Self-Absorbed

I sometimes worry that blogging is narcissistic. After all, what could be more self-absorbed than expecting people to read your thoughts as you think about yourself? Well, perhaps video blogging, which expects people to watch you as you talk out loud about yourself. There are some people who engage in this sort of listening and get paid for it. We call them psychiatrists, psychologists, and pastors. Most wives do the same thing but for free. Narcissists, on the other hand, don’t listen to anybody, unless they are listening to hear themselves praised.

Narcissism may be the most debilitating side-effect of sin. It is the vice from which all sin’s ancillary vices emanate. The perspective of the narcissist is the point of view expressed by Haman in the story of Esther, who thought to himself, “Who is there that the king would rather honor than me?”

It bothers me that Haman is the person I identify most with in Esther’s story. I know I should dislike him and I probably would if I encountered him on the street. Yet there is something so familiar about the astonishment and shame Haman felt when he learned that the king intended to honor someone else that I cannot help feeling a pang of sympathy for him. He “rushed home, with his head covered in grief” (Esther 6:12). The narcissist cannot bear to go unnoticed. A true narcissist would be jealous of the corpse at a funeral.

Yet narcissists seem genuinely mystified when others accuse them of being self-absorbed. They do not consider themselves to be narcissists. They view themselves as benefactors and martyrs. They believe they have earned their position at the center of all things by means of personal merit and hard service. It does not occur to them that they would be anywhere else.

Sin, however, does not always produce narcissistic personalities in the classic sense. Sometimes it moves in the opposite direction. What passes for humility can be just as self-absorbed as stereotypical narcissism. The poster child for humble narcissism is Uriah Heep in David Copperfield. “A person like myself had better not aspire” Heep declares. “If he is to get on in life, he must get on umbly, Master Copperfield!” Heep is a caricature we easily recognize in others but with whom we find it difficult to identify ourselves (which, of course, is a feature of all narcissistic behavior). Our ventures into the realm of humble narcissism are usually more subdued than his over the top exclamations but they amount to the same thing. Narcissistic humility may be a peacock adorned with shabby feathers but it is still a peacock.

Haman was grieved over Mordecai’s elevation because he saw Mordecai as an enemy who had bested him. Haman was also afraid. He worried that Mordecai’s rise in fortune foreshadowed a reversal in his own. Here is another feature of narcissism. It is a self-absorption that tolerates no rivals. It is no accident that narcissists are often obsessively competitive. Even the drab narcissism of Uriah Heep will vie with others for the lowest seat at the table.

Self-absorption is endemic to human nature. C. S. Lewis observed, “If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud.” Yet even this does not go far enough. The narcissistic tendencies of sin are so deep-seated that they cannot be rehabilitated, repurposed, or disciplined into submission. In most cases, they cannot even be recognized by those who are so afflicted. The only real remedy is the grace of God and the gallows of the cross.

4 thoughts on “Self-Absorbed”

  1. I was listening to Chris Fabry today and I heard you speak on narcissistic leaders. I could relate to the woman who called in to say she attended, for the past 15 years, a church with a narcissistic pastor. My husband and I had attended a church with both a narcissistic pastor and his narcissistic wife, who was the church secretary.

    The pastor could not stand still long enough to speak with anyone, except perhaps the “pretty people”. After church, he would shake my hand and ask how I was doing, but the moment I opened my mouth to speak, he had already moved on. Shockingly, one day he actually lingered long enough to ask me a follow-up question about my children. I was stunned! But the moment I began to answer, he walked away mid-sentence. I learned never to speak to him because he really had no genuine interest in anyone, but himself.

    His wife was similar, though she would always engage in one-upmanship, then would speak on and on about herself to anyone who would listen. She mentioned how adorable my daughter’s “harvest” (Halloween) costume was that I had made then proceeded to tell me what an accomplished seamstress she was, making matching dresses every Easter for herself and her 4 daughters, and on and on… If I mentioned anything — my brain surgery, my son’s cardiac surgeries, my father’s Alzheimer’s disease — she always knew ALL about those things because SHE had a friend who also had those problems and thus she would take over all conversations, and again, it became all about her, or what she knew. Try as I might to get a word in edgewise, I couldn’t. I always felt utterly devalued. Nothing I did, or ever said, was of any value to them, so I simply stopped talking.

    I don’t know that I had ever met a more shallow couple. I watched them throw a family of “have-nots’ under the bus to save their own skins. Not long after that fiasco, they resigned from the church. Within a couple of months of their resignation, the couple divorced. I wasn’t surprised.

    My husband and I have long moved on from that church to one with a sincere pastor, and I am so grateful to have found a healthy church. I pray the woman who called into the show finds a healthy place to worship, too.

    1. Thanks, Mavis. So glad that you have found a healthy church. It hurts to be ignored by those who should show concern. Thanks so much for listening to the show.

  2. I appreciated your interview with Chris Fabry. We have a saying at church which might partly contribute to the pain and hurt narcissist leaders are able to inflict, “All sin is the same before God.”
    While there is much truth, we don’t often talk about the difference in effect different sins have. We think we are unable to call out sins that have devastating consequences because we, after all, have sins, too.
    We forget that the Word says that those who teach are judged more severely (James). Thanks for all you do!

    1. Thanks, Heidi. I agree. In our effort to emphasize God’s grace we sometimes downgrade the seriousness of sin. Thanks for listening!

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