Narcissism is basically excessive self-love. It manifests itself in abusive and fawning, selfish and manipulative, behaviours. Narcissists are secretly or openly vain and greedy, conceited and self-obsessed. They seek status and adoration, even special status and special adoration. A narcissist believes that he is a Very Important Person and wants to be recognised as such, by his partner, friends and family, and by the world at large.
Everybody is a bit of a narcissist, a bit of a Diva. And everyone is also a bit of a Muggle, Muppet, Victim, Addict and Demon. It’s only when one of these fine fellows blows up out of all proportion that we recognise it as a “problem”. Then we can use our DSM to diagnose the appropriate personality disorder: narcissistic (Divas); borderline (Muppets); obsessive-compulsive (Muggles and Addicts); dependent (Victims) and sadistic (Demons). See Personality Disorders (chapter 8 of part 2 of my book, The Confessions of a Psychedelic Christian).
Post-Freudian received wisdom has it that the basic problem at the root of all our mental dis-ease is “repression”. Freud gives a cultural-historical account of this problem in his bestseller Civilization and Its Discontents, whose title speaks for itself (basically we are unhappy because in order to be civilized we have had to repress our natural narcissistic impulses to get along).
The solution and cure, as it has been taken up in popular culture and popular consciousness is simple: “express yourself!”. Watch pretty much any pop music video and you will see this message coming through loud and clear, often accompanied by an impressive amount of posing and prancing about. Now, with the advent of social media, not just pop stars, but anyone and everyone can pose and prance to their heart’s content.
The Mary Whitehouses of this world look on in horror. “Repress yourself!” they scream. And so it goes. Muggles think Divas are terrible show-offs and Divas think Muggles are terrible bores. The real difference is that Divas are open narcissists busily expressing themselves, whereas Muggles are secret narcissists busily repressing themselves.
Freud was famously critical of religion, which he sneeringly dismisses as a superstitious relic of pre-scientific ignorance in his other massive bestseller, The Future of an Illusion. For him, as for Nietzsche, religion amounts to little more than the worship of repression. It is fundamentally anti-life, anti-freedom, anti-sex, anti-self-expression, anti-will-to-power. Religious people are basically pale, emaciated, pathetic killjoys.
Modern people, liberated from the shackles of religion, are free to be themselves and to express themselves however they like. They can wear whatever clothes they like, listen to whatever music they like, have sex with whomever they like, snort whatever they like. As long as they don’t break the law (or get caught) nobody can tell them what to do. Not even their mum. Why? Because there is no God, so no one has authority to judge them in his name. Whoever judges them does it from their own subjective, relative, repressed and unenlightened point of view.
As long as God is seen as a tyrannical, repressive father, as William Blake’s Nobodaddy, I feel completely justified in rebelling against him. Like Lucifer, I want my own light to shine. I want to shine like the stars. I want to break free. God knows, I want to break free.
The choice is clear: express yourself or repress yourself. Be someone or be a nobody. Being a nobody obviously sucks and religion is obviously all about being humble and being a nobody, so away with religion! If you think I’m joking, just look at what it says in the Bible. You can’t get clearer than this, for example:
“Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”
But then again, what if there is a third possibility? What if “deny thyself” does not just mean “repress thyself”? Jesus is certainly a model of self-denial. He certainly took up his cross. But what does that even mean? What does the crucifix mean? That bizarre and uncomfortable image of a dying man hanging on a cross? How is that something to emulate? How can we follow that? Is it really just the sick worship of an anti-life masochistic death instinct?
The secret meaning of the crucifix struck me like a ray of sudden sunlight while sitting quietly in a side chapel of the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. In fact the sun did suddenly strike the crucifix on the altar, lighting up the rays of the halo behind Christ’s head. His head was bowed, almost as if he were moving it out of the way of the resplendent golden halo behind it, which, catching the light of the sun through the window, itself shone like the sun.
Because he emptied himself of self (kenosis) Jesus made room for something else. Something else shone through him. Call it the Holy Spirit or God or the Son of God, he got out of the way. He got his head out of the way and he got his ego out of the way. And he shone with the universal light of the sun beyond the light of any individual candle.
Saint Paul also saw the light, “the true light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (John 1:9) and understood that he was not that light, and that the more he denied himself, the more it shone through him:
“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.”
There are other religions apart from Christianity, of course. There are the three main Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) and the three main Eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism). But they all teach self-denial and self-transcendence. The promise is that there is a way beyond both expression and repression where life flows through us, without any narcissistic attempt to claim it or hold onto it for ourselves. The same is true for the psychedelic experience. You must get out of the way and “make room for the mushrooms”.
This is the true religious instinct. Instead of being full of ourselves, we become a channel or instrument of peace, beyond the stress and strain of narcissistic self-concern, as Saint Francis of Assisi beautifully puts it in his famous prayer:
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offence, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.”