Through ambition and greed, they rose. Through force and strength, they conquered. Through status and influence, they flourished. The great kings of the past were mighty and powerful; they reached unimaginable, and seemingly unattainable heights, and yet, they lie buried within the sands of time. Somewhat forgotten and largely ignored, I’ve always wondered: if they were granted the opportunity to start all over again, would they live their lives in a different manner? Would they express regret over their lust and ambition for power, striving for connection and love instead?
The world’s prominent philosophers warned against the longing for status and influence, and yet a great deal of us have failed, and continue to fail, to listen; we fail to read and learn, and to attend to their immensely salient words. Narcissism, which along with every other mental disorder, exists on a spectrum, and can be divided into healthy and unhealthy types. Healthy narcissism says, I feel good about myself and I want to utilize that as a foundation to help others feel the same way about themselves; for, to help others develop self-worth, one needs to initially feel good about her or himself. Unhealthy narcissism, or grandiosity, which will be the focus of this post, is the belief that one’s specialness is unique and unlike that of others; it’s the belief that one deserves to be the best, and that in that quest for status and power, the harmful consequences are inconsequential. Unhealthy narcissism can be best summed up thus: the belief that one can and should utilize whatever means possible to attain the position that one deserves for the simple fact of being who one is.
In our collective quest for existential value and worth, it’s been the philosophers who’ve known; but it is their teachings which have fallen on mostly deaf ears. Collectively, they can be labeled as narcissists of the healthy type, seeking to grant wisdom to those whom were willing to listen. They wanted to help the rest of us lead happier, and healthier, lives by showing us the things that truly mattered; by helping us to recognize how our selfish undertakings only served to harm others and our own spirits. Those who listened, who were willing to take on a global perspective of achievement and status, were the ones who were truly blessed. By accepting their life-enhancing, universal grace, these individuals began to see with a clarity undreamed of by most. To accept the things that truly matter is to also accept that, when considered in the context of the vastness of the space and time of our universe, the significance we lust after on our tiny planet will never fully fulfill our yearnings; for how can it? How can anything we achieve or acquire ever truly last, and how can we preclude our lives, our histories, from being buried by the sands of time? History says, we can’t.
Referring back to my earlier post on death being the great catalyst for life, when we accept that we aren’t and can never be as important as we’d like to be, we can begin to turn to death, and more specifically, to those whom have and are currently in the process of dying, to discover the aspects of life which make it worthy of living; you see, you don’t need to have a Ph. D to become a philosopher, as death makes philosophers out of all of us, or at least can. And, to become a philosopher, to discover the great values of life, is to attain the greatest level of status imaginable: a status indicated not by one’s lot or one’s influence, but by their service and their love. In The Iliad, the great protagonist, Achilles, is presented with an existential choice by his mother, the goddess Thetis: at the most significant juncture in his life, he is given the option of remaining in Greece, having a wife and children to love and to be loved by in return, and leading a peaceful, yet uneventful and “insignificant” life, with his name passing down through several generations, only to be forgotten and engulfed by the sands of time; or, she tells him, he could choose to fight at the head of the Greek army in Troy, to become the hero in an unforgettable war, and to have his deeds passed on for eternity, being preserved in a form of symbolic immortality as a god among men. But, she warns, there’s a catch: for to choose the latter, Achilles would effectively be deciding to forgo intimacy and connection, essentially, feeding his narcissism with the ecstasy of power, status, and perceived immortality, while negating, and eliminating, the potential for that which makes our lives worth living, that feature of it which makes us all human: love.
For some the choice is easier than for others; for them, love supersedes achievement and all of the potential for glory. But, for others, the will to power, and intertwined immortality, blinds them to the truth that immortality can only exist in the present as an eternal moment of connection, a moment whose eternity is encompassed through the perception of the loss of time and, maybe, even space. Locking eyes with your lover, holding your newborn daughter, caring for your sick father, and laughing with your best friends: these are some of the only forms of eternity which exist. To be present and to feel loved, and to love in return, is to discontinue conceiving of the past or the future; it is, in essence, to be eternally there.
The grandiose route of the unhealthy narcissist stems from a misperception of the concepts of immortality and eternity; it’s a costly mistake which negates the very essence of his or her being: their potential for love. You see, Achilles, in his rejection of love and his lust for eternal relevance, will someday, as the rest of us, be forgotten and engulfed by the sands of time. His life, although seemingly glorious by any standards, was short and wanting, lacking the intimacy I’m almost certain he yearned for; and, the memory and knowledge of his deeds, as impressive as they were, will wither away with time, as those memories of our deeds will, too. The immortality which he yearned for was, and always will be, a mirage; the immortality he failed to attain can be our savior.