Archives For Mythology

narcissusThere is a very important mental health tome that describes psychological disorders in detail. It’s called The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Since the American Psychiatric Association is constantly discovering new mental ailments—and they occasionally recognize that previously unhealthy mindsets and behaviors have become so pervasive they can no longer be considered aberrations—the DSM requires periodic revision.

The current authoritative version is DSM-IV-TR, or DSM, fourth edition, text revision. That means that if you were diagnosed with a defect according to the third edition standards, you may now have a clean bill of health. And, for those of you whose diagnosis is still included in DSM IV, don’t despair; they are currently consulting about version five, and who knows what psychoses may soon become “normal.”

I had to study these things during my seminary training, for my counseling work as a chaplain and civilian pastor. I was thinking about the manual recently as I pondered the spirit of Narcissus that seems to hold sway in our age. Like C.S. Lewis, I understand there is value in studying Greek and Roman myths, as many contain seeds of Truth. (Lewis’ appreciation for myth is most evident in Till We Have Faces, which is a reworking of one ancient Greek tale.)

Narcissus, of course, is the mythological Greek who was so consumed by his own handsomeness that he perished because he was unable to tear himself away from gazing at his own likeness. (The image above was painted by Michelangelo Caravaggio in the sixteenth century.)

Narcissism, which echoes his name, describes the unbridled vanity and self-concern (i.e. selfishness) that motivates growing numbers in our individualistic and hedonistic world. Since narcissism has become so rampant, the DSM now concerns itself only with “pathological narcissism.” That distinction will probably remain, even if Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is eliminated from the fifth edition as a distinct illness, as many have recommended.

God Save Us from the Narcissists

Pathological narcissists are terrible indeed. Their characteristic arrogance, envy, sense of entitlement and lack of empathy make them unhealthy members of society. In fact, large numbers of sociopaths and psychopaths are also narcissists.

But here’s the problem. At the rotten core of the disorder we find a putrid seed that negatively affects many of us who appear otherwise to be so normal. The source of the corruption is, in part, sinful pride.

Let’s take a look at the “diagnostic criteria” for NPD which confronted me when I first studied DSM III. (Perhaps you may wish to skip this section, since modest hints of some of these traits may strike close to home.) I’ve added my own introspective comments in italics.

Diagnostic criteria for 301.81, Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior) hypersensitivity to the evaluation of others, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by at least five of the following:

(1) Reacts to criticism with feelings of rage, shame, or humiliation (even if not expressed).

— I’ve never “raged,” but it’s embarrassing to be criticized in public

(2) Is interpersonally exploitive: takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.

— Never. I won’t tolerate manipulation–either as the manipulator or the manipulatee.

(3) Has a grandiose sense of self-importance, e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be noticed as “special” without appropriate achievement.

— Have I told you lately about being Thespian of the Year when I graduated from high school . . ?

(4) Believes that his or her problems are unique and can be understood only by other special people.

— Not this trait, I’m aware everyone in this fallen world is faced with challenges . . . many of them worse than my own.

(5) Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, beauty, or ideal love.

— I do daydream about accomplishing special goals, although I never lusted after power and I accepted the facts about “beauty” long ago. I have, however, found ideal love, and we’ve been married 37 years!

(6) Has a sense of entitlement: unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment, e.g., assumes that he or she does not have to wait in line when others must do so.

— I’m the opposite. I always pick the longest and slowest line to stand in.

(7) Requires constant attention and admiration, e.g., keeps fishing for compliments.

— If people weren’t so frugal with compliments, I wouldn’t need to.

(8) Lack of empathy: inability to recognize and experience how others feel, e.g., annoyance and surprise when a friend who is seriously ill cancels a date.

— Nope. I really do care about others. That’s the reason good clergy and caregivers often suffer compassion fatigue.

(9) Is preoccupied with feelings of envy.

— Well, what about those cases where the person doesn’t deserve the honors they’ve received . . ?

There, I feel much better, having made a public confession of my almost-narcissistic human self-centeredness.

In his essay “Christianity and Culture,” C.S. Lewis warns that “A man is never so proud as when striking an attitude of humility.”

When we admit, instead, that there remains much in our soul that is base and prideful, we’re on the proper path. The course that leads to a rejection of Narcissus-in-us, and the embracing of what is precious in our neighbors and our world, is the road that leads to contentment.

Creation Story Similarities

September 20, 2012 — 4 Comments

I love being welcomed into other cultures by individuals who are proud of their heritage and eager to share it. Yesterday I attended a gathering of pastors at a church in Neah Bay, Washington, which lies in the far northwest corner of the “Lower Forty-Eight” United States.

Neah Bay is the largest community on the Makah Indian Reservation. A visit to the outstanding Makah Museum taught me many things. The unfortunate burial of the Makah village of Ozette preserved numerous artifacts that teach us about “pre-contact” Native American tribal life. A 1750 mudslide covered ten long houses and that tragedy has been redeemed in a small way by providing the modern Makah nation with a wealth of knowledge about its ancestors.

