The Quintessence of Modern Narcissism

Individualism has apparently reached its apex: North Dakota resident Nadine Schweigert has, in an actual ceremony, married herself.  And what makes this truly representative of a social phenomenon, on an international scale, is that this is not merely an isolated event but the latest of “a string of self-marriages” within the past decade.

On one level this may indeed be, as one psychologist assesses, “a healthier and more productive way of marking the process of moving on than, say, throwing an ex’s stuff out a window or burning their photos.”  But really, can we ask for a more perfect definition of narcissism?  After all, the term is derived from the Greek mythological figure whose defining characteristic was falling in love with himself.

While the popular mantra “I am responsible for my own happiness” has, judging from Schweigert’s comments, clearly inspired her to make some healthier choices, it has a shadow side: a danger of social detachment resulting from a concerted resistance to mutually dependent relationships.  Dorothee Soelle has poignantly described a phenomenon like this:

I have a neighbor, an elderly, childless man whose wife died not long ago. One day he called me over to show me some damage, the scratches some children had made on his property with their bicycles. “Just look at what they have done,” he said, “this house is all we have.”

My neighbor had worked for what he had. He lived in that house, kept it in repair, took care of it. Suddenly it dawned on me that this man was dead. He had died from no longer having any kind of relationship with another human being.

To Schweigert’s credit, her description of the support and accountability she receives from friends seems to avoid this pitfall, while at the same time ironically disproving her point about being solely responsible for her own individual well-being.

At any rate, I don’t want to limit this commentary to the self-righteous scoffing of a Catholic who “gets” the need for community and commitment to others in contrast to the spirit of the times.  Let’s use it instead as a springboard for discussion of what this phenomenon says about society and about the Church.  For example, what leads people to seek unabashedly individualistic approaches to finding fulfillment in life?  Does it reflect courage or fear, and in either case, where does that come from?  Is the Church failing such people by not providing more visibly better alternatives in the interdependence of supportive communities?  Or are people simply put off by the demands that communitarian relationships make?  What does it really mean to demonstrate that these demands are worth it in the end?  What actually is, in the concrete, the Church’s alternative to the narcissism of self-marriage?

About Julia Smucker
  • Ronald King

    Dorothee Soelle wrote that her neighbor was a dead man after he had called her to show her the damage that was caused by some kids riding their bikes on his property!? He reached out to her and she interpreted him as being dead?! In essence, “I am in pain.” Reply, “You’re dead.”. That also seems narcissitic to me.
    What comes immediately to mind is spiritual narcissism in which a community is gathered together in a collective sense of I/We have and know the fullness of truth and the rest of you are lost. It may or may not be narcissistic to “take a break” from the institutional church. There are those who take a permanent break from the institutional social life of the world and the church by joining religious orders where there is extremely limited contact with those outside the particular order. There appears to be a lot to be explored here as far as psychodynamics is concerned.
    In my experience, it is imperative to take a break periodically due to the constant intrusion of human violence in the forms of attitudes, behaviors and words. Christ had to get away periodically and even questioned how much longer He had to endure the chaos of human relationships. Was that selfish or narcissistic?

    • Julia Smucker

      I think you may be right on the first point. I noticed that commenters on the website where I got the Soelle quote made similar points about the harshness of her judgment toward the neighbor who may well have been reaching out for a human connection, and that did make me stop and think.

      Also, as an introvert, I know very well the need for periodic breaks from social interactions, sometimes as respite from the inevitable “chaos of human relationships.” But is that really equivalent to full-fledged dissociation from the community of faith because of its imperfections?

      • Ronald King

        Julia, I also am an introvert. In my life and work experience I have observed different degrees of sensitivity to the vulnerability of being human. Those who are most sensitive to the potential harm of human relationships will leave a community and isolate. The extrovert will compete for status and power within the community. Now these are generalizations of the extremes. There are so many dynamics to consider. Introverts will follow the extroverts and attach to them for safety and in essence will not discover the grace of being an introvert. An introvert will appear to be an extrovert when she/he is aware of what it means to be an introvert. I will stop here with one last thing which I have stated previously somewhere. Jesus is an introvert.

  • Jordan

    Thanks Julia for a very thoughtful article about a strange, but perhaps not unexpected, phenomenon.

    Julia: What actually is, in the concrete, the Church’s alternative to the narcissism of self-marriage?

    The Church has abdicated its role in ceremonially and communally shaping the lives of laypersons who have intentionally chosen not to wed. For some time after the Council, catechetical programs have emphasized that marriage is a vocation not dissimilar to the clergy or religious life. I don’t disagree. However, often catechists say little about single people. After all, besides consecrated virginity for women, there is no sacrament of vowed lay singlehood. Similarly, the expansion of the civil marriage franchise to same-sex couples in some jurisdictions and the resultant ideological warfare in the public square accentuates the lack of civil recognition for the “committed single”. I have no desire to wed or have children, but I would not civilly wed myself as this is a sop in the race to categorize all relationships under a civil umbrella.

    The excitement and peril of chosen singlehood resides in the anarchy of the single vocation since one does not have a definite legal or ceremonial position in civil life and most religious communities. A committed single person’s ethical and moral development is mostly self-directed. This self-direction can be a positive process shaped through personal responsibility or a path marked with self-destructive behaviors. Religious belief might influence the development of committed singlehood, but religious belief and singlehood development are ultimately mutually exclusive.

    • Julia Smucker

      Notice, however, that the Taiwanese woman who did a similar self-marriage ceremony a few years ago (mentioned in the news article linked above) has recently married her boyfriend. So the self-marriage trend doesn’t appear to necessarily represent a commitment to singleness, or to much of anything except a few clichés about self-sufficiency.

  • Mark Gordon

    “What actually is, in the concrete, the Church’s alternative to the narcissism of self-marriage?”

    The alternative is self-donation in service to another and others, which is the essence of married love. This whole story smacks of the Objectivist cult, with its crude John Galt Pledge: “I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

    How can such a person ever hope to be a spouse … or a parent… or the adult child of a parent? The profound commitments that we make are always to other people, and they always entail a form of sacrificial self-donation. Service.

    • Julia Smucker

      I agree with all that, Mark, but my question really was this: how do we get past our own scoffing at such things (even if it’s deserved) and actually show how self-sacrificial commitment is the better way?

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Not to detract from your larger point, Julia, but the phenomenon of self-marriage is not a new one, though perhaps it is under this name. In the mid-1980’s the comic strip Doonesbury featured a character Marcia who held a “singularity ceremony”—clearly a kind of self-marriage. She even went so far as to register for singularity gifts at Bloomingdales. Doonesbury was clearly making fun of some trend at the time.

  • Peter Paul Fuchs

    Somewhere in one of his books B.K.S. Iyengar says that only when one has the perfect Trikananasana can you truly love yourself…..and I guess get married. Conversely, a friend told me years ago, that when he went to see Iyengar at GWU auditorium years ago, he looked at several people’s poses, and said something like “If that was my Trikanansana, I would commit suicide.” I guess that would mean yogic divorce from one’s marriage to onesself.

  • Rat-biter

    I’ve heard of Sebaptism – so Sematrimonianism is not that big a step. Especially as people have been known to marry animals:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/australiaandthepacific/australia/8179132/Australian-man-marries-pet-dog-Honey.html

    • Julia Smucker

      Self-baptism makes about as much sense as self-marriage. Which is to say, none at all.