The one benefit of having a flagrant narcissist in the White House is what it reveals about our society. The president provides a mirror (which is a metaphor narcissists adore) that reflects what drives much of our own national behavior. Our fascination with celebrities — whether we worship or hate any given one — indicates how entangled we are with vanity. Whether we obsess over the primaries, the playoffs or the Oscars, many of us live vicariously through the reflected glory of our idols and the anticipated downfall of our adversaries.
While religious leaders, myself included, are deeply implicated in a culture of egotism, our sacred traditions contain many antidotes to the poison of narcissism. Humility is a central virtue in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. (In fact, the word “Islam” means “submission to God,” and “Muslim” means “surrender.”)
Beyond just core values, there are the practices and rituals of the spiritual paths. One Buddhist meditation that I have found quite helpful requires you to imagine that you can view your own corpse as it slowly transforms from recently deceased, to aged, to dust that blows away in the wind. While this might terrify some of us, it is ultimately not a fantasy — it is a guarantee that our bodies will die, decay and return to the dirt. Facing our death is one form of resistance to the narcissistic mind, which absolutely cannot face our mortality.
One of the most profound practices of embracing humility and mortality in my tradition is Ash Wednesday, a holy day occurring later this month, on which Christians receive ashes and oil pressed to our foreheads. As this occurs, we hear ritual words, which do not feed the ego. They are not upwardly mobile words. They are: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These are downwardly mobile words. They remind us of our ephemeral state, the cyclical nature of time, our dirt-ness, and our humbleness.
Dominant cultures discourage us from contemplating our mortality because it disrupts the notion that we can enjoy infinite economic growth despite the finite resources of our planet. The ashes remind us that we shall die some day and our bodies will become ash, water and vapor.
Whatever the practices, words and ideas might be that speak to you, I pray that we all might be released from the clutches of upwardly mobile, status-obsessed social programming. May we embrace our dirt-ness, remember our smallness, repent of our hoarding and narcissism and surrender to the joy of a love that does not keep score. May grace prevail in our lives and make us and our world anew.
Rev. John Helmiere convenes Valley & Mountain Fellowship. He can be reached through www.valleyandmountain.org.
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