Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
July 2010 - Volume 10, No. 7
The Ascendency of Narcissism
In some places and times, the leaders would have committed suicide. Among us, they simply claim “I’ve done nothing wrong.” Which is the more mature culture?
These days there’s also the carefully constructed and timed apology, or the orchestrated anger and outrage, saying that which we or someone else wants to be said, but it still comes out hollow, bearing the dark shadow of opportunism and the faint smell of greed. Looking good is more important than right action in America. Everybody knows that.
Some leaders do have the capacity to bear the pain deeply, especially when something goes terribly wrong on their watch. Others, have tightly trained themselves only for damage control. Generally it’s the latter who seem to make it up the corporate and political ladder these days. History reminds us it’s usually rotten closer to the top.
Why is this so? Why does scum want to rise to the top, befouling whatever lies beneath it? And what hope is there for any change?
Tragedy or Bathos
Like everyone else, I’ve been captivated, both in my mind and my viscera, with the agonizing tragedy of BP and the Gulf of Mexico. I am heart sick at the photos of the animals coated with that demonic chocolate pudding, and the dread of destruction that is taking place far beyond our eyesight. In earlier times, the creatures and the Gulf herself would be heard crying for help to the very Throne of Heaven. In our times, there’s only the hope that the politicians will listen. Everything else has failed. And the all-too familiar TV maps of the Gulf show the progress of that growing ugly black shape, inching its way toward everywhere - toward you and me my friend.
What has happened? Most who have risen to the top exhibit an emptiness that seems to suffer nothing except the opportunity to consolidate their territory. We’ve seen this countless times in living memory. Are the only heros left found in Harlequin novels or in our cinema? What’s left is more bathos (banality, triteness, insincere sentimental opportunism - the opposite of pathos or true suffering). Watch any evening TV local news to get my point.
For myself, I find some understanding in the phenomenon of narcissism (though what follows is definitely an oversimplification). Narcissism is a fascination with the self, a self-absorption to the exclusion of all other relationships and co-operative living, as spelled out in the ancient Greek myth from which the name comes (Google it). Generally speaking, the narcissistic person has effectively disengaged any experience of anxiety, and thus has lost the capacity of empathic relationship. He or she therefore has an easier ability to ascend within an organization, without any feeling or care for those stepped on for his or her own self manifestation. These are the persons who climb most readily the ladders of commerce and industry, the financial world, politics and government, and even religious and educational hierarchies. When you don’t (can’t) care whom you use or hurt, it’s much easier to climb to the top. As I noted, scum rises, befouling whatever lies beneath. Yet these can be really charming people (which is why they often end up in sales or politics). Often they “love” what they do - to the extent there is any capacity for love in their lives. Stephen Covey and others make millions teaching them how to act human.
Different cultures have implanted specific barriers to help moderate this phenomenon. Among the Japanese, perhaps from their samurai heritage, there has been a strong culture of honor and shame. So when something goes very wrong, a leader will restore honor through ritual suicide - hari kari. This was also reflected in the accounts (perhaps more mythic than actual) of investor and financier suicide during the Wall Street Stock Market Crash of October, 1929. Shame can function as a cultural buffer to rampant narcissism.
Another cultural buffer is the maintenance of moral codes by an organized religion, especially through the practice of structured self-examination and contrition. It was hoped that even a person of little or no conscience would be somewhat moderated in his or her behavior by the regular encounter of the confessional. The Catholic Church’s catalog of the seven deadly sins (wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony) is a fairly accurate catalog of the narcissist’s self-absorbed behavior.
In our own fragile experiment of democracy, it’s hoped that the wisdom of the ‘regular’ people, the electorate, will counter the ascendency of narcissism in politics and government. And then, in turn, the politicians will act to counter the same ascendency of narcissism in corporate and financial culture. However, the culture of capitalism itself has scarce little narcissistic counter-force. Wealth may sometimes “trickle down” but compassion certainly doesn’t.
The fouling of the Gulf of Mexico, and the helpless and inept responses to it are a powerful metaphor of our narcissistic culture writ large. The ecological disaster is itself beyond our comprehension. But as the disaster widens, the all-too human elements of blame and greed are quickly appearing as a second-layer disaster of huge magnitude.
What have we got left, except our sickness of heart for the dying of a great body of water and the destruction of the ecology and society of its coastlands?
What’s left? I’ll give you two very small answers. They’re all I have at this time. But they both have potential to counter the narcissism of our culture and our race.
First, pray for the water. Yes, water is a living being. And all water on the planet is connected, as it connects every other living thing. So whenever you come across living water - like a river or a stream or any moving water - say a prayer into it, and the water will carry that prayer to the Gulf of Mexico - no narcissists en route. Since all water is connected with all water, you can actually do this whenever you come across water.
The second is to insist on caring, and not to be afraid when caring hurts. There’s a word that politicians rarely use these days, suffering - it doesn’t win votes. The root meaning (sub-ferro) is ‘to carry from below’ (like the undercarriage of older automobiles). Narcissists can’t authentically suffer, but the rest of us can. (I’m not talking here about neurotic suffering, suffering for its own sake.) Authentic suffering is the stealth bomber against narcissistic ascendency.
Prayer and suffering. A strange combination, but they are the components of our greatest individual antidote to our culture of narcissistic ascendency - the practice of compassion.
And only then can our second line of significant response, political reform and social action, have a fighting chance. It’s true.