Christianity’s notion of conscience is perhaps the best-developed mental technology of any religion or philosophical system, and this makes Christians more prone to pick up on and correct flaws in their behavior than most others. However, when taken too far, it can result in a kind of narcissism with destructive consequences.
Ancient Greek mythology is a treasure trove of wisdom. One of the best-known myths is that of Narcissus. He was so beautiful that he enchanted anyone he met. One day, he went out into the forest and found a lake and went to drink. There, for the first time, he saw his face reflected in the water and fell in love.
This myth has given rise to the psychological concept of narcissism, first coined by Sigmund Freud. Today it is recognized as a form of mental disorder in which a person becomes vain and self-absorbed.
Christians may seem like the least likely candidate for narcissism. Part of their ethos is caring for others and keeping their own sinful nature under scrutiny. Conscience is the moral compass turned inward towards oneself, and Christians have perfected this craft.
It involves self-reflection – often metaphorically exemplified through the mirror. A common trope is to tell people to “look in the mirror” to become more aware of their flaws. Usually, this is a healthy self-correcting habit. However, what if one becomes addicted to the act of looking for errors in oneself? What if one falls in love with one’s self-reflection? That would transmute a healthy conscience into an altruistic form of narcissism.
The story of Narcissus does not end well. When he realized that the love that he felt for his mirror image could never be reciprocated, he committed suicide. The myth is thus a warning of a kind of self-destructive behavior.
Why would someone fall in love with the notion of one’s own guilt? Taking responsibility for things gone wrong can be profoundly empowering. If the miseries of life and the world are due to the random interventions of Miss Fortune, people are helpless bystanders in the lottery of life. If, however, they are the fault of each individual, one has a chance of rectifying the mistakes by self-improving.
When done with care, this can lead to significant accomplishments. It is no wonder many people get a thrill from taking responsibility, but it can go too far. One may become addicted and thereby become vulnerable to exploitation.
The opposite of the narcissistic altruist in mythology is the vampire. According to legend, the vampire does not have a mirror reflection, symbolizing a complete lack of conscience. Imagine Narcissus and a vampire standing together gazing into the lake: Both can only see Narcissus.
Vampiric people will tend to blame everyone else for trouble that they cause, and the person who is addicted to critical self-reflection is the perfect victim – a match made in hell.
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