Vanity, Narcissism, Superficiality, Self-obsession, and being Egocentric, are just some of the words we would ordinarily use today to describe an individual who loved his or her own beauty over anything else. With social media and selfies taking over the world one shot at a time, we are slowly falling into ‘the river’ of doom. Sabotage Times, put it this way “Technology is turning us into a society of self-obsessed narcissists”. However, while these things could be, there are other theories surrounding the concept of Narcissism. As a result of how negative narcissists are viewed today, we quickly rush to see the negative sides of it. But, are you really vain or wrong for falling in love with yourself? Where is the line between being superficial or shallow for loving yourself, and the point where it is acceptable and moderate? Who draws these lines even?
The story or myth of Narcissus and the lake, is a very popular one, and just like every other kind of mythology, there are usually slightly different variations of it.
According to the Greeks, Narcissus was a really handsome man who had successfully turned down all his suitors. A young man named Aminias also fell in love with him and was turned down as well. Narcissus then gave Aminais a sword, and Aminias killed himself at Narcissus’ doorstep praying to the Gods to give Narcissus a lesson for all the pain he had caused. The rest of this story merges with the others, so hold this thought while I explain the roman theory.
According to the Romans, Narcissus parents were worried about the extraordinary beauty of their child and were advised that it would be safer if they let him grow up without the knowledge of it. Few years down the line, when Narcissus was sixteen, he was walking in the woods and Echo saw him and fell madly in love with him. She followed him everywhere until he realised he was being followed. But every time he asked “who’s there”, Echo responded “who’s there”, because she was shy. Eventually, when she got the courage to approach him, she hugged him. He pushed her away. Echo was left heartbroken and spent the rest of her life in glens, until nothing but an echo sound remained of her. Nemesis, however, who was the Goddess of Revenge, heard the story and decided to punish Narcissus for it.
This is pretty much where both stories merge. They both continue this way:
Narcissus was then walking by a lake or river and decided to drink some water. That was where he saw his reflection in the water and was surprised by his beauty. Some say he was so enchanted by his beauty that he stared at himself in admiration until he fell into the water and drowned. Others say he was so thirsty, but be couldn’t drink water from the stream because every time he tried to drink from the lake, he scattered the image of himself. He didn’t want that, so he died of thirst and the love of himself. Another similar theory was that he couldn’t reach out to this love and the moment he figured out that his love could not be addressed, he killed himself. It is said that after his death, the narcissus flower (now known as the Daffodil) was born.
‘Narcissus was stupid’. ‘How can you love yourself so much that you lose yourself?’ ‘He just really loved himself, nothing wrong about that’.
In assessing the depth of this myth, I’ll turn to two of my favourite authors, Robert Greene and Paulo Coelho, because they both have two completely different concepts as shown in their bestselling books.
I first read this story, years back, in The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. The Narcissus Effect is a method under Law 44: Disarm and Infuriate with the Mirror Effect. “You look deep into the souls of other people; fathom their inmost desires, their values, their tastes, their spirit; and you reflect it back to them, making yourself into a kind of mirror image”. Hence, when you show that you understand another person by reflecting their deep feelings, they will be entranced and disarmed. Then you have the opportunity to strike them. Following that ideology in this story, the river had the job of mirroring Narcissus, until he died out of his own ‘gullibility’. In essence, Narcissism can be used negatively, as long as you are not the narcissist.
However, in The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, it came up a little differently.
“But this was not how the author of the book ended the story. He said that when Narcissus died, the Goddesses of the Forest appeared and found the lake, which had been fresh water, transformed into a lake of salty tears.
“Why do you weep?” the Goddesses asked.
“I weep for Narcissus,” the lake replied.
“Ah, it is no surprise that you weep for Narcissus,” they said, “for though we always pursued him in the forest, you alone could contemplate his beauty close at hand.”
“But…..was Narcissus beautiful?” the lake asked.
“Who better than you to know that?” the Goddesses said in wonder, “After all, it was by your banks that he knelt each day to contemplate himself!”
The lake was silent for some time. Finally it said:
“I weep for Narcissus, but I never noticed that Narcissus was beautiful. I weep because, each time he knelt beside my banks, I could see, in the depths of his eyes, my own beauty reflected.”
Beauty, they say, is in the eyes of the beholder. With narcissism, we completely take the role of the beholder as ours and blind ourselves with the mirror image our eyes feed back to us. In today’s context, humans get blinded by the love they have for themselves (and their selfies), and forget the love the world has for them. Either because they think it doesn’t exist, or because they believe nobody would love them as much as they love themselves.
Where there is beauty, there is appreciation and consequently, there is love. Rather than love ourselves, we could see our beauty reflect from the world around us. If we get engulfed in ours from our own eyes, then we distract ourselves, disarm ourselves, and we fail to notice the beautiful (or dangerous) things of life. So I guess narcissism could be a gift, or a punishment. It all depends on how you choose to look at yourself.