As a dog lover, I was fascinated by the fact that the Makah bred a special type of dog that was sheered for its “wool.” This, of course, was due to the absence of sheep, goats, llamas and the like. These particular canines were kept on an island to prevent their interbreeding with camp dogs. Unfortunately, their breed is no longer known, although I am curious as to whether it could be established from studying remains, assuming the tribe still knows which island was used as their refuge.

The news that intrigued me most was that, in Makah mythology, at the time of their creation, all of the animals could speak. Now, it will not surprise any readers to know this reminded me of another creation tale. My thoughts immediately leapt to the story of Narnia’s creation, which C.S. Lewis describes in The Magician’s Nephew.

[Aslan] was going to and fro among the animals. And every now and then he would go up to two of them (always two at a time) and touch their noses with his. He would touch two beavers among all the beavers, two leopards among all the leopards, one stag and one deer among all the deer, and leave the rest. . . . the creatures whom he had touched came and stood in a wide circle around him. . . . The Lion, whose eyes never blinked, stared at the animals as hard as if he was going to burn them up with his mere stare. And gradually a change came over them. The smaller ones—the rabbits, moles, and such-like—grew a good deal larger. The very big ones—you noticed it most with the elephants—grew a little smaller. Many animals sat up on their hind legs. Most put their heads on one side as if they were trying very hard to understand.

The Lion opened his mouth, but no sound came from it; he was breathing out, a long, warm breath; it seemed to sway all the beasts as the wind sways a line of trees. Far overhead from beyond the veil of blue sky which hid them the stars sang again; a pure, cold, difficult music. Then there came a swift flash like fire (but it burnt nobody) either from the sky or from the Lion itself, and every drop of blood tingled in the children’s bodies, and the deepest, wildest voice they had ever heard was saying: “Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.”

In the Makah creation story, the two brothers of the sun and moon changed preexisting material into the people and creatures we know today. Here is the brief account of their labors. It is interesting to note that both accounts impute personhood to the trees, as well as the animals.

When the world was very young, there were no people on the earth. There were no birds or animals, either. There was nothing but grass and sand and creatures that were neither animals nor people but had some of the traits of people and some of the traits of animals.

Then the two brothers of the Sun and the Moon came to the earth. Their names were Ho-ho-e-ap-bess, which means “the Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things.” They came to make the earth ready for a new race of people, the Indians. The Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things called all the creatures to them. Some they changed to animals and birds. Some they changed to trees and smaller plants.

Among them was a bad thief. He was always stealing food from creatures who were fishermen and hunters. The Two-Men-Who- Changed-Things transformed him into Seal. They shortened his arms and tied his legs so that only his feet could move. Then they threw Seal into the Ocean and said to him, “Now you will have to catch your own fish if you are to have anything to eat.”

One of the creatures was a great fisherman. He was always on the rocks or was wading with his long fishing spear. He kept it ready to thrust into some fish. He always wore a little cape, round and white over his shoulders. The Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things transformed him into Great Blue Heron. The cape became the white feathers around the neck of Great Blue Heron. The long fishing spear became his sharp pointed bill.

Another creature was both a fisherman and a thief. He had stolen a necklace of shells. The Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things transformed him into Kingfisher. The necklace of shells was turned into a ring of feathers around Kingfisher’s neck. He is still a fisherman. He watches the water, and when he sees a fish, he dives headfirst with a splash into the water.

Two creatures had huge appetites. They devoured everything they could find. The Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things transformed one of them into Raven. They transformed his wife into Crow. Both Raven and Crow were given strong beaks so that they could tear their food. Raven croaks “Cr-r-ruck!” and Crow answers with a loud “Cah! Cah!”

The Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things called Bluejay’s son to them and asked, “Which do you wish to be—a bird or a fish?”

“I don’t want to be either,” he answered.

“Then we will transform you into Mink. You will live on land. You will eat the fish you can catch from the water or can pick up on the shore.”

Then the Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things remembered that the new people would need wood for many things.

They called one of the creatures to them and said “The Indians will want tough wood to make bows with. They will want tough wood to make wedges with, so that they can split logs. You are tough and strong. We will change you into the yew tree.”

They called some little creatures to them. “The new people will need many slender, straight shoots for arrows. You will be the arrowwood. You will be white with many blossoms in early summer.”

They called a big, fat creature to them. “The Indians will need big trunks with soft wood so that they can make canoes. You will be the cedar trees. The Indians will make many things from your bark and from your roots.”

The Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things knew that the Indians would need wood for fuel. So they called an old creature to them. “You are old, and your heart is dry. You will make good kindling, for your grease has turned hard and will make pitch. You will be the spruce tree. When you grow old, you will always make dry wood that will be good for fires.”

To another creature they said, “You shall be the hemlock. Your bark will be good for tanning hides. Your branches will be used in the sweat lodges.”

A creature with a cross temper they changed into a crab apple tree, saying, “You shall always bear sour fruit.”

Another creature they changed into the wild cherry tree, so that the new people would have fruit and could use the cherry bark for medicine.

A thin, tough creature they changed into the alder tree, so that the new people would have hard wood for their canoe paddles.

Thus the Two-Men-Who-Changed-Things got the world ready for the new people who were to come. They made the world as it was when the Indians lived in it.