Last month NPR ran a report about an academic study on the rise of narcissism in our culture. The study, conducted by psychology professor Dr. Nathan DeWall (University of Kentucky), analyzed lyrics of songs released between 1980 and 2007. DeWall found an “increasing focus on me and my instead of we, our, and us” (contrast, for instance, “We Are the World” – a number one song in 1985 – with Kanye West’s “Can’t Tell me Nothing”). Since song lyrics are tangible “cultural artifacts” DeWall believes this change in the focus of lyrics is “a mirror of cultural changes in personality, traits, and motivations” and is evidence of a growing attitude of narcissism (“a consuming self-absorption or self-love” – American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy).
The findings of this study should cohere with the experience of any morally reflective person living in America. In education, the rise of narcissism is manifested in a preoccupation with the self-esteem of students and the expectation that most students should make all A’s and B’s (regardless of what they actually learn in class). In religion, narcissistic attitudes are reflected in the way many church-goers expect churches to cater to their desires and interests, and customarily leave one church for another when one’s current church ceases to satisfy. In public health, narcissism can almost be quantified in growing waistlines as our eating habits become more self-indulgent. This unsettling cultural trend makes it all the more important to celebrate holidays like Memorial Day – a day of remembering and honoring those who have paid the price of their own lives for the good of our country – thoughtfully and meaningfully.
Humans are narcissistic by nature: we are all born with a self-centered disposition; a drive for not only survival, but for glory at the expense of others. One of the main purposes of civilization is to restrain this natural bent and inculcate in us beliefs and values that enable us to live beyond our own narrow self-interests and find meaning as members of a community who contribute to the well-being of others, even at the expense of our own selfish desires. When our culture ceases to counter our narcissism but instead conveys beliefs and values that foster it, the culture ceases to have a civilizing influence on people and the civilization itself decays from within.
National holidays are civil events designed to have such a civilizing influence. They originate in and are inspired by noble ideals that civilizations need to flourish: courage, self-sacrifice, strong work ethic, thankfulness, etc. Yet I know too often my observances of such holidays are, ironically, quite self-centered and self-indulgent. Normally, on a day like Memorial Day, I’ll sleep late (at least as late as my young children allow!), snack lazily on sweets and soft drink throughout the day, watch some meaningless daytime TV, and hopefully, weather permitting, make it to the pool or playground with my children and enjoy the company of my neighbors. Even as I look ahead to Memorial Day tomorrow, a day for remembering and honoring courageous self-sacrifice, I am wondering how I can use the occasion to combat my, and my children’s own narcissistic tendencies. Here are few ideas I am entertaining:
1. Locate and visit the closest war memorial or cemetery – I suppose most cities or counties in the U.S. have some kind of war memorial. I know of at least one in my county. Visiting a memorial with my children would help us reflect on the virtue of self-sacrifice and acknowledge our debt to those who have died in the past for our sake.
2. Educate my children more about our country’s war history – While I want to protect my young children’s imaginations from gruesome images of death and war, I do not believe it is healthy for children to grow up unaware of these realities and unappreciative of the sacrifices people have made in our nation’s wars. Between the Internet and television and the books in our home, there are ample resources available for enlightening my children’s understanding of the wars we fought and why it matters to us today.
3. Find and reach out to serve families who have lost husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, or children to war. Though our country has fought two wars in the last 10 years, few of us have been directly impacted by these wars and only a tiny percentage of our population has been called upon to make sacrifices for them. Few of us even know anyone who had died or been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. I do not expect to do this tomorrow, since it would require more time and planning than one can do in a day, but my lifestyle should be more consistent with God’s concern for widows and orphans, especially those who have become so because of sacrifice in war.
4. Reflect on and discuss with my family and friends the meaning of the good news of Jesus’ sacrifice in the cosmic war against evil and sin. Civilizing influences, such as days of remembrance, are important but are not enough to prevail over my narcissism and empower a life of self-sacrifice. The cross teaches me that sacrificial love resides in the very nature of reality – the heart of God. In order to love sacrificially, I need to understand and experience sacrificial love. This is what we find at the cross: one who died for our narcissism that we might be forgiven and transformed into people who “lay down our lives for our friends.”
I would not fault anyone for enjoying this day relaxing by the pool with family and friends. But as we grill our burgers and drink our beer, let us remember that our economy is strong enough to provide such things in abundance and our political system is free enough that we can travel wherever and associate with whoever we wish because of the heroic valor of those that laid down their lives for our welfare.