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?