Right now a friend of mine is reading a book called The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism is Seducing America by Drew Pinksky, and it sounds fascinating. The book examines the narcissistic behaviors of modern day celebrities, and the ways in which “the rest of us, especially young people, are mirroring these dangerous traits in our own behavior.” (From the publisher’s description)
Last night over dinner, my friend shared some interesting tidbits from the book, such as the growing tendency to look at another person and not see them, but instead a mirror reflecting back on you. The way others treat you and speak about you informs your self-understanding and self-image. For a growing number of Americans, the world is nothing but a mirror pointing back to them.
Pinsky likened this mirror effect to the concept of “object permanence.” In case you are unfamiliar with the term, object permanence refers to our understanding that an object continues to exist, even when it moves out of sight. Infants do not begin with this framework and must learn to acquire it, but the rest of us easily understand that as soon as your friend leaves the room, her disappearance does not signify her non-existence.
However, as easily as we comprehend object permanence, many Americans struggle with the notion of “image permanence.” A person without the capacity for image permanence is dependent on constant affirmation in order to maintain a positive self-image. The moment that affirmation is gone, their positive self-image goes with it. There is no ability to sustain healthy self-image apart from the praise of others.
Now I have to admit, these words are rather timely for me. The world of blogging can be a brutal one, and the more I write for well-read blogs and online publications, the the more likely I am to get criticized. And people can be MEAN! So in the midst of criticism, I find myself oscillating between the one extreme of feeling hurt and insecure, or the other extreme of anger, which leads me to think equally mean thoughts about the people who criticize me. Neither end of the spectrum is productive or edifying.
Which is why I so appreciated my friend’s solution. As we talked about the mirror effect she noted that Scripture, not other people, should serve as our ultimate mirror. Not only does it reflect back to us God’s love and His perfect plan for creation (which includes us!), but it also foists our eyes off of ourselves. When we look into God’s Word, we are not only told who we are, but we are also reminded (blessedly!) that this world is not about us. Our lives are not our own. We were created for a glorious purpose, and only God knows what that is. Ultimately, our lives are to be pointed God-ward, not inward.
As discouraging as our narcissistic culture can be, it is not new. In the 4th century, the great Christian theologian St. Augustine used strikingly similar language to Pinsky. He spoke of our souls as being turned in upon themselves, away from God. Apart from God’s grace, we are helpless to choose anything but our broken, self-serving ways. Without God’s intervening love, we are not free. Our wills are in bondage to sin, and ourselves.
That is why I found this book so convicting. By God’s grace, through faith in Christ, I am free from that inward-pointing narcissism. And still I choose it. In so many ways my heart looks just like the celebutantes Pinksy described. I hope to do a better job of using Scripture as a mirror, but more importantly I aim to lean more on God’s grace in this area of my life. I am tired of thinking so much about myself. I want to be free enough to forget myself and instead live the life God set out for me to have.