Nov 7, 2018

Be Not Conformed to This World

A meditation on the midterms, narcissism and causing transformation.
By Josh Liveright /
Be Not Conformed to This World

There's much to celebrate about the mid-term elections. I celebrate diversity and the many firsts. I'm grateful for all the women who shook the house and made their voices heard. I'm grateful for grass roots efforts to move progressive issues to the forefront. Yet I remain concerned that we are also maintaining the story that we live in a "democratic" society with "democratic" values. The centrist mindset of status quo which includes a newfound trust in the CIA, FBI and NSA (our historically most untrustworthy govt agencies) to solve the problem of Trump and the GOP, the whiplash blame Russia explanations, and the almost blind faith in the Democratic Party all seem like elements that may ironically lead us to four more years of Trump in 2020. The divisiveness we encounter on a daily basis is ideological in nature and seems to me to do with a more base and insidious story of "I deserve" or "I am superior to". We have succumbed to a story of separateness, which I hypothesize is narcissistic on a much deeper level than many of us are even aware. And it's perhaps self perpetuating, passed down from one generation to the next.

Stan Tatkin, a psychologist and therapist, author of "Wired For Love", defines two types of narcissism -- Aggressive Fused and Defensive Fused. In an Aggressive Fused Narcissist, you'll find someone who is harsh, attacking, devalues others as lesser than themselves, combined with blatant exhibitionism. They avoid shame at all costs (or any self-reflection) and require fuel in the form of praise. In short they need to be treated like gods or goddesses in order to function. If they don't get the adoration they demand, they may turn violent. People around them often feel they want their approval or, at the very least, understand they should avoid pissing them off. Their main intention is to win. Coupled with the Dunning Kruger effect of illusory superiority, or simply put, when stupid people fail to realize they are actually stupid, we have this phenomenon called Donald Trump, who currently resides as leader of the "free" world. But let's get real, there are so many other people who fit this description.

The Defensive Fused Narcissist basks in the glow of these self-proclaimed gods or goddesses and get off by identifying with their grandiose wannabe selves. Their motivation is approval. It's more like, "if I can't be a god, I will act the part anyway". They are fragile, sensitive to attack and if you disapprove of them, they will attack you or dismiss you. These people are "closet narcissists" and followers of the Aggressive variety. They are ultimately running scared and one of their fears is they might be revealed as frauds. They operate with a great amount of shame.

Both types worship money, material rewards, youth, beauty, power and intelligence (or psuedo intelligence). Again, add the Dunning Kruger effect into the mix and you have a toxic brew of a divided self, a person who is unaware of their authentic essence, and it's extremely hard for them to shift their gaze as any self-reflection exposes their "weaknesses", the absolute last thing they want to experience about themselves.

In our culture, we support narcissists. We all have the capacity for narcissistic tendencies. It's the silent majority. It's considered normal to deserve, to consider ourselves first, to feel superior to the other, to identify with this or that, to use the importance of our own comfort as a tool of oppression. The story we're born into embodies separateness, consumption, taking what we deserve from the earth, feeling entitled in so many ways that we are not even aware of the operating system embedded in our hard drives. At the risk of pissing many folks off, I would even say that the notion of "I cannot love someone else until I learn to love myself first" is narcissistic. Imagine a whole nation of people walking around loving themselves! To me the idea is absurd. We can love others regardless of self-love. What came first, the chicken or the egg?

One caveat here, many women, people of color, LGBTQ and marginalized people know the effects of narcissism very well. They are constantly in survival mode and hyper vigilant to the constant attacks, gas-lighting and violence perpetrated upon them. The consistently persecuted among us often experience things at the opposite end of the spectrum whereas their authentic selves are completely negated by their perpetrators. Anyone who is struggling just to be acknowledged as a human being is a far cry from feeling god-like. They are the victims of this pathology and have endured the violence perpetrated upon them for thousands of years by the rigid structures of patriarchy.

Narcissistic tendencies start as early as eighteen months old, developing even earlier than borderline or schizoid personalities. Thus the story of separation starts at the pre-verbal stage in life, therefore becomes fully embedded. But it's still possible to shift, although challenging. One major challenge is the idea that our own safety is compromised. Narcissists learn that the only way to protect themselves is to attack because under no circumstances do they want to feel small or unworthy. They want you to believe what they believe, like what they like, agree with them completely. Everything else is viewed as an attack on their version of self worth. Does this sound familiar?

