A few decades ago, I had a friend who died of cancer. Let’s call her Milly. From the first, we had a basic kind of respect for each other; though we would clash occasionally. I didn’t understand it, then, but now I know that my arrogance triggered her. As a result, though we learnt to accept our differences, for some years we weren’t very close. Then, when she got cancer and she was dying, the relationship changed. Our conversation became real and beautiful. The presence of death brought out honesty and vulnerability in both of us.
I am reminded of her, because I’ve been reading a account of a mother screaming at her daughter during an argument, “How could you love a man who doesn’t love me?!” The narcissism of that attack is so obvious that I’d like to think that it’s a caricature. But, no – it really did happen.
So, what of Milly? On a summer day, months before she died, we were walking along a bushland track, reflecting. She shared that she had recently told her mother that she was dying; and through her tears she said that her mother had exclaimed: “How can you do this to me?!” I was shocked. No doubt her mother thought that she spoke from love; but I couldn’t see it. I still don’t. Why do we mistake narcissism for love?
A related instance is given by author Jeanette Winterson. Jeanette was sixteen, and her Pentacostal adoptive mother was evicting her – throwing her out for taking up with her second lesbian girlfriend. During the argument, Jeanette declared her wish for happiness – she wanted to be with her beloved, a female, because she wanted to be happy. Her adoptive mother’s response was, “Why be happy, when you could be normal?”
When I read that, I laughed. But, then I thought something like: “Hey. Hang on. That actually happened. A person was actually in such a condition of mind that could say such utterly ill-fitting words, and think them right.” Right where his youth Janet deserved understanding and care from her adoptive mother – right when she needed to be listened to – she got narcissism.
It might seem that these three vignettes are extreme; but what of less obvious reactivity in the face of the unwanted facts of life? We all have some level of narcissism. Milly’s other friends didn’t say out loud, “How can you do this to me?” No, instead, she told me: “They dropped away. They disappeared.” Without a word of explanation.
Milly was dismayed at the loss. Their reactions were a reflection of a self-absorbed mindset; and it wasn’t what she needed, right then. It would seem that they avoided her because of cancer and death. Sure, they didn’t say, “Why are you doing this to me?!’ but they may as well have. (Several years before, someone very close to me, when dying from cancer, told me: “Cancer tells you who your real friends are.”)
All these instances are on a continuum which reveals narcissism to be terribly normal. By normal, I mean statistically so. A glance at any newspaper, any day of the week, alerts one to the ubiquity of deluded self-centred views – narcissistic read-outs on life – which capture people and lead them to harmful behaviour. Look at our politicians’ grubby self-interest, their blatant fabrications and their grandiosity. The parliament is filled with selfish individuals, who can only read things through their biases.
The Buddhist analysis of this problem says that the problem is much bigger than a small class of ‘crazy’ people: it’s a species problem. A direct, contemplative investigation of ‘mind’ reveals everyday forms of narcissism; and, it has its roots in a lack of direct awareness of our organism. Due to this ignorance, we misperceive the nature of the mind. Hence, we live our normal lives on the basis of delusions about the organism’s reality. We see through filters, through a ‘glass darkly,’ and our relationships suffer concurrently. “How could you love a man who doesn’t love me?!”
Was it mentally ill for Milly’s friends to abandon her? Not conventionally so, of course. It’s merely fear; misshapen perceptions formed their fickleness. But we could ask, why aren’t such fears (with their attendant mental structures) considered, in this society, a form of mental affliction? That’s how the Buddhists see it. These distortions – aversion to a friend who has cancer, for instance – are not intrinsic to the mind. Why aren’t we addressing this at the national level? Well, simply because the delusions are statistically normal.
If a whole community has such delusions, one loses perspective; you find it hard to identify fear as mental concocted. Your perceptions present as real, and your fear and your hatred appear justified. Racism and homophobia are two areas where this analysis is powerful.
What what kind of sickness can it be then, when you are scared of people who have different skin colour, or a significantly different culture? Or, what kind of a sickness is it, when you are afraid of a person who has cancer? The answer that Buddhist is that we are sick with greed, hatred, and ignorance.
Without a culture of mindfulness and compassion, we can imperceptibly slide into mass delusions. Then, destructive attitudes become so widespread that they passes as normal. Nazi Germany is a case in point; and, Trump’s ‘America.’ (Notice, even the name ‘America,’ as a designation for the U.S.A, is a narcissistic insult to all the other nations of the Americas, north and south.)
So, where do we go with such a widespread problem? A significant portion of people throughout the world are currently under the sway of xenophobic afflictions. These attitudes are the stuff of minds – we have to investigate what it means to have good mental health. Why aren’t the policies of far-right’s (such as One Nation, in Australia) being discussed as a matter of our community’s mental health? Is it because we might have to begin at home? It is far harder to look at one’s own mind, than to blame other’s for our dissatisfaction.
I thought Milly was a hero, given the brave way she approached her death. Moreover, she spoke without ill-feeling, when addressing the reactions of others to her disease and impending death. A warrior; and one of my teachers.
Though one conquers in battle
a thousand times a thousand men,
one is the greatest war-hero
who conquers just one’s self.
– Dhammapada, verse 103. Translated by Christopher J. Ash