It’s Tuesday which means I have drank a lot of coffee today, and this is one of the results of that:
Two months ago a very kind person told me that I was “the man” primarily because I am “so humble.”
I thought this statement was weird because I have never thought of myself as humble. I’ve always thought of myself as a narcissist, and I suspect anyone who has read this blog probably gets a taste of that in the way I tend to write. I am slowly picking up on that as well, finding places in which I have unconsciously attacked others in my writing. Beginning in high school, I replaced my (then more severe) social shortcomings with a superiority complex about my ability to reason, my ability to invent ideas, my preferences for certain kinds of music, and my abstinence from drugs and alcohol. This discouraged me from making a conscious effort to improve my social skills, and enabled me to live in a fantasy world where I was objectively better than others. I think that any kind of media that permits young people to escape from society and into their own worlds enables narcissism.
Pluralism also enables narcissism because instead of pride for one’s group, there is nothing but the solitude of one’s own mind on which to lean. The men who rode to the desert to retake Jerusalem for the Church during the middle ages were probably not narcissists. Their spirit was collective, and they were concerned (I’m guessing) with accumulating honor in the eyes of God, in the Church, and from their fellow soldiers. I imagine that a soldier who believes in his cause would have a hard time being a narcissist. Proud maybe, but I think pride is a negation of narcissism. To have pride you need other people to recognize your accomplishments. People who are proud of what they have done don’t become mass-shooters. It’s the narcissists: the one’s who have no one to affirm their worth but themselves. As a result their estimation of their own worth is exaggerated, while subconsciously abysmal.
Sometimes I meet people whose worth has been so affirmed by other people throughout their life that they often make self-deprecating comments, but I know they’re not really putting themselves down. Rather, they hold an unbiased examination of themselves, because they don’t have to risk their ego in order to admit mistakes. So I suppose there’s a balance between ego and self-aggrandizement. Anyone I can characterize as wise has this quality, and I suspect that it’s difficult to find someone like that who is not yet middle-aged. Sure you can find wisdom in people in their teens or twenties, but it’s nearly impossible for someone in my own age group to be able to stick to a standard of morality consistently. It’s common for young people to blame others for hypocrisy, but hypocrisy is so ridiculously common that it sounds more ridiculous to me each time someone uses the word.
So if I think of these wise people, nearly all of whom are either professors or family members, the common theme is humility. At the very least, they will behave with admirable wisdom during the times that they are humble. Thus the more they slide between humility and arrogance, the more their behavior resembles that of a child. Naturally you can’t simply artificially sprinkle self-deprecation into your discourse without being humble, because then it isn’t humility by definition, it’s just putting yourself down! Fake-it-til-you-make-it tends not to work with humility.
So if that’s the case, then how did this nice person (who I think is realistic and whose judgement I respect) describe me as humble? If I am a narcissist, and I have always thought of myself as a narcissist, how could I make such an impression on certain people?
Well there’s another quality of these wise-people I keep thinking of, though here I’m starting to delve slightly into guesswork. This quality is a thirst for knowledge, and this desire is not some dull remnant of an industrialized education left over in adults. It is more like a hunger for making sense of the world, or for finding a way to grasp at comfort in the wake of a tragedy or existential depression. One of the examples I have in my head is a former professor of mine who always seemed concerned with the passing of time. His life’s struggle, at least according to my perception and imagination, is to find permanence in a world in which all matter changes, and nothing ever lasts. I do not believe that someone can just wake up to such a question in old age. I suspect that if someone has these philosophical yearnings at all, they begin early. Someone who suffers existential Angst is probably going to feel the effects of it his whole life, even if he finds his solution early on.
Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil: “…every attempt to be profound and thorough is a forceful violation, a willingness to do harm to the basic will of the spirit, which always wants what’s apparent and superficial – even in that desire to know there is a drop of cruelty.”
If I have solved the puzzle correctly, this means that if I work for something of which I can be proud, this begins to negate narcissism. In order to achieve something, I need to learn, and the more willing I am to learn and improve, the more likely I am to succeed. So if I am driven to learn, whether for the sake of finding existential comfort, or learning a particular skill (such as foreign languages, juggling, basketball, basic social skills, you name it), my cruelty, my forceful violation of the spirit fights my narcissism. Athletic achievement might be one of the best examples of this, a tradition spawning from the older traditions of dueling and warfare.
So at the very least, my willingness to learn has given me the appearance of humility, but I think right now I stand somewhere between that coveted point of mature wisdom, and absolute blinding narcissism.
By this point you have probably picked up on the irony…haven’t I just imagined a spectrum from humility to narcissism in which I may arrogantly achieve more humility than others? Yes I have, and so I think the final stage of this transformation requires that I either admit that I’m no better than anyone else, or lose my ego out of forgetfulness of what made me feel small in the first place. Anything else would be mere attempts at the mere appearance of wisdom, and it may be that this is out of my reach.
But ideals, not ideas, are at the heart of why there is anything worth achieving, worth dying for, why those Europeans went to the Holy Land to fight, or why someone would train every day to win a race. And my idealized old man stands looking out into nature, taking in the experience, still learning from it. Someone walks up to him and praises him for something he has done. He doesn’t deny it, nor does he exaggerate. He just smiles, looks back and says: “Thank you, I appreciate it.”