The story of a caravan of immigrants marching through Central America with an intention to invade our country is pathological. The story that black and brown people are to be feared rather than the white men who are shooting up our country virtually every day is insane. Yet, maybe these stories are not far off from "I deserve" or "I am superior than". These false attempts at creating fear in the minds of people who are already taught to be on alert is only feeding the illusion of paranoia. What is really there to protect?

I've been fairly obsessed with the ideas in "Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants" by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist, philosopher and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.  In the book, she describes the legendary Anishinaabe monster Windigo:

"The Windigo is always hungry — its curse is that the more it consumes, the more it wants. It is so hungry that it will eat its own kind. It’s a cannibal; that’s what makes it monstrous. To have an insatiable appetite that ends up destroying everything you love is the hallmark of a monster. Windigos were once humans who became sick with this terrible hunger. The message is that we humans possess the potential for consuming too much at the expense of life, and we need to find ways to rein it in. The story of the Windigo is a cautionary tale about greed. It establishes a taboo: the community needs to survive, and if one individual takes too much, then the community is endangered. All flourishing is mutual. I’ve been told that one of the meanings of the name Windigo has to do with thinking only of oneself. I see parallels between this monster and the kind of economies we have created, which are never satisfied and will destroy us all in order to have more, more, more. I see extreme methods of resource extraction — fracking, offshore drilling, various types of mining — as Windigo footprints. We don’t need to do these things. They are the antithesis of taking only what is given. The Windigo comes with blood on its mouth, always looking for more."

This monster seems to have full control of the Aggressive Fused Narcissist and is running freely through our culture, feeding on the fears of a population consumed by comfort and material gains. A capitalist system breeds monsters, breeds hungry narcissistic babies who grow up to control the narrative, thus creating a dangerous cycle that currently has us on the brink of extinction. So what can we do about it?

In an interview with The Sun Magazine, Kimmerer states:

"It’s hard to shame people today, because our value system is turned upside down. Someone can take a pristine piece of land and build a McMansion on it, and we’re taught to applaud the person’s money and power. The ones who are made to feel ashamed are those with less money, smaller houses, older cars. Until the collective sentiment is that greed really does deserve to be punished, it’s as if we’re stuck.  Part of the problem is the cultural view of land primarily as individual property rather than as shared commons. Land is associated with rights: it’s my right to destroy this piece of land, tear up these wildflowers, and pour this concrete, because I own it. But I think about land not as a place you have rights to, but as a place for which you have responsibility. You have duties, obligations. And if you don’t fulfill them, you’re in for trouble. The last step in that hierarchy of punishment for people who had become Windigos was banishment: “You do not share our values. You endanger us all, so you can’t live with us any longer.” In the old days this meant, most likely, that the offending person would die without the community. There are obviously dangers to banishing people, to having communities decide which individuals do and don’t belong, but I think we need to restore balance. There have to be incentives to do right by the community of living beings, but there also have to be real costs to going in the opposite direction."

Robin Wall Kimmerer investigates the lost art of reciprocity in her book and perhaps this is where we need to focus our gaze. In her final passage, she writes:

"The moral covenant of reciprocity calls us to honor our responsibilities for all we have been given, for all that we have taken. It's our turn now, long overdue. Let us hold a giveaway for Mother Earth, spread our blankets out for her and pile them high with gifts of our own making. Gifts of mind, hands, heart, voice, and vision all offered up on behalf of the earth. Whatever our gift, we are called to give it and to dance for the renewal of the world. In return for the privilege of breath."

I am grateful for those of us looking more deeply, listening to each other, investigating connection, and mustering the courage to look in the mirror, discovering for ourselves where we might be landing on the spectrum of narcissism. Maybe catching a glimpse of the Windigo. Perhaps we can turn the lens around, cause transformation, and rewrite the story.

It's doesn't feel like a quick fix in the grand scheme but we can all start right now by reframing our intention. If the intention is to maintain the story of narcissism, of Windigo, of greed and consumption, of separateness, then nothing will change.

Back to the midterms, I admit I grow weary of the age old story of red and blue. Perhaps we're in the process of exploding it, transmuting it into something that embodies a story of reciprocity and gratitude. After all it really does seem to come in "waves". 

And