By Wendell Cantrell
Are you ready to learn a couple of new words this month? If you know them both, you are a prudent trend watcher. The first word is selfie. It is defined as a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically taken with a smart phone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website. It has been named word of the year by Oxford Dictionary editors, after the frequency of its usage increased by 17,000% over the past 12 months.1 If you are a Facebook fan, you are probably seeing dozens of these on a daily basis. Let me be quick to say that an occasional selfie (especially with a grandkid or pet) is absolutely normal.
The second word is related to the first, but is never going to make word of the year. It has been around a long time, but is rarely used. Narcissism – an exceptional interest in, or admiration of oneself.2 The root of the word is rooted in Greek mythology. A young man named Narcissus was very handsome and knew it. One day he saw his reflection in a stream, and he instantly fell in love with his image. What he saw staring back at him from the water was so beautiful that he couldn’t pull himself away. He sat and gazed for days, becoming obsessed with his own appearance. He became trapped in his own ego, eventually turning into the Narcissus flower, and the rest is mythology. The true narcissist of today sees their biggest fan everyday in the mirror. The following defines the mindset of a narcissist: What I want is all that matters. When we discuss issues, my opinions are always right. Yours are wrong or else of minimal importance. If you expect to have input, you are undermining me.3 In researching this, I was shocked at the number of websites that offer testing to determine if we fit in that category.
The reason I have picked these two words is because I think the first word, selfie, is symptomatic of a troubling cultural trend that I have chosen to identify as narcissism. We are entering a new world where it is considered perfectly normal to be preoccupied with self. Advancing and pleasing ourselves is the priority in our world today. Many of our kids are growing up with a warped sense of entitlement which shouts, “I want what I want when I want it.”
A recent analysis in the American Freshman Survey reveals that college students are more likely than ever to call themselves gifted and driven to succeed, in spite of the fact that their test scores and time spent studying are decreasing. Psychologist Jean Twenge, the lead author of the analysis, says this tendency towards narcissism is up 30 percent in the last thirty years. Should we be surprised in an era where a You Tube video can make a kid a faux celebrity in the digital world? Dr. Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist and TV commentator, has been concerned of late with the toxic psychological impact of media and technology on our youngsters, and how it literally regards them as lead actors in their own fictionalized life stories.4 He is concerned about an epidemic of depression, suicides, and homicides as the real self-loathing and hatred of others that lies beneath all of the narcissism rises to the surface. He believes the toll from this trend could be unimaginable, dwarfing the toll of any epidemic we have ever known. And it will be the hardest to defeat. He is, by profession, speaking medically. Maybe he is being a bit cataclysmic, but he has certainly identified a problem. I would like us to look briefly at the spiritual aspect of it.
In honor of a great author, C.S. Lewis, who died on the same day in 1963 as JFK, I am going to add a 21st century script to the Screwtape Letters:
Wormwood (the junior devil), I have an idea that I believe can raise one of our favorite assets, pride, to a level that can take out a generation. Let’s embrace and encourage frequent using of all these social media sites where young people can fool themselves into thinking they have hundreds or thousands of “friends.” They can delete unflattering comments. They can block anyone who disagrees with them. They can choose to show the world only flattering photos of themselves (by the dozens).
What should be our plan to combat this great epidemic as it takes shape? First we need to understand the true enemy. Our adversary (the Devil) knows our sinful nature well and the desires that battle within us. James 4:1 tells us, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” So, we have seen the enemy clearly, and as the saying goes, it is us! Secondly, let’s get our kids off the self-esteem bandwagon. I know many of you, like me, have been concerned at education’s emphasis on guarding (and growing) kids’ self esteem. We must not let them fail in anything, and to be sure, we’ll dare not keep score in soccer games. Thirdly, we need to model and teach moderation and boundaries with social networks. Lastly, we should be modeling our Lord’s humility. Paul points that out clearly in Phil. 2:3-4, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”
A regular look in the mirror of God’s word will show me a picture that I wouldn’t want posted for all my friends to see. How about you?
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(1) The Guardian 11/18/13.
(2) World English Dictionary
(4) www.foxnews.com 1/8/13