Over pizza and beers the other night a friend of mine described an interesting literature course she’s taking at the university this semester, interesting because the theme is “narcissism.” This concept has been getting a lot of buzz lately in relation to everyone from the President to the Millennials (who, interestingly and much to their credit in my view, mostly didn’t vote for him). Selfie culture is often cited as evidence of our supposedly increasingly self-absorbed and self-aggrandizing mentality, which in turn is supposedly evidence of the imminent downfall of civilization, or at the very least may contribute to ocular strain due to excessive eyerolling. “This class really makes me think,” my friend said, adding with a grin, “I take a lot of selfies. I wonder if I’m a narcissist.”
I assured her that being able to ask that question probably means she isn’t. If you can view yourself critically from an outsider’s perspective, instead of falling in love with the image you see of yourself as did the mythical dude who gave the malady its name, a few social media-posted photos of yourself smiling over a plate of food or sporting a new haircut or cuddling with kittens seems harmless and possibly even, I daresay, fun. I myself don’t actually take very many selfies—my phone plan is so bare bones that I can’t do too much more than call people with it (shocking, I know), plus I’ve never much enjoyed taking and posting pictures of myself. At the same time, I blog about my life, which could be seen as little more than verbal narcissism, so you won’t find me among the eyerollers.
In some ways it may even be essential to examine your own self-image. The writing I do for my blog gives me a chance to look at things that have happened to me and try to figure out how they might be meaningful. The meaning I “discover” is actually a creation—an image. Nothing that happens to me really “means” anything—it just happens—but by creating that meaning, life becomes a little more interesting as well as a little easier to grasp. Sure, you can go too far with any of this stuff—you can get to the point where you believe in the creation far more than the reality. Narcissus fell in love with a reflection off of water, not himself, which is what led to his literal downfall (and subsequent drownfall). Obsess too much about self-image and you end up living a life with no real substance. (Yeah, you might also end up President of the United States, but one with a lousy approval rating and a lot of unflattering memes.)
The criticism given to selfie culture isn’t just because it leads to self-absorption but because it seems to demand the absorption of others. It isn’t enough that we live satisfying lives; we have to broadcast the choicest bits of those lives to everyone we know, even if just barely, so that they can gnaw their lips to shreds in sheer envy. In other words, the modern day Narcissus doesn’t just fall in love with his own reflection but instead gathers everyone he knows around him at a moment when his reflection is looking particularly amazing and insists they fall in love with it too—or at least “like” it. Obviously, as I said before, taken to extremes this is unhealthy. But there’s a positive side to having other people see your life this way, and it comes during times when you’re having a hard time seeing it yourself.
The pizza and beer I mentioned at the start of this post was a thank-you dinner I bought for a bunch of friends who helped K and me move our heavy furniture to our new old house. Yes, we are finally moving in, even though we’ve hardly done anything to spruce the place up and there isn’t a single square foot that doesn’t need some kind of work. Moving is said to be one of the most stressful events in a person’s life, and this particular move has been a real test of our marriage. On top of the usual stressors of moving (why is it that every time you go to cancel a particular service because you’re moving, it’s like you’re the first person who has ever done that because the customer service people are absolutely flummoxed as to how to handle it?) is the fact that it will likely be years before this house looks like a place where functioning, gainfully employed adults live. I don’t know what your Valentine’s Day plans are, but we’re probably going to spend it making sure the kitchen cabinets are free of mouse poop before we put our dishes away—that is, if we can find where the dishes are.
Oh, we didn’t go into this blind. We knew it would be a trial. It’s one thing to know about stuff, though, and another thing for stuff to actually happen. I know people go skydiving. The hell if I’m ever going to do it. That said, there have been times in the past two months when it did feel a bit like we were in free-fall without parachutes, and the day we moved would be the day we splatted down to earth. And even though most of the time I look forward to the future ahead of us, when our friends pulled up to the new old house and got out, I have to admit: I took a look at what we were all looking at and felt my heart go splat. Broken windows. Mossy siding. Piles of junk excavated from the attic. A field not of dreams but of weeds. Whatever image I had created and fallen in love with was suddenly impossible to see.
“Well,” I said wryly to my friends. “Here it is.”
I look, startled, at the friend who had said this. I’d expected some “wows” and a few “cools,” since “wow” can be ambiguous and “cool” can mean “so cool that you have the energy and ambition to clean up this dump.” I had not expected beautiful.
His remark was sincere, and it was echoed throughout the day by the others.
“I so envy you.”
“Can I live here too?”
Even when we admitted how difficult it has been—and will no doubt continue to be—our friends had nothing but admiration and support. One noted the great old doors, originals from 1900, and what fabulous details they had. “Did you notice one of the doorknobs had all these hearts worked into the design? It’s a little tarnished but with some polish that would look so good!”
I had not noticed that particular doorknob. I went to look after I got back to the house that night and sure enough, the closet door of the master bedroom had an intricate design of tiny Valentines. Hmm. Maybe cleaning mouse poop on February 14th isn’t really that terrible after all, if we’re doing it here in our beautiful dump.
Sometimes it does take an outside perspective for you to gain your own perspective. You don’t need to fall in love with the image you create of your life, nor is it necessary for everyone else to; you merely need to keep creating, and sharing, as much as will keep it worthwhile.