On Selfies and the New Narcissism
(Isa.11:1-10; Rom.15:4-9; Mt.3:1-12)
Something I find remarkable in my travels is the number of people who photograph themselves in front of major landmarks. It’s not the Eiffel Tower or Taj Mahal that interests them. Rather, it’s the chance to get the perfect picture of themselves in a famous place.
Since ancient times people have wanted others to know what they look like, and in the Early Renaissance the rich and powerful began commissioning painted portraits. Because these paintings can reveal so much, the artists were often asked to highlight or hide certain details, in order to convey an impression about the subject’s wealth, power, status or attitude.
In her article Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism, Christine Rosen says that self-portraits are still popular today, but they’re more likely crafted from pixels than paints. We call them selfies now, and people like to post them on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram, along with musings about their busy lives and details of their hobbies and friends.
We put these pictures online, she says, because we’re looking for friendship, love and that ambiguous thing called ‘connection’. And like painters constantly retouching their work, we alter, update and tweak our online self-portraits, adding vital statistics, glimpses of bare flesh and other bits of information.
‘The Delphic Oracle’s guidance was know thyself,’ Rosen says, but ‘today, in the world of online social networks, the Oracle’s advice might be show thyself.’ That’s because what drives these virtual galleries is the desire for attention. [i]
Whitney Houston used to sing that the greatest love of all is learning to love yourself, [ii] and that’s what our social media encourages. In essence it’s narcissism, but it can lead to cyberbullying, sleep deprivation, lower self-esteem, social isolation, poor concentration, Internet addiction and depression.
The ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle taught that to live a complete life we must focus on meaning and purpose rather than just happiness, and for that we need to look beyond ourselves. [iii]
Here, Matthew’s Gospel has something to teach us today. John the Baptist is in the desert wilderness, dressed like a wild man in camel-hair and leather and looking like the ancient prophet Elijah. People from all over are flocking to him. Why? It’s because they’re looking for a way out of their own personal wilderness. They’re looking for answers.
John the Baptist urges them (and us) to ‘repent, for the kingdom of God is close at hand’. In other words, get ready, because Jesus is coming.
The Greek word for ‘repentance’ is metanoeo, which means turning around or changing. So, he’s telling us to change the way we think; to change the way we live.
Why should we do that? It’s because Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah (2Sam.23:1; 1Kgs.1:39). He’s the only way to truly escape from our own personal wilderness.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus describes himself as ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (Jn.14:6). What he means is that if you’ve chosen another way, then you’re heading in the wrong direction. If you believe another ‘truth’, then it must be false. And if you’re living another life, then you’re going nowhere (Jn.6:68).
John the Baptist adds that in this process of change you need to produce the appropriate fruit. That is, you need to show that you really have changed and not just thought about it. Indeed, to live like Christ isn’t a once-only process of transformation. We must keep changing until we’re totally like him (Rom.13:14; Col.3:12-17).
That’s the only way to truly escape from our own personal wilderness.
In her book Strange Gods, Elizabeth Scalia reminds us that God is the most high. She says that if we choose God – his light, his way and his truth – then everything will flow from the highest possible point. But if we choose something lesser (like ourselves) then our life will flow from a much lesser rise – from a hill, rather than from a mighty mountain. [iv]
In other words, if we reject God, we’re reducing our lives to the limits of our own human weakness. But if we choose God, we’re opening up our minds, hearts and lives to something far greater and more wonderful than ourselves (Jn.3:16; Mt.19:21; Rom.12:1-2).
Thankfully, some European countries have banned selfies at major landmarks.
As we prepare for Christmas, let’s ban them, too.
Let’s focus on Jesus instead of ourselves.
[i] Christine Rosen, Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism, The New Atlantis, Number 17, Summer 2007, pp. 15-31. https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/virtual-friendship-and-the-new-narcissism
[iii] Pattakos, A & Dundon, E., The OPA! Way: Finding Joy and Meaning in Everyday Life and Work. BenBella Books, Dallas. 2015.
[iv] Elizabeth Scalia, Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life. Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 2013.