Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
July 2010 - Volume 10, No. 7
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The Ascendency of Narcissism

In some places and times, the leaders would have committed suicide. Among us, they simply claim “I’ve done nothing wrong.” Which is the more mature culture?

These days there’s also the carefully constructed and timed apology, or the orchestrated anger and outrage, saying that which we or someone else wants to be said, but it still comes out hollow, bearing the dark shadow of opportunism and the faint smell of greed. Looking good is more important than right action in America. Everybody knows that.

Some leaders do have the capacity to bear the pain deeply, especially when something goes terribly wrong on their watch. Others, have tightly trained themselves only for damage control. Generally it’s the latter who seem to make it up the corporate and political ladder these days. History reminds us it’s usually rotten closer to the top.

Why is this so? Why does scum want to rise to the top, befouling whatever lies beneath it? And what hope is there for any change?

Tragedy or Bathos

Like everyone else, I’ve been captivated, both in my mind and my viscera, with the agonizing tragedy of BP and the Gulf of Mexico. I am heart sick at the photos of the animals coated with that demonic chocolate pudding, and the dread of destruction that is taking place far beyond our eyesight. In earlier times, the creatures and the Gulf herself would be heard crying for help to the very Throne of Heaven. In our times, there’s only the hope that the politicians will listen. Everything else has failed. And the all-too familiar TV maps of the Gulf show the progress of that growing ugly black shape, inching its way toward everywhere - toward you and me my friend.

What has happened? Most who have risen to the top exhibit an emptiness that seems to suffer nothing except the opportunity to consolidate their territory. We’ve seen this countless times in living memory. Are the only heros left found in Harlequin novels or in our cinema? What’s left is more bathos (banality, triteness, insincere sentimental opportunism - the opposite of pathos or true suffering). Watch any evening TV local news to get my point.


For myself, I find some understanding in the phenomenon of narcissism (though what follows is definitely an oversimplification). Narcissism is a fascination with the self, a self-absorption to the exclusion of all other relationships and co-operative living, as spelled out in the ancient Greek myth from which the name comes (Google it). Generally speaking, the narcissistic person has effectively disengaged any experience of anxiety, and thus has lost the capacity of empathic relationship. He or she therefore has an easier ability to ascend within an organization, without any feeling or care for those stepped on for his or her own self manifestation. These are the persons who climb most readily the ladders of commerce and industry, the financial world, politics and government, and even religious and educational hierarchies. When you don’t (can’t) care whom you use or hurt, it’s much easier to climb to the top. As I noted, scum rises, befouling whatever lies beneath. Yet these can be really charming people (which is why they often end up in sales or politics). Often they “love” what they do - to the extent there is any capacity for love in their lives. Stephen Covey and others make millions teaching them how to act human.

Different cultures have implanted specific barriers to help moderate this phenomenon. Among the Japanese, perhaps from their samurai heritage, there has been a strong culture of honor and shame. So when something goes very wrong, a leader will restore honor through ritual suicide - hari kari. This was also reflected in the accounts (perhaps more mythic than actual) of investor and financier suicide during the Wall Street Stock Market Crash of October, 1929. Shame can function as a cultural buffer to rampant narcissism.

Another cultural buffer is the maintenance of moral codes by an organized religion, especially through the practice of structured self-examination and contrition. It was hoped that even a person of little or no conscience would be somewhat moderated in his or her behavior by the regular encounter of the confessional. The Catholic Church’s catalog of the seven deadly sins (wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony) is a fairly accurate catalog of the narcissist’s self-absorbed behavior.

In our own fragile experiment of democracy, it’s hoped that the wisdom of the ‘regular’ people, the electorate, will counter the ascendency of narcissism in politics and government. And then, in turn, the politicians will act to counter the same ascendency of narcissism in corporate and financial culture. However, the culture of capitalism itself has scarce little narcissistic counter-force. Wealth may sometimes “trickle down” but compassion certainly doesn’t.

The fouling of the Gulf of Mexico, and the helpless and inept responses to it are a powerful metaphor of our narcissistic culture writ large. The ecological disaster is itself beyond our comprehension. But as the disaster widens, the all-too human elements of blame and greed are quickly appearing as a second-layer disaster of huge magnitude.

What have we got left, except our sickness of heart for the dying of a great body of water and the destruction of the ecology and society of its coastlands?


What’s left? I’ll give you two very small answers. They’re all I have at this time. But they both have potential to counter the narcissism of our culture and our race.

