Looking at the Myth of Narcissus through poets' eyes
Narcissism was already on the rise before Trump became synonymous with the term. So much so that it is now described as a modern epidemic. But before slighting Narcissus by linking him to Trump, perhaps we can look at the myth from a different perspective: What if the disorder was named after a misunderstood hero? Leave it to a nation of poets to give Narcissus a destiny that changes his story from a cautionary tale about the trappings of vanity to an expression of mythical love.
In the Greek Myth of Narcissus, the ill-fated chap falls in love with his own image in the lake, and this adoration renders him unable to move until he dies. But the Persian version of this myth has Narcissus diving into the lake. Unable to swim, he risks everything to unite with his beloved. When he drowns, two beautiful narcissus flowers emerge on the edge of the lake. These flowers are his eyes, seeing all of life as a reflection of himself, and in their pleasure, they emit the most heavenly fragrance.
So how does one frozen in the state of unripe narcissism embark on the journey to become a mythical lover? This requires us to shed our sterile perspective of psychopathology, leave the sad world of concrete literalism and step into the kingdom of ecstatic poetry. And what better way to explore this wondrous realm than through the enchanting poetry of Rumi:
Love said: If you are not mad, you are not welcome in this house!
So I became mad and stumbled through the wilderness
Love said: If you are too clever and sober, you are not welcome!
So I became intoxicated with love
I drowned myself in the sacred wine
Love said: Oh Candle, you are using your light to attract a crowd
So I screamed: Take my light, take my light!
Now I’m nothing but smoke
Perhaps our afflictive narcissistic tendencies are there because we’re still staring at our own image, too afraid to dive in. The true problem is that our narcissism has yet to fully flower.
This poem shows that our first step is to see that finding love isn't the conclusion of our journey, but only the beginning. Our beloved is there to open the door to a world beyond a small personal love affair.
Whether it is years of practice, a shattering heartbreak or a social injustice that shakes us to our core, we get a glimpse of ourselves as the whole of life. Naturally we freeze, seeing that what lies ahead is far less reassuring than we imagined. It is downright frightening as love asks us to take the risk of a lifetime and dive into the unknown without offering any guarantees for our safety. In fact it is most certain that the one diving in will die and a new creation will emerge.
This death and renewal finds itself in numerous examples of Persian poetry and mysticism. Even the word love (Eshgh) in Farsi comes from the word “ashagheh”, a vine similar to sandalwood that attaches itself to another plant’s root and commandeers all its resources for its own purpose. In the end, the original plant dies having given it all to ashagheh.
What uproots and transforms us so profoundly is our narcissism truly opening into a radiant, glorious love. It then becomes impossible not to see ourselves in everything:
Even though I am me and you are you,
You are me and I am you
In this state, we see that all of life is deserving of our love, our generosity and undivided attention. So what can we do but to give ourselves fully to this love, to share our treasures and to make choices that benefit our ever expanding community?
This ripened narcissism is not only healthy, but precisely what the world needs. Living from this perspective, we cannot continue to destroy the earth, to turn our backs on refugees and to ignore the racial and economic injustices. We cannot help but break out of the prison of self-obsession and fall in love with all of life.