You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.
— 1 John 4:4 (New American Standard Bible)
For those who regularly read my blog, you’ve probably noticed the increased focus over the past year on the issue of American obsession with individualism and its own greatness mythology. At least, the parts of which I’ve roughly translated into a collective American narcissism, or a collective American absorption with itself. It has become the latest idea, my latest potential project, but still too early to tell what, if anything, will come out of this so far. Most Americans remain blissfully unaware of anything that doesn’t involve winners, losers, vicarious living, and America always being seen as #1 at everything (even though in most cases it isn’t).
This post, though, isn’t about how the world’s #1 nation is deeply flawed by a narcissism that runs nearly as deep as the center of a black hole. No, this post is all about me. Really, it’s about the fact that even as I recognize America’s narcissism — both historical and current — that I myself am not inoculated from that narcissism.
My first bout with narcissism began at the end of elementary school at William H. Holmes in Mount Vernon, New York. It was the spring of ’81. I’d just finished up three years as a straight-A student, been made into a Hebrew-Israelite, came in second for a city-wide essay contest, and been granted the honor of introducing the keynote speaker at my graduation. Even with fighting my best friend Starling, my family’s slow but steady fall into grinding poverty, and the next six years of Humanities in front of me, who wouldn’t have a head as inflated as the Sun at its red-giant stage?
As I wrote in Boy @ The Window
I firmly believed that no one in the world was smarter than me. It wouldn’t have been any funnier if I’d pretended I was Mr. October himself, Reggie Jackson, saying his words, ‘Sometimes I underestimate the magnitude of me.’
It took a year of relative mediocrity while in seventh-grade Humanities for my march toward narcissistic personality disorder to end at the cliff of disillusionment. I wasn’t the “smartest kid in the whole world.” But as I also discovered in my time in this magnet program, neither were any of my classmates.
Perhaps the biggest lesson here was that I was all of eleven and twelve years old when America’s narcissism with individual achievement had caught me in a tangled web of lies and myths. No success or failure or anything in between occurs in a vacuum. No individual’s success happens purely on her or his own, without support, context, and in many cases, an advantage of one sort or another. It took years to learn this lesson, between Humanities and graduate school, the nonprofit world and academia, to learn to give up on the bullshit that is the American meritocracy.
That’s not to say that one can eliminate selfishness (which isn’t the same as narcissism, by the way), or shouldn’t strive for success or a better life for themselves or their kids or their families. But we should always ask ourselves why, in what context, how should we measure our victories, and even if running over others to achieve those victories is the right way to live? Most Americans don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t verify, and don’t think about their lives in this way, because most of us have been taught by this culture that the empathetic lens is a loser’s way of viewing the world.
I have taken a read — actually, several in the past year — of Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell’s book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (2009). Theirs is a good base to begin to view American society as one so obsessed with individualism that it renders us all anywhere between a little narcissistic to borderline Donald Trumps and Ted Bundys. The psychologists and psychiatrists in this niche have a test for narcissistic personality disorder or NPD, the Narcissistic Personality Index. It consists of 40 questions, seeking to determine whether one is low, medium, or high in narcissism within the index.
I took the NPI last August, and scored a 9 out of 40. It meant that I have some narcissistic tendencies, but only scored higher than 35 percent of those who’ve taken the NPI. I wasn’t even close to being an average American narcissist! Not really a surprise, as those seeking to take such an index are likely less narcissistic than their navel-gazing neighbors.
So, I am in this world and mostly of it, if only because it’s hard to divorce one’s existence from the world in which they live. But I am self-aware enough to know my own narcissism, and empathetic enough to see the narcissism in others.
Great. It still means that as a nation, our narcissism goes as far back as the mind can imagine. It still means that in a couple of centuries, historians will lament about the America that was. Those historians will see a country and a people so busy in building themselves up that they stomped on the oppressed and crushed the downtrodden in the process. A US with so many myths and ideals, but so few attempts at making any of them true.