Monday, June 05, 2006

Current Events

Life is a feedback system, and failure helps consciousness align itself with the universe. If failure is disappointment arising when the world does not meet our expectations, and if wisdom accepts the world on its own terms, then failure can be the first step in the road to wisdom. "Greatness", of course, involves bending the world to suit your will, but we'll save that for a different blog.

If it weren't boring, repetitive, addictive and toxic, the narcissistic response to failure would be very funny. An experienced narcissist puts failure in the service of their exceptionalism: it is an indisputable premise that their talent is greater, so the only explanation for failure is that the subversions were greater, the obstacles were greater, or their enemies were more powerful (the Dolchstosslegende, the final word in next year's National Spelling Bee). Because the sense of entitlement is outsized, the sense of betrayal is deeper, and everything is grotesquely magnified to comic proportions. And if there is no-one to blame, a narcissist preserves the image of their own uniqueness by believing that their own pain is unique and exceptional in its extremity.

Is there a cure?

My favorite jataka features the woman desparate to cure to her grief over the death of her son. A wise man tells her to grind a paste from a hundred mustard seeds, each one individually gathered from a different house that has not known death. She starts on her way, knocking on a neighbor's door, but it turns out that they have just lost their mother-in-law. At the next house, a happy place brimming with children, her request brings the tearful memory of a stillborn baby. A few more houses, and not a single mustard seed, and she realizes that her own grief, while it seemed unbearable when it was hers alone, was only part of the way of the world.

In short, community and honest communication are the cure for narcissism. If you open your eyes to the sadness and disappointment all around you, your own pain becomes less overwhelming. And that points to the deeper problem with the loss of community in our world: when people lack multi-generational contacts, it is easier for narcissism to convince itself that every aspect of experience is special. A person's child becomes the savior of the universe. Their suffering is the cross of the ages. Their in-laws or ex-spouses are world-class Sadeans or unimagineably irresponsible. Because they believe in the uniqueness of their problems, disappointments are doubly heartbreaking, and they are unwilling to stop, listen and observe. It is all very pathetic and all very predictable.

But what happens if the situation is real, rather than a fantasy? Would outsized responses be justified in the face of outsized tragedy? I would never dispute a person's right to grief, but when a wise person confronts an objectively horrifying situation, they eventually learn to treat it as runofthemill *.

My favorite proverb in the western tradition is probably: "To err is human; to forgive, divine". When we encounter this clichee, it is easy to forget that we partake of divine nature at the moment when we transcend the tit-for-tat economy of shame and blame. I mention "shame" because sometimes it is necessary to forgive oneself, as many people wear their sins as narcissistic badges of honor, and exult in the self-indulgent myth of their unique depravity, when, in fact, to err is human, and there is nothing terribly special about most mistakes.

It is, of course, usually easier to forgive yourself than it is to forgive others, particularly when forgiveness entails forsaking a potential revenue stream, and the adversarial system in a litigous entitlement society promotes psychologically infantilizing absolutist narcissistic thinking. People are encouraged to think of themselves as "having a case" and "being in the right", just as the legal system tempts them with potential rewards for their self-perceived victimization. In contrast to our civilization, the promise of Buddhism and Christianity is that the world becomes a wonderful place when it stops being the story of your entitlement and betrayal. Jesus' rhetorical question is a bit misleading: at the moment you gain your soul, you get the world, too.

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