Sunday, March 13, 2011

Modesty and Other Cracked Eggs

I think I've gotten past the point where I attach my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville to every public acknowledgment or manifestation of the culture of narcissism. It started to seem a little desperate. And besides, I'm now in the mode of attaching my forthcoming booklet The Parable of the Unexpected Guest (great for individual reading and group discussion!) to public acknowledgments or manifestations of the lifestyle challenges of Jesus. But when someone sets me up so perfectly, as David Brooks did in this week's New York Times column "The Modesty Manifesto," I simply can't resist making the most of the moment. Call me immodest, if you must; David Brooks essentially already did.

In short, there's abundant evidence to suggest that we have shifted a bit from a culture that emphasized self-effacement - I'm no better than anybody else, but nobody is better than me - to a culture that emphasizes self-expansion.

The point of my book was to explore the intersection between this cultural phenomenon and the call to discipleship that begins in the book of Genesis and culminates in the book of Revelation. But if you read this blog, you already know that, since for the past couple of years I've reminded you of it at every opportunity. What I'm interested in from Brooks's piece this week--what I'd like to protest a little bit--is his association of growing levels of narcissism with declining levels of citizenship and civic responsibility.

I wonder if Americans are unwilling to support the sacrifices that will be required to avert fiscal catastrophe in part because they are less conscious of themselves as components of a national project. . . . Maybe people in the past had a visceral sense of themselves as a small piece of a larger chain across the centuries. As a result, it felt viscerally wrong to privilege the current generation over the future ones, in a way it no longer does.

He may have a point. We may be eating, drinking, and being merry with gusto and prodigality simply because tomorrow we die, and who cares what happens after that? Under Brooks's scenario, narcissism is the egg that eventually yields the chicken of civic recklessness. But what if narcissism were the chicken; what then would be the egg?

Like me, Brooks relies heavily on the research of Jean Twenge, a social psychologist who analyzes the self-assessments of young people from different generations. What she has found is a stark shift in self-regard between the early 1970s (according to Brooks, she's since gone back as far as the 1950s) and the present day:

College students today are much more likely to agree with statements like "I am easy to like" than college students 30 years ago. In the 1950s, 12 percent of high school seniors said they were a "very important person." By the '90s, 80 percent said they believed that they were.

These are sample questions from the surveys that fuel Twenge's research, and the results suggest that, yes, we've gotten awfully fond of ourselves over the past several decades. But what else has happened in the interim includes a long list of failures and betrayals by the "national project" and "long chain" that Brooks would have us commit ourselves to.

* The Pentagon Papers case suggested that we can't trust the military.
* The Watergate scandal suggested that we can't trust the president.
* The Civil Rights Movement suggested that we can't rely on the powers that be and the civil structures of society to respect basic human dignities.
* Scandals involving sexual abuse and financial malfeasance in the church suggested that we're better off without religious authorities.

We believe in the institutions that demand our trust and obedience, and when they fail us, our belief--an impulse that demands an object--goes looking for a new institution. It's no small thing that John Lennon's seeming paeon to the self ("I just believe in me") is precipitated by all the things he doesn't believe in, because he no longer can:

I don't believe in Bible. . . .
I don't believe in Hitler.
I don't believe in Jesus.
I don't believe in Buddha. . . .
I don't believe in Kings.
I don't believe in Elvis.
I don't believe in Zimmerman
I don't believe in Beatles.
I just believe in me. . . .
The dream is over--what can I say?

Nearly thirty years later Ferris Bueller cited John Lennon and declared, "Isms, in my opinion, are not good." And a respondent in Robert Bellah's research study Habits of the Heart professed her own, post-disillusionment era faith in "Sheilaism--you know, my own little voice." In the wake of failed isms, new ones will inevitably arise; we're addicted to isms as much as we're addicted to ourselves.

So while I would join David Brooks in noting that narcissism and Sheilaism are isms that are, in my opinion, not good, I would switch the order of things a little bit. Our self-absorption is, at least in large part, a product of the cracked eggs of all our prior confidences. The chickens, I'm afraid, have come home to roost.

1 comment:

Mark Nielsen said...

“The Guest House” - by Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival./
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor./
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight./
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in./
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Jalal al-Din Rumi
(aka Jelaluddin Balkhi), 1207-1273

I was introduced to the Jesus-loving Afghani/Turkish/Sufi mystical poet Rumi by American writer Anne Lamott. In the mid-1990s, Annie became the most prominent example (for me, anyway, as I once told you) of a new kind of Christian writer possessed of two key traits:

1) a theological “openness” balanced against a desire for orthodoxy, enthusiastic about Jesus, but without such a narrow (i.e. conservative) reading of the Bible

2) a sense of humor

As I have read your stuff, DZ, I hear this same kind of voice (Lamott's *and* Rumi's). And when I saw that you're putting out the Unexpected Visitor booklet, I thought of the above poem.

Take that, Mr. Brooks! Don't make us have to go get our brooms...