Narcissus and Samson
Several thinkers are returning to the ancient myth of Narcissus as an emblem of the values and attitudes that dominate contemporary society. Christopher Lasch, in his bestseller The Culture of Narcissism, considers this attitude toward life "one of the main themes of American culture."1 Gilles Lipovetsky, a French sociologist, defines the present time as "the age of Narcissus."2 The trend can be seen even in the names of popular American magazines: from Life to People to Us to Self.
In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a handsome and conceited young man who spurned the advances of the nymphs Echo and Aminias. Aminias, hurt in her pride, cursed the young man, wishing that he would never possess the object of his love. One day, Narcissus bowed to drink from a water fountain. Seeing his own face reflected on the water, he fell in love with it. Narcissus was so attracted to his own image that he frequently returned to the water fountain to contemplate himself. Thus he went on languishing until he died. Another version of the legend tells that, seeing himself on the water, he tried to embrace his own image and drowned in the attempt. In that place, according to the legend, sprouted a new flower that takes the name of its unhappy creator— narcissus.
It was Sigmund Freud3 who added the term narcissism to the vocabulary of psychology to designate love to the self-image and the stage of development when a child makes his own self the main object of his or her love.4 These ideas have given rise to many studies that describe and analyze the distinct profile of the narcissistic personality.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMIV) of the American Psychiatric Association, narcissists are arrogant and conceited individuals who have magnificent fantasies about themselves. They overestimate their success, need to be constantly admired, and always expect preferential treatment. Narcissists are convinced that they deserve more than they receive. They are worried about looking good and keeping themselves young. They are insensitive to the needs and problems of other people. With little tolerance for criticism, they often react with fury to real or imaginary slights.They tend to be male rather than female.
To sum up, narcissists focus on themselves, fascinated with their own personality and their body, "with an atrocious individualism that lacks moral and social values and is disinterested about any transcendental matter."5 What we have is a self sitting on its throne, unconcerned about anything else in life.
The narcissists of both sexes display themselves on TV and cinema, proudly exhibiting their attractive curves or their big muscles, boasting about their fantastic prowess. We see them walking on the streets fashionably and seductively dressed, provoking admiration and envy. We find them on beaches displaying their marvelous tanned bodies. They follow the latest fashion, spend a lot of money on perfumes and makeup, and go on varied diets and therapies in order to be more attractive.
Such self-centered individualism seeks only self-satisfaction and pleasure. The desire for wellbeing and amusement of self eclipses everything else. Insensitivity and indifference dominate the narcissist's attitude toward the rest of the world and the interests or needs of others. Important philosophical, religious, economical, or political matters arouse only superficial curiosity. God becomes a stranger. The sense of transcendence disappears. What matters is comfort and good looks, preserving the standard of living, and gratifying self. Thus the narcissist lives only in the present and does not care about the past or the future. The philosophy of "do-your-own-thing," "don't-worry, be-happy," and "have-a-good-time" becomes the governing principle in life.
The culture of narcissism
The culture of narcissism is the celebration of physical appearance, the mirror's triumph, and the worship of self-image. Milan Kundera,6 the famous Czech writer, coined the term "imagology" to refer to the power of the social image imposed by those who determine fashion and its importance in all aspects of life—in the clothes we should wear, the gadgets we should use, the color combination we should prefer at home, who to vote for or who to applaud in a sporting event. The word "imagology," says Kundera, "helps us to combine in one word what has so many names: advertising agencies, image consultants for statesmen, designers in charge of designing car shapes and gym sets, fashion designers, hairdressers and show business stars, who dictate the norms of physical beauty to those who respect all the different branches of imagology."7
And so we arrive at postmodern narcissism: Ideologies are dead and imagology reigns.
Tragic component of narcissism
In spite of its success, narcissism has a tragic component that cannot be overlooked— Aminia's curse: the inability to love another person. Narcissists are in love with the mirror, looking to catch their own image in others. They are condemned to perpetual dissatisfaction.
Life for them is an absurd experience that leaves them with an inner emptiness and suffering; such is "the empty strategy" of narcissism.8 The drama of Narcissus, the absence of feeling and transcendency, inexorably condemns the person to loneliness and self-destruction. The myth is implacable and fatal. There seems to be no possible solution.
