As human beings, we are obsessed with images. Since the invention of the camera in the mid-nineteenth century, this piece of technology has been something we most often have pointed outward toward the world. When the front-facing cameras on our mobile phones became available, we turned the lens from looking at the world to looking at ourselves. We now live in the age of the selfie.
There is a paradox with selfies, though. One study showed that 82 percent of us prefer to view normal pictures rather than selfies on social media. Selfies are often associated with self-centered narcissism and a lack of authenticity, and we don’t like those things when we see them in others. Based on these and other observations, some researchers have said that “selfies should have never become as popular as they actually are.”1
Our fascination or even obsession with images of ourselves is nothing new. In Metamorphoses, Book 3, by the Roman poet Ovid, we encounter the story of Narcissus from Greek mythology. It’s a rich tale in terms of exploring human nature and how we relate to ourselves and one another. Here is an excerpt of the story:
Narcissus, tired from hunting and the noon heat, finds a beautiful, peaceful, clean mirror-like spring. There he lies down. While he stoops to quench his thirst, another thirst increases. As he is drinking, he sees himself reflected in the mirrored pool and falls in love. He loves an imagined body that contains no substance, for he believes the mirrored shade is worthy of his love. And now he can’t move because he is so infatuated with himself.
The myth about Narcissus reveals the problem of narcissism: the person who is not able to love someone else but seeks and loves the image of himself. But such love is wasted love. The image he sees of himself cannot love him back. And when he realizes that it all is in vain, he loses his life. An ancient story, yet as relevant as ever to humankind.
We live not only in the age of the selfie but also in the age of narcissism, for the story of humankind is a story of narcissism. The story of sin is a story of narcissism.
In the journal Psychodynamic Practice, group analytic psychotherapist Pat MacDonald wrote: “Ever increasing levels of greed, self-obsession, superficial relationships, arrogance and vanity are everywhere apparent and not making us any happier. . . . Narcissistic traits, involving vanity, arrogance, feeling special, lacking empathy, and having little regard for others, are becoming increasingly common.”2
This was written in a secular, academic journal. But the words remind me of Paul’s message to Timothy: “There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:1-4, NIV).
MacDonald continues: “There may be serious disturbances in self-esteem which can ensnare the individual, just like Narcissus in a shallow world of self-obsession and grandiosity with no warm or loving relationships. Grandiosity is a defense against deep feelings of inferiority and is neither constant nor consistent, leaving the individual torn between thinking himself wonderful or worthless.”
“The narcissist focuses excessively on his own image and how he is perceived by others, replicating the obsession of Narcissus with his reflection in the water. Individuals can create an identity which presents an unrealistic, glamorous portrait of the self, artificially boosting self-esteem.”
Ordinary Is Good
A few years ago my family was gathered for Christmas. My brother and I were in the kitchen talking with my niece Dina, my sister’s then 6-year-old daughter. We were asking her silly questions, such as “What do you want to become when you grow up?” Upon being asked that, she got quite annoyed. Then she gave an answer that is one of the most mature, profound, and psychologically healthy things I have ever heard: “I just want to be an ordinary person!”
An ordinary person: common, average, normal. If only we all could be content with that. By worldly standards, Dina may never become anything beyond ordinary. But in my eyes, she is quite exceptional. She is one of the most relational, caring, and considerate people I know.
If only Lucifer (Satan) in heaven would have said, “I just want to be an ordinary angel!” If only Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden would have said, “We just want to be ordinary people!” If only the narcissist within each one of us would surrender and reconcile the beauty that is found in being an ordinary person. If only we could cease to create grandiose, inflated images of ourselves.
Lucifer is the prototype narcissist. In Isaiah 14:13, 14 we read: “You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High’ ” (ESV).
This is the language and thinking of a narcissist. “I,” “my,” “myself.” The decline and fall of the devil was his focus on the “I.” The decline and fall of every human being since the fall has been the “I.” The decline and fall of every community, church, institution, society, nation, and empire has been the “I.”
Ever since the fall of Satan, then the fall of humanity, the great misunderstanding has been what the essence of being in the likeness of God is. Humankind has bought into the devil’s delusion of what it means to be in the likeness of God. Satan, then human beings, envied and desired God’s greatness, His highness, and His superiority. We crave to be exalted like God. But that is not what being in the likeness, in the image, of God is about.
Is It I or We?
The true likeness of God is being relational; being in a partnership, in fellowship, and in community. It highlights the “We,” not the “I.” For the devil and humanity, the fundamental temptation, and the fundamental sin, has ever been and will always be exalting the “I” over the “We.” When we focus on the “I,” then we desire to rise above others. When we focus on the “We,” then we desire relationships with others. Being one of, but not above. Being ordinary.
In the Creation story of Genesis 1, up until the creation of humanity, all acts of creation are initiated with the words “Let there be.” In these words God doesn’t reveal Himself. But when we come to the creation of humans, the words of God change. As God is about to create human beings in His image, His words reveal the essence of who He is. God reveals Himself by saying “Let Us,” “in Our image,” and “Our likeness.” God is not about the “I.” God, His image, and His likeness are about the “Us,” the “Our.” God is about the “We.”
The story of humanity’s creation is not the story of humanity being exalted above the rest of creation. That is the story of the Fall, of humans seeking to be exalted above the rest of creation, even to the level of being exalted like God. Our problem is that disconnected from God, we cannot tolerate the smallness of what we are. Therefore, we are driven to compensate by creating images of ourselves that are bigger than what we are.
Narcissism is the antithesis of the image of the triune God. The image of God is the “We.” It is the reflection of the love, benevolence, and harmony of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in a relationship, in partnership, in fellowship, and in community. The image of God is expressed in the creation of “Them”: the male and female; the couple; and beyond that, the community of humanity, and the rest of creation.
A self-centered life will never satisfy. Fame, fortune, power, or any other kind of greatness according to human standards may never truly satisfy. God is others-centered. We are created in His image, and thus only an others-centered life can truly satisfy. Being created in God’s image, we are to reflect God to the rest of creation: His character, His love, His goodness, His benevolence, His care, and His joy in relating. This is what life is about. That’s the kind of life we should live.
And in those who live like this, the image of God is evident still today. “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:26, 27, NIV).
1 S. Diefenbach and L. Christoforakos, “The Selfie Paradox: Nobody Seems to Like Them, Yet Everyone Has Reasons to Take Them. An Exploration of Psychological Functions of Selfies in Self-presentation,” Frontiers in Psychology 8 (2017), https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00007.
2 P. MacDonald, “Narcissism in the Modern World,” Psychodynamic Practice 20, no. 2 (2014): 144-153, https://doi.org/10.1080/14753634.2014.894225.