There was an article in the newspaper this morning on the topic of the increase in narcissism in our culture. Psychologist Nathan DeWall of the University of Kentucky has recently done a study along with other researchers, among them Jean Twenge at San Diego State, of lyrics of popular songs. That may seem an unusual method of research, but they were considering the possibility that popular music might reflect a change in the common thinking of our society. They found a statistically significant increase in the use of the words “I” and “me” in songs along with a corresponding decline in the use of “we” and “us.” In itself that might not seem like anything one could hang his hat on. However, it correlates with some other findings. For some time students have filled out a questionnaire called the Narcissism Personality Inventory. According to the article in the newspaper “narcissism has increased significantly in the past three decades” as measured by these questionnaires. Psychologist DeWall said, “late adolescents and college students love themselves more today than ever before.”
The implications of this trend are not pleasant. I think of the word “revolve.” We all know that the earth revolves around the sun. It is obvious that the earth cannot revolve around more than one object. Envision the earth trying to revolve around two or more different objects. That is simply not going to happen. So what is the world going to revolve around? It is going to revolve around something. The new narcissist says it should revolve around him or her. Does that person recommend that philosophy to others? So should we all proclaim “the world revolves around me”? That obviously cannot happen. What will be the result? Unending conflict. If even two people try to have a relationship of some sort while operating by this way of thinking they won’t have a relationship. They’ll have a war. That is why so many marriages end up in a divorce court. To have a world full of people operating out of this mindset is to create nothing but chaos and violence. It is to end up with people proudly singing, “I’m the meanest in the place, I’ll mess with your face.” The result inevitably will be hell on earth.
Unfortunately this current in our culture should not be surprising to anyone. It is only logical. As we’ve been studying Genesis we’ve been reminded of our culture’s popular narrative of our origins. We are the products of random actions of biology, chemistry and physics. Our existence is owed not to a Creator but to a long chain of amazingly fortuitous mutations and the action of natural selection. The popular description of natural selection is “survival of the fittest.” In many ways that is an appropriate term. Nature ultimately is quite cruel. The strong survive and the weak become prey. So if you are to survive you must be about taking care of you and you had better be strong in your efforts to do so. With no good and moral Creator in the picture there is no right or wrong, there is only strong or weak. “The world revolves around me” becomes our way of life. It is the logical conclusion. Anything else is foolish and unrealistic.
Jesus Christ is a shocking contrast to the narcissism of our day. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26). He claimed that in the effort to make the world revolve around ourselves all we do is destroy our souls. The latest research seems to bear that out (are you surprised?). As narcissism has increased in this country over the past three decades so have levels of loneliness and depression. That is no coincidence. If we pursue self we are inevitably going to destroy our relationships with other people. Relationships are made of love and of giving. Pursuing self is all about taking. If the world is going to revolve around me, since it can only revolve around one I am necessarily going to be alone. Furthermore, as we chase after self, Jesus claimed, we are going to lose our souls. We are going to end up with emptiness. That is precisely what psychologists are finding. We try to make the world about self, and we end up lonely and depressed. Surprise, surprise. Jesus was right all along.
I shudder to think of where our society is going to go if this trend continues. One inevitable result will be an acceleration in the breakdown of the family that we have been seeing in our nation. That can already be observed in some places in Europe where people are simply foregoing marriage and family because those can only be built on self-sacrifice. Getting married and having children will get in the way of taking care of self, so it has to go. Said narcissism will also result eventually in the disintegration of the church and of humanitarian endeavors which are all built on serving others. It will eventually begin tearing up the fabric of our democracy. Of course, as mentioned above, it inevitably will lead to more conflict and violence.
What a dark picture. I hope I paint an overly gloomy future. It is always possible that the Spirit of God will move and cause people to turn to our Lord. I certainly pray that will happen. Or it could be that some other counterbalance to this trend will arrive. Whatever the case, what this article did for me was to remind me that my own personal narcissism is as destructive as that larger trend is in society. While saying no to me seems difficult and dreary at times, according to Jesus it is the only way to find life. The path to real life is saying every day, “my world should revolve around Jesus,” not “my world should revolve around me.” When it revolves around Jesus it will result in giving up myself to love and serve the needs of others just as it did for him. That can be hard, but most things that bring health to both our bodies and our souls are hard in the short run. As Jesus said, “whoever loses his life for me will find it.”