However, hope opens up, not in self-centeredness and meaningless, but in the everlasting Word of God. The theme of the Bible is the opposite of narcissism. It demands the surrender of self and the embrace of the other. Love of God and fellow humans dominates the biblical portrayal of life. Consider, for example, the story of Samson, which could be parallel to the myth of Narcissus in many ways, but shows the tragedy of self-centeredness and the triumph of selflessness.
Samson's experiment with narcissism
Samson was called to rescue his people from submission to a foreign power. God gifted him with extraordinary capabilities and resources, including an uncommon strength never equaled in history. However, he dedicated the greater part of his life to displaying the spectacle of his figure, proudly showing off his ingenuity and powerful muscles. He selfishly looked for sensual satisfaction with women of questionable morality and was terribly bothered when he wasn't satisfied. In a way he was trying to be a Narcissus.
The biblical narrative (Judges 13-16) focuses on six key episodes of his life: (1) a miraculous birth with a purpose; (2) marriage; (3) facing the Philistines; (4) the visit to a prostitute in Gaza; (5) Delilah's betrayal; and (6) captivity, punishment, repentance, faith, and triumph in death.
The story is dramatic and colorful. An angel communicates to Samson's
parents the miraculous birth of the hero. The heavenly messenger gives a series of dietetic and educational requirements, since the child has to consecrate himself to God by the Nazarite vow. The first event to challenge Samson's young life was his desire to marry a Philistine woman, a member of the very people from whom he was to deliver Israel. He simply said that the woman had "caught his eye" (see Judges 14:3). His parents raised an initial objection, but eventually gave in. During the wedding feast, Samson spent more time trying to get the guests' attention with his riddles than courting his bride. When the riddle was revealed, with the help of his bride, he became so violent that he killed 30 Philistines in order to pay the bet. Then he went back home, completely forgetting his bride. His wounded pride was stronger than his esteem toward his wife. Some time later he went back looking for her, but it was too late; she had already married another man. Again, he suffered another "narcissistic wound," reacting with an unusual violence and burning the Philistines' fields. That aggression incited the Philistines to attack the Israelites. The Israelites convinced Samson to give himself up, and he was bound and taken to the Philistines. But Samson broke the ropes, took a donkey's jawbone and killed 1,000 men.
On another occasion, Samson visited a prostitute in Gaza. The Philistines surrounded the city in order to watch the gates and capture him. However, at midnight he got up and lifted the gate and its two pillars onto his shoulders, carrying them far off to the top of a hill. Then Samson fell in love with another woman named Delilah, who betrayed him when he revealed the secret of his power. Delilah cut his hair and the Spirit moved away from Samson. He was captured by his enemies, his eyes were gouged out, and he was thrown into jail and condemned to hard labor. Under such unfavorable and difficult circumstances, Samson came to his senses and repented.
Samson's repentance from narcissism
Samson changed the direction of his life by carrying out a truly heroic final act. His captors had taken him to a feast celebrated in the Philistine temple devoted to Dagon. He was exhibited there as the proud symbol of Philistine triumph. Blind and bound, Samson was made the center of ridicule and scorn. Through him, the God of the universe and His people were publicly mocked. At that critical moment, Samson turned to God, asked forgiveness for his self-centered actions, and prayed for strength once again, this time to show that God is God. His prayer was answered. Samson could feel the power of God moving within him. He braced himself against the two central pillars of the building and pushed them hard until they were knocked down. So perished Samson together with 3,000 of his enemies.
What is the meaning of Samson's uncommon life? For certain, his story is enigmatic because of his puzzles and the secret of his strength. Even his name is a mystery. Etymologically it means "sun," even though others connect it with "to serve" or with "strong." What was certainly outstanding was his prodigious strength, meant for fulfilling a divinely ordained mission of deliverance. He understood this in the last moment. Instead of using his strength to "serve," he used it to be "sun," to make himself the brilliant center of the show. It is clear that Samson was not a psychopath or a pure-strength-and-empty-brain man. On the contrary, he was ingenious, sensitive, had a poetical bend (Judges 14:14, 18; 15:16), and repeatedly escaped from the Philistine traps Judges 16:2, 3). His weak point was women, but he was not a sex maniac. Rather than being defeated by women, Samson was defeated by his own arrogance and narcissism.
