After listening to a talk about the dangers of narcissism in the spiritual life, a brother turned to me and said, “I’m pretty sure that whole talk was about me.” I assured him that the talk was definitely about me.
Kidding aside, the temptations to narcissism abound. As I pass people on the sidewalk or push onto a full Metro car, I’m aware of others only enough to avoid them. I usually treat the people walking past me on the city streets like I treated the trees in my rural hometown—as features of the landscape that add some nice variety but often get in the way. Whether we’re in line waiting at the bank or at work trying to push through some job on time, other people seem an impediment to our plans. In the mirror of life we so often see only one actor—ourselves—and one set of needs—our own.
In most cases the real testing of our love of others comes in more intimate settings than the sidewalk. It comes in our homes and communities, in our families and among our friends. And in this testing, which we so often fail, we discover in an ever deeper way the smallness of our love of others and of God. We need greater love, love that expands our hearts beyond the boundaries of our own myopic concerns.
God’s is a marvelous, sustaining love, and all of us should often seek and ponder it in prayer. But do we think of God’s love for those others, those who irk us or bore us or seem to us more like a dead tree limb than a person? Jacques Maritain asks,
On deeper reflection, how can we keep from thinking that God Who knows us and knows all those poor beings who jostle us and whom we know as objects, whose wretchedness we mostly perceive—how can we keep from thinking that God Who knows all these in their subjectivity, in the nakedness of their wounds and their secret evil, must know also the secret beauty of that nature which He has bestowed upon them? … The exhaustive knowledge possessed by God is a loving knowledge. (Existence and the Existent, 85)
I find this a very helpful thought in the battle against narcissism. Through the lens of narcissism, we see only our desires and talents to the exclusion of our wretchedness, and others’ wounds to the exclusion of their dignity. But God, who we know loves us, loves with a greater love than we can imagine those “whose wretchedness we mostly perceive.” And, if we ask him, God may grant us an intuition of that “secret beauty” at the heart of those particular people whom we find most difficult to love, a beauty which is nothing other than the very image of God Himself.