Something Bigger than Myself

19 May

“The weird thing with being a veteran, at least for me, is that you do feel better than most people. You risked your life for something bigger than yourself. How many people can say that?”

These are the words of an Iraq war vet in Phil Klay’s book of short stories from the war, entitled, Redeployment (Penguin, 2014). As I read those words, I am confined to a wheelchair, still waiting, after eight months of examination and consultation, for a team of doctors to come up with a diagnosis for what has turned out to be a complicated hip problem. Let me tell you that this situation does a marvelous job of focusing my attention–on myself, on me. Narcissism is a constant reality. It prompted this poem a couple of months ago:

Cars and Snakes

Cars used to have floorboards.
You could pull back the mat,
Part the panels,
See the road beneath.

Narcissism lurks in my soul,
Like a snake slithering
In through those floorboards.

Cars don’t have floorboards any more,
But the snakes are there–
Still slithering in.

Narcissism can be comfortable–that’s the worry. At the same time, it is tedious. It’s not only that focusing on yourself can be very boring, it’s also demoralizing to think that there’s not something bigger in your life, to lead your thinking to a higher level.

For most of you that may be a strange thing to say, because you’re serving something bigger everyday–working in the church, working for the betterment of society, for the common good, for your families, for the company. The handicapped, particularly those who are severely so, have more temptation of narcissism. For one thing, we’re focused on our limitations and our inability to get up, get out, and be physically active. We’re frustrated, and frustration is powerfully self-focussing. We also have to ask for help, we’re more dependent than “normal” people–that’s another pressure to put ourselves at front and center, especially when the helper has to put out a lot of time and effort to meet our needs.

The handicapped person is an epitome of all people–one doesn’t have to be disabled to be prey to an obsessive focus on self. Our society fosters narcissism in all of us, often driven by the engine of consumerism. The market looses a barrage of products and techniques for massaging our bodies and our psyches–to combat illness, sexual inactivity, boredom–and also offers to satisfy our envy, greed, lust, and desire to impress those around us. Our manhood and our womanhood are laid before us, for us to grasp. Christopher Lasch’s book, Culture of Narcissism (1979), goes to the heart of this situation–that’s why it has become a classic. Pleasure-seeking is a part of what afflicts us, but even deeper is the demand that unless we meet certain norms, conform to certain images, our selves will not be affirmed. The pleasures on offer match us to these images of self. Our search for self and for affirmation come together–enticed by pleasure, consumption, and the quest to be the beautiful people that society fosters. I’ve always thought that the ads in the Sunday New York Times Weekly Magazine offer a handbook of consumerist-based narcissism.

However, the needs of our fellow humans are also reported to us–the poor, the sick, the persecuted, the marginalized. How to get involved in the larger communities?–that is the question. Phil Klay’s soldier enlisted to fight a war in Iraq for freedom, to improve human lives, to root out terrorists, really big causes. Most of us, especially we handicapped, cannot sign up for a larger cause as easily as these vets did. But when they return, Klay’s vets find civilian life boring–the mall shopping, for example, a symbol of our ceaseless efforts to satisfy our narcissisms. No image is inculcated more vigorously today than the Good Consumer. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, for example, we receive daily reports on how much we are buying and how that will revive our economy. In Germany, “Black Friday” designates the day on which Jesus was crucified (Good Friday in the U.S.). In our society, it refers to the opening day of the Christmas shopping season, on which we try our best to put American business “in the black.” The average American can do nothing greater to help our country than to buy–and buy as much as possible.

Making ourselves physically beautiful is a key image that is set before us. In 2012, Americans spent $10.4 billion on a total of 14 .6 million cosmetic surgery procedures. 13 million of these were devoted to re-shaping our bodies to be more “beautiful.”

For some, retirement brings out the serpent narcissism, because we are no longer working for a “career”–in church, education, public service, or business. Previously, the realities bigger than ourselves were always present. Our society pictures successful retirement as the quintessence of gratifying our endless desires–it’s the culmination of “happiness.” The cover of the AARP monthly magazine sets the image of the happy retiree before us–glossy, glamorous, and in full color. If the New York Times gives us a Bible for upscale consuming, our retirement association sends us a monthly poster to tape to our mirror.

The recitation of this particular cultural landscape, by itself, with no further elaboration, voices the tedium and shallowness, the rock-bottom emptiness, which is a starting-point that circles back upon itself to become end-point, as well. Narcissism has no redeeming value whatsoever.

It may be that my handicapped condition poses in sharp relief the struggle that many able-bodied people face in more subtle ways–to admit that narcissism, the ever-present snake under the floor boards, is boring–and to find ways to relate to the something bigger that calls to us.

Several of you readers have told me that my postings and poems are opening a, window to the condition of the handicapped. This piece does that, too. However, I continue to believe the boundary between the handicapped and the normal is a blurred one, and I continue to understand myself, not on the fringe of the human community, but rather an epitome of men and women in general.

Any responses to this idea?

(c) Phil Hefner


4 Responses to “Something Bigger than Myself”

  1. Tom Ford May 19, 2014 at 3:28 am #

    Have you read M. Scott Peck ‘ s book PEOPLE OF THE LIE? I think the narcissism you describe is very different from narcissistic personality disorder.

    • Tom Ford May 19, 2014 at 3:30 am #

      Your “narcissism” is a normal preoccupation with circumstance. Narcissistic personality disorder describes an evil person who is destructive.

      I think a better term would be “self-preoccupation.”

      • philnevahefner May 19, 2014 at 3:46 am #

        Yes, quite different. I am doing cultural critique, in the mode of Lasch, and it isn’t the kind of psychological analysis that Peck does. It’s important to distinguish between the two. Thanks for this reminder.

  2. philnevahefner May 19, 2014 at 3:48 am #

    And I want to emphasize the obsessiveness of this self-preoccupation.

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