This is the fourth in a series of commentaries focusing on the question of culture change and how to bring about change for the better.
Most of us are familiar with the Greek myth of, Narcissus and Echo. Narcissus, renowned for his beauty, rejected all romantic advances, including those of Echo, a mountain nymph. Narcissus eventually fell in love with himself once he saw his own reflection in a pool of water and ended up dying early, wasting away as he stared at his own reflection consumed by a love (self-love) that could not be.
It is from this myth that we derive our term “narcissism” a fixation with oneself. An excessive fixation is part of the psychiatric definition of narcissistic personality disorder—a condition marked by grandiosity, excessive need for attention and admiration, and an inability to empathize; sounds like a condition effecting not a few politicians!
A Tale for Today
The cautionary tale of Narcissus and Echo speaks volumes to us today. In our hedonistic, self-centred, effeminate, youth-oriented culture, Narcissus and his fate echoes as a vibrant warning to us: excessive self-love leads to death and tragedy for us and those around us. (Echo too suffered the same fate as she wasted away from her unrequited love for Narcissus.)
Of course, one can exhibit narcissistic traits without necessarily suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Like other related personality disorders, e.g., sociopathy or psychopathy, narcissism is exhibited on a spectrum. As such, we are all “guilty” at times of exhibiting a bit of narcissistic behaviour. However, a number of us eventually “grow up” and realize that going through life self-centred and self-absorbed is no way to achieve health or happiness.
Me Me Me
The current fixation on the self, the easy availability of “instant gratification” and a total lack of empathy for others are defining characteristics of the “Me Generation”. They are also defining characteristics of the Culture of Death.
One does not need to be a believing Christian to appreciate the 1995 papal encyclical, Evangelium vitae, of John Paul II. In the encyclical, the Pontiff makes a number of astute observations, including the role of moral relativism as a cause for many of society’s ills, and the conspiracy against life waged “by powerful cultural, economic and political currents which encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency.” Indeed, as Benedict XVI would later argue, moral relativism, which recognises nothing as definitive or objective, “leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires. And under the semblance of freedom it becomes a prison for each one, for it separates people from one another, locking each person into his or her own ego.” (Address to the Ecclesial Diocesan Convention of Rome, 6 June 2005.)
When we focus entirely on ourselves, when we make ourselves the “centre of the universe” we become impervious to others and their equal claim to life, liberty and happiness. The Culture of Death results from our self-imposed alienation from each other and substitute’s compassion, empathy and service with a ruthless selfishness, materialism and efficiency measured in terms of a cold utilitarian calculus.
Looking at the situation from this point of view, it is possible to speak in a certain sense of a war of the powerful against the weak: a life which would require greater acceptance, love and care is considered useless, or held to be an intolerable burden, and is therefore rejected in one way or another. A person who, because of illness, handicap or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or life-style of those who are more favoured tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. In this way a kind of “conspiracy against life” is unleashed. (Evangelium vitae, Chapter I, para.12)
Loss of Human Dignity
One of the hallmarks of our narcistic culture is that we no longer see, let alone treat, people as ends in themselves. Instead, we use people as a means to an end. If a person doesn’t prove useful to us in achieving what we want, or is an obstacle to our selfish desires, then that person is of no worth or merit to us—they become as disposable as a paper coffee cup once used.
Treating a person as merely a means to an end, deprives them of basic human dignity and measures their “value” only in terms of their utilitarian usefulness. It not only belittles them as individuals, it also demeans those who regard them as a means to an end in as much as it robs them of essential humane qualities of empathy and solidarity. In other words, it makes the “users” less human.
The loss of human dignity is the precursor to a host of evils, including: our present-day abortion abattoirs; the Medical Assistance in Dying regime; the Holocaust abattoirs of places like Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Ravensbrück; Stalin’s Great Famine in the Ukraine (Ukraine, Holodomor); China’s Mao’s Cultural Revolution; and the killing fields of Cambodia, to name but a few examples.
And don’t think for a minute that such “notorious” historical examples of the Culture of Death are the only cases of “man’s inhumanity to man”. Pornography, for example, is one of the biggest affronts to human dignity, to both women and men, and yet has become so “normalized” so as to deaden far too many people’s awareness of its harms and lies.
Overcoming the Culture of Death
The Culture of Death is nourished in the soil of narcissism as much as it is sustained by breathing the air of moral relativism—and therein lies its Achille’s heel, for ultimately, the Culture of Death is incompatible with human freedom and human dignity. Both the narcistic life and moral relativism that sustain the Culture of Death are lies that cannot survive in the light of objective Truth.
Part of that objective Truth lies in appreciating the value of thinking about, and putting, others first. In treating each person as an end in themselves and not merely as a means to an end. It is as simple as it is hard. It is as simple as waking up each morning and asking your spouse what you can do for them this day. It is as simple as keeping fit and active, so you don’t become a burden to others. It is as simple as replacing the egocentric heart with the heart of a servant.