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Narcissus and 2020: Peering Past the Surfaces

November 24, 2020


We are all familiar (or at least should be) with the myth of Narcissus. Narcissus was a young and dashingly handsome demigod. The son, according to some experts in Greek mythology, of a river god and a nymph, Narcissus wandered about hunting and looking beautiful. Women far and near lustily admired him but despaired at his inattention. Echo, a particularly charismatic nymph, was rebuffed by the young man and, in her heartbreak, was cursed and reduced to little more than the answering voice that haunts us in vast canyons and caverns. Such was the punishing allure of Narcissus.

But Nemesis, the goddess of anger, had had enough. She cursed the young man—the original Narcissist—with the burden of only ever loving himself. And so it was that this aloof breaker-of-hearts would catch his first glimpse of himself on the sheen of a pool’s surface and fall madly and irretrievably in love. From that point forward, Narcissus would share in the agony of those who adored him. Forever present, forever out of reach, Narcissus was unable to embrace his own entrancing image. In the end, the young man, wracked with despair, withered away and died. Even as he was ushered across the river that encircles the world of the dead, Narcissus could not resist one last forlorn glance at himself over the boat’s side.

Narcissus’ tale is a tragic one. A story of such self-absorption and vanity, it doesn’t simply annoy and irritate, but it kills the body and endangers the soul. Some versions of the tale even have Narcissus so desperate to possess himself that he longingly leans ever-closer to the pool’s image only to fall in and drown.

Recently, I have been reading Robert Cording’s wonderful new book, Finding the World’s Fullness: On Poetry, Metaphor, and Mystery. In it, I came across a different kind of Narcissus that I found quite refreshing and comforting. Cording points us to author Stephen Mitchell’s alternative consideration of Narcissus in his book Parables and Portraits.

It was not the image of [Narcissus’] own face that transfixed him as he bent down over the pool. . . . No, it was something else now that rooted him to the spot. Kneeling there, gazing into the so-taken-for-granted-form, he grew more and more poignantly aware that it was mere surface. When the water was calm, it was calm. When the water rippled at the touch of a leaf or fish, it too rippled; or broke apart when he churned the water with his hand. More and more fascinated, he kept staring through the image of his face into the depths beneath, filled with a multitude of other, moving, shadowy forms. He knew that if he stayed there long and patiently enough, he would be able to see straight through to the bottom. And at that moment, he knew, the image would disappear.

What if—truly, what if—Narcissus’ gaze in the pool was not, in fact, a curse but a liberation? What if, in finally encountering the true depths of who he was instead of the empty, surface image he (with the help of the world) was convinced constituted the entirety of his being, Narcissus arrives at a vision that transcends his outer appearance, a glimmer of his true dignity, a sense of what Christ actually sees in him?

Wouldn’t we, like Narcissus, long for this? Wouldn’t we be troubled anytime a ripple of water obscured the deeper beauty? Wouldn’t we seek to embrace this magnificent self and never let it go?

This, of course, is not the traditional story of Narcissus. But I happen to prefer it. Because for too long (in 2020, especially), I have gotten lost in my superficial self—the self that the world wants me to focus on. But I am not a creature of the surface defined by political tempests and shallow identities. None of us are. Instead, we are precious children of God—Christ-haunted spirits enfleshed for a time to walk the face of a troubled Earth. As such, we are charged not to skip across our thin surface, but to plunge into the depths of our limitless intrigue and glorious complexity. We are asked to see the deeper, inextinguishable beauty that Narcissus could only hope for.

To do this, we must peer with the eyes of Christ into the depths of ourselves that we have missed in our world-blindness. But this takes time and patience, humility and introspection, prayer and the sacraments. And once we see what God wants us to see, we will not die, like Narcissus or Echo, in despair. Instead, we will live as witnesses to truth and unconquerable joy. We will know, at last, that we are something—a very special something—that transcends vain images and shallow self-absorption.

Christ told his disciples “put out into the deep.” He calls us to do the same. And while we are there, as the waves obscure and the froth distracts, let us peer unflinchingly into the depths, which will remind us once again of who we truly are.