect is to bring everybody closer to spiritual brain death—a practically comatose state where the mental powers are dysfunctional, but the heart, as the center of [p.16]emotion and feeling, goes right on pumping, pumping, pumping.
Whether in popular culture, politics, education, or religion, narcissism has powerful effects. How has it become so widespread? Why has it gone unopposed? The reasons are simple, really: It claims to be good for business because it increases sales and profits. It claims to be good for the ego because it assuages guilt without sacrifice. It claims to be good for the powerful because it encourages ambition. In fact, narcissism claims to be good for everybody except the few who want to submit themselves to something higher, better, and other than themselves.
Narcissism is curable. The cure is the coming to us of Christ in the Holy Spirit. To realize the cure, we must accept on some level that salvation lies outside ourselves and is available when we accept the divine powers of heaven that can transform us into new creatures of spiritual maturity.
Dispensing this cure requires us to preach clearly the gospel of Jesus Christ and to distinguish that gospel from the message of narcissism. It is, in my view, important to see and help others to see that:
• Narcissism teaches reliance on self, Christianity teaches reliance on Christ. This is not to denigrate the self, but to say that the self matures only in its recognition of its interdependence with an “other” and with the “Other.”
• Narcissism promotes admiration, Christianity promotes love—the unconditional, reciprocal, mutual, specific, and passionate love of an other or others, of God, and of self.
• [p.17]Narcissism teaches human perfection by humans, Christianity teaches human perfection by God.
• Narcissism seeks human reformation; Christianity, spiritual transformation.
• Narcissism seeks gradual behavioral improvement; Christianity, an invasion of spiritual power into the soul.
• Narcissism seeks to avoid pain, Christianity seeks to endure pain and find meaning in it.
• Narcissism longs for pleasantries, Christianity longs for truth and love, for forgiveness and repentance both in self and in others.
• Narcissism employs nondisclosure, threats, exclusion, and outright force, as well as disinformation, manipulation, flattery, bribes, privilege, and denial while Christianity is based on faith, hope, charity, honesty, equality, spirituality, repentance, and forgiveness.
It is clear that I see narcissism as a spiritual disease of pandemic proportions. I believe that it has infected all aspects of our lives. It has even infected and polluted the holy church of God. In my view, we urgently need to reject the nostrums, placebos, and panaceas so plentiful in the modern world and the modern church, and to accept once and for all the blessed and enduring cure of redemption and spiritual renewal offered to us by the Most High as a free gift.
[p.18]We are poised at the end of the second millennium. We have no time to trifle with quackery. Though the disease is virulent, the cure is at hand. Let us not reject our salvation now. He has engraved us on the palms of his hands. Let us engrave him on the tablets of our hearts. I commend you to him through the Holy Ghost.