There is a key point in this story: the subject of the look. Sight plays a key role from the beginning to the end of Samson's life. He fell in love with the Philistine woman because he said, "she is good to my eyes." The same thing may have occurred with the prostitute of Gaza as well as with Delilah. Was it because of this that his enemies punished him with blindness? That was the turning point. Only at that moment Samson could look inside and recover the sense of his life and mission. Turning to God, he could overcome his narcissism, repent, and change.
The existential paradox
The biblical message returns over and over to this existential paradox: punishment turned into blessing. The basic model is Christ's example. The cross, a symbol of disgrace and humiliation, becomes the emblem of expiation and redemption. Here, the biblical story is contrary to mythology. While the latter ends in tragedy, the former opens the door of hope. The myth takes narcissism to its fatal outcome, while the biblical message never closes the possibility of change.
Had he lived today, Samson would have been the Hercules of the screen. He was the protagonist of an aesthetic play more than a symbol of epic heroism. On the surface, his story begins with high hopes and ends in catastrophe, as in Narcissus's myth. However, the last act in Samson's life was a consecratory one—an act that showed repentance, faith, and sacrificial love for God and His people. Ellen White states: "In suffering and humiliation, a sport for the Philistines, Samson learned more of his own weakness than he had ever known before; and his afflictions led him to repentance."9 Only at that moment did he listen to God. Up to that moment, he had lived on the fringe of transcendence, using God at his will (Judges 15:18). It was in the ultimate crisis that he perceived the dimension of faith.
The triumph of faith
In Greek mythology, Narcissus was the god of self-love, interested only in satisfying his own pleasure, completely unconcerned about other people's needs and about God. He symbolizes pride, vanity, conceit, and hedonism. Much of our culture reflects the false values of narcissism. Contemporary society tries to freeze adolescence, exorcize old age, idolize pleasure, and live in the high spirits of charm and seductiveness. But the myth leads to tragedy and self-destruction.
In contrast with this fateful myth, the biblical story of Samson offers an alternative of faith and hope. Surprisingly, but appropriately, Paul places Samson in the gallery of heroes of faith (Hebrews 11:32). Why? What in the life of this character was heroic? It was neither his exploits in fighting the Philistines nor the strength of his government, but in his courageous act of surrendering his life for the salvation of his people. Unlike Narcissus, who succumbed to the charm of staring at his own image, Samson was compelled to stop staring at himself in order to respond to his call to sacrifice. The dark hours of crisis destroyed his pride and made him fulfill the goal of his life, assuming his destiny as liberator in one final act. He chose to die in order to save his people from foreign oppression.
In a world saturated with the cult of narcissism, Samson's story teaches that nothing remains in life when mission is lost. The biblical narrative consistently points that the meaning of life can be found in God and in Him alone—away from self and anchored in faith, hope, and love.
Mario Pereyra (Ph.D., University of Cordoba), the author of several books, is a clinical psychologist practicing at Sanatoria Adventista del Plata and teaching at Universidad Adventista del Plata. His postal address: 3103 Libertador San Martin, Entre Rios, Argentina. Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Notes and references
- See Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (New York: Warner Books, 1989)
- G. Lipovetsky, La era del vacío: Ensayos sobre el individualismo contemporáneo (Barcelona: Anagrama, 1993).
- S. Freud, Introducción al narcisismo, in Obras completas (Madrid: Biblioteca Nueva), vol. 1, pp. 10831096.
- J. Laplanche and J. B. Pontalis, Diccionario de psicoanálisis, 3rd. edition, revised (Barcelona: Editorial Labor, 1981).
- E. Rojas, El hombre light: Una vida sin valores (Madrid: Ediciones Temas de Hoy, 1992).
- M. Kundera, La insoportable levedad del ser, 2nd edition (Barcelona: Tusquets Editores, 1990).
- Ibid., p. 140
- Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1913), p. 566.