First, pray for the water. Yes, water is a living being. And all water on the planet is connected, as it connects every other living thing. So whenever you come across living water - like a river or a stream or any moving water - say a prayer into it, and the water will carry that prayer to the Gulf of Mexico - no narcissists en route. Since all water is connected with all water, you can actually do this whenever you come across water.

The second is to insist on caring, and not to be afraid when caring hurts. There’s a word that politicians rarely use these days, suffering - it doesn’t win votes. The root meaning ( sub-ferro ) is ‘to carry from below’ (like the undercarriage of older automobiles). Narcissists can’t authentically suffer, but the rest of us can. (I’m not talking here about neurotic suffering, suffering for its own sake.) Authentic suffering is the stealth bomber against narcissistic ascendency.

Prayer and suffering. A strange combination, but they are the components of our greatest individual antidote to our culture of narcissistic ascendency - the practice of compassion.

And only then can our second line of significant response, political reform and social action, have a fighting chance. It’s true.

Pay attention!

Comments (6)

  • How did we go from narcissism to praying into the water? If that works for you as compassion, then, by all means do what your feelings move you to do. Thank you for the brief treatise on narcissism...I think I’ll pass on the New Age/Babylonian style religious overtones, instructions and new definition of compassion. Instead, I would encourage people to roll up their sleeves and go to the gulf areas, give to those living in the gulf areas who are loosing their jobs, etc. I guess I’m still too old fashion when it comes to compassion. O, and by the way...since our Independence Day is coming up this weekend...let’s be reminded that this evil capitalistic country, America, is the most giving nation in recorded history, another by-product of it’s religious heritage and capitalism. Thank you for allowing others to post.
    With sincereity...Dr. Edward Callahan

    — Dr. Edward Callahan, 7/1/2010
  • Thanks Bill

    Thanks for this critique and mindset towards personal responsibility, forgiveness and alignment with what we call Grace or God’s Will.

    I believe that this is consistent with the developmental work and the term “Boomeritis” from Ken Wilber.

    Rob Curtner, 7/1/2010
  • Bill
    I still just love the article. If Dutch were still alive he would say that people change not only from suffering or being upset at loss or envious of someone’s else’s material goods, but also from the feeling of good and something that stirs their heart and mind...that the greatest change comes from vision...a better life, a clean Gulf of Mexico, hope for all of us...Obama’s election.
    Loved the article and have a wonderful July 4th.

    — Gayle Landen, 7/1/2010
  • Compromise

    Well, Dr. Callahan, I agree we are the most giving nation in recorded history. We too are the most in debt nation in our own history. Are we giving for the wrong reasons. I see our own people hungry while we feed the people of other countries. I do agree we need to clean up our own back yards before we can help others.
    Old fashion or new age, let us become more compassionate. I feel the water. I am glad for this place to state my views, thank you Bill.

    — Carol Hall, 7/1/2010
  • To Dr. Callahan

    When I receive comments that are supportive and complimentary, I feel lightened – my ‘spirit’ is fed. It’s a high. But when I receive what at first feels like a critical response, it’s my ‘soul’ that is fed. Of course, like most of us, I do a quick visit to that old place where I feel “I've done something wrong.”
    When I say ‘soul’ I’m talking about that deep part of me that trusts when something goes ‘wrong,’ it’s a great opportunity for deep and useful change. Much of world mythology seems to feed this inner experience as well.
    My mind also goes to Mahatma Gandhi, who would always welcome conversation with a ‘worthy opponent,’ because for him truth (satya) is so much broader than any one of us has the ability to conceive.
    This is my way of saying thank you Dr. Callahan for your comment.
    Bill McDonald

    — Bill McDonald, 7/1/2010
  • Water

    It’s all about the water. I agree it starts with narcissism. BP staring at the beautiful reflection of themselves holding millions of dollars on the surface of the Gulf. Unfortunately, the harikiri done here was of the Gulf. We watch everyday as the disembowelment of the Gulf of Mexico becomes more and more excrutiating.

    On the cusp of our Independence Day, it’s time to realize that rolling up our sleeves doesn’t “bring 'em back alive”. No amount of help is going to restore life to the fish, turtles, birds and dolphins. Families who have relied on these waters religiously for generations have lost that freedom to do so.

    And yes, Bill, let’s say a prayer into the water for all water is connected – including the water inside us. As one of my heroes once said “Be like water, my friend”.
    Amy S. Hall

    — Amy Hall, 7/1/2010

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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