Narcissus was handsome and he knew it. But although his mother had told him, as mothers do, that he would have a long life provided he never fell in love with his own beauty, he did. Narcissus focused on his own reflection in a pool, and drowned in his own self-love. At least, that's how Greek mythology tells the story.
Mirage Of The Perfect “Me”
But is it only Greek mythology that teaches the foolishness of self-love? The trait of self-worship—“it's all about me”—is today called “narcissism.”
And it's a character disorder increasingly prevalent in today's society. It's encouraged in the media, and it's good commercially. We live in the “Me, me, me” age1, but, and not surprisingly, where people find that “me” alone isn't enough.
Aboard this bandwagon of self-centredness has climbed the self-help gurus of spiritualism and astrology and, in our mission to satisfy “me,” many in society have hitched their stars to it.
An excessive preoccupation with one's self, as in the Greek myth, inevitably brings dissatisfaction. T S Eliot was right when he wrote, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”
So now we have fake tans, eyelash and hair extensions, enhanced breasts in women and muscles in men, chemical-induced sex drive and mood control. Now while some of these things may be helpful, as a life scenario they can also be plain destructive. For example, to quote the British Medical Journal (2004), “Women with breast implants are ... three times more likely to commit suicide.”2
It's obvious that we have a deeper need, something more fundamental than being artificial—to find meaning. Fakery will never make you real. “Fakin' it 'til we make it” has its advantages, but obviously has intrinsic limitations. It's an illegitimate way to live your life. Virtual living does not satisfy.
The Big Problem Of The Age
Social commentators agree that humanty's main problem today is a loss of meaning in life3. Narcissism is part of that, and so to materialism. Consumerism has had us hungering for material satisfaction. And while in the Western world “things” can't and shouldn't be shunned, a preoccupation with them never brings meaning. For one thing, it brings unfair, unsatisfying comparisons with others.
An Economist report stated that when students at Harvard University were asked whether they preferred (a) $50,000 a year while others received half that, or (b) $100,000 a year while others received twice as much, most chose (a). They were happy with less, but only as long as they were better off than others.4
Materialism can ruin real relationships. Think of the husband who becomes a workaholic to provide the material things of life for his family. In his preoccupation he deprives his wife of the time it takes to maintain a loving relationship. And then he's surprised when his wife has an affair. Worse, it's with someone he least expected. The difference is, they took the time to give her focused attention. To have meaning we must put time into building relationships with those close to us.
With loss of meaning in their lives, many face an “unprecedented lack of identity and sense of purpose... . Confused and without a navigational compass,” they're “vulnerable to the entreaties of any passing group or ideology that claims to have the answers.”5
Due to a lack of meaning in their lives, anywhere between a quarter and a third of young people will suffer from depression, with up to two-thirds having suicidal thoughts, in any 12-month period. “Starved from the oxygen of meaning they are killing themselves in historically unprecedented numbers. Underneath this apex of misery is a mountain of depression and anxiety.”6
But this tragic circumstance isn't caused by too little money, poverty or poor physical conditions. Refugees, for example, who've faced far greater horrors and have few material resources, fight to live and have hope for the future.
Why is life seemingly so disregarded by our young people? One reason might be the need for instant gratification—the-instant-fix attitude in many important areas of life—not one of working for what we want balanced with meaningful relationships. If it's quality relationships that you crave, then that's where you need to invest your time. Relationships take time to build, which necessitates patience and discipline.
It's not wrong to look out for yourself—that's self-preservation at work. Nor is it wrong to have material things. What is wrong is an overemphasis on things and a preoccupation with self—a loss of balance and distortion of perspective. We're working so hard and long to satisfy number one that we require quick-fix solutions to the bigger issues of life. Quick gratification is, therefore, an expectation of an impulsive, impatient era.
For example, we don't like what we see when we look in the mirror (me), so seek a quick-fix solution (a pill). No working at it, no self-discipline and no time expended.
Enough of the problem; what about solutions?
Two factors add true meaning to life: First, whom it is that inspires you, and, second ...
What's your source of inspiration? Is it those people who've primarily looked out for themselves, living self-centered, indulgent lives? Or is it Fred Hollows, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther or Martin Luther King?
The answer is obvious. But what makes them so? It's because they contrast so obviously with our own selves in their untiring service to others that they attract our accolades. Sustainable admiration doesn't go to selfish, greedy people.
It's been said that to have real meaning in your life, you need four things, all attainable by everyone: first, someone to love; second, someone you are loved by; third, something meaningful to do and, finally, something to hope in. And you can't possess all four other than in serving others.
In Children of Crisis (2003), researcher Robert Coles reports on a study he did that looked at what makes people happy. His study of the rich, the poor and disenfranchised concluded that joy is not an attribute of any particular socioeconomic group. Rather, it comes from authentic service. Albert Schweitzer expressed it well when he wrote, “The only really happy people are those who have learned how to serve.”
By this he meant that living life focused primarily on one's self is ultimately destructive. We're made to benefit others, and if we don't due to selfishness and greed, true happiness will elude us.
Jesus said, “Give away your life; you'll find life given back, but not merely given back—given back with bonus and blessing. Giving, not getting, is the way.”7
This is what really works—it's a law of the universe—all nature, animate and inanimate, ultimately gives in some way. But as a person, are you game to try it?
More Importantly ...
In his popular book, The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren says, “You were made by God and for God—and until you understand that, life will never make sense. You were made for God, not vice versa, and life is about letting God use you for His purposes, not you using Him for your own purpose.”8
A Biblical Solution
The Bible emphasises that we were created to bring honour and glory to God.9 We ourselves can't be the bank where we deposit our honour and glory; we can't receive that kind of attention without the risk of self-destruction.
Life isn't about you or me; it's about God.
Said Bertrand Russell, an atheist: “Unless you assume a God, the question of life's purpose is meaningless.”
When we live to give glory to God, first of all, we take time for focused attention on the most important people in our lives. Next, we discipline ourselves to work through problems, avoiding any quick fix. We also live generously, giving to sustain the less fortunate in a variety of ways. And, finally, we worship God alone. God the Life-giver is given the glory for our fumbling, good deeds. And that way, the next time you're tempted to look into an inky pond, you won't see yourself. Rather, you'll see Him.