Farewell to the Big Me

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According to Greek mythology, Narcissus was a spectacularly handsome young man.

Every female in his zip code yearned for his affection. 

He could have cared less.  In the words of author Eugene Peterson, “Narcissus had no time for them.  He was all the company he needed.  He could not waste time on anyone.  He required his full attention.”

The beautiful nymph Echo fell hard for Narcissus, but even she got the cold shoulder.  Brokenhearted, she pleaded for divine redress.  The goddess Nemesis came up with the perfect punishment.  “May he who loves not others love himself only.” 

A few days later Narcissus, stooping to get a drink of water, caught sight of his own reflection in the pool.  Talk about love at first sight.  He couldn’t bear to stop admiring such perfection.  This proved to be problematic, since getting a drink would ripple the surface of the water and spoil the view.  Unable to eat, drink, or avert his gaze, Narcissus gradually faded away, leaving behind nothing but a delicate spring flower that still bears his name. 

It’s not overly dramatic to say that American culture has been on an increasingly narcissistic journey for a long time. 

In 1954, when the Gallup Organization asked high school seniors if they considered themselves “very important,” 12% said yes.  In 1989, when Gallup asked that year’s seniors the same question, an astonishing 80% answered affirmatively.  New York Times columnist David Brooks cites this as evidence of America’s embrace of the culture of The Big Me.  We’re not talking about healthy self-regard, as in, “Since all people have inherent value and dignity, I will treat myself and others with enduring respect.”  Rather, “I am one in a million – a truly special person.  I’m the center of my own universe.” 

In her bestselling book Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert makes this virtually an article of religious faith.  God shows up in “my own voice from within myself… God dwells within you as you yourself, exactly as you are.” 

In other words, I’m not just special.  I’m divine.  Like Narcissus, I need to spend all of my time appreciating me

Therefore I resonate with commercials that tell me to focus on my personal retirement account, my wardrobe, my figure, the whiteness of my teeth, the vacation that I deserve because of the pandemic, and my Buick SUV – or as the ad puts it, my very own S(You)V.  It’s all about me.

The spirit of the times has influenced the Christian community as well.  I’m told that I need to focus on my spiritual gifts, my prayer life, and my calling, and to hold out for a church that will meet my spiritual needs.

Such matters do have some importance.  But they’re not central.  The kingdom always comes down to what Jesus is doing at any given moment, not what I happen to be doing. 

How can we ever cultivate self-forgetfulness in a culture that is intoxicated by celebrities, selfies, and celebrities taking selfies?  How can we embrace humility in a world that applauds the self-love of Narcissus?

The deepest and wisest answer is to serve others as a way of life. 

It’s no accident that Jesus said, concerning himself: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). 

Service is the ultimate grandiosity-buster.  Nothing grows humility like being quietly available to meet the needs of other people.  Especially those who struggle to care for themselves.

Parenting is a kind of service that deepens our humility.  Our children desperately need us.  But they don’t always say thank-you.  And we don’t always know how to love them, especially as they grow older.

Caring for aging parents also humbles us.  Sociologists tell us that we are living in the first period in human history in which the average woman will spend more hours giving primary care to her mother than her mother gave to her when she was a little girl.  Searching for the right combination of grace, tenderness, patience, and firmness with older family members is a significant strategy to choke our pride.

The primary reason that Jesus calls us to a life of service is not just to help others.  We are the ones who are chiefly transformed when we serve.

I once heard someone say, “The best preparation for a mission-centered life is to do at least one thing every day that you really don’t feel like doing.”

The magical reality is that the more we make that choice, the more we become the kind of people who want to do what is difficult but good. 

And better still? 

We’ll find ourselves less and less interested in that old habit that never got us anywhere in the first place – staring in wonderment at our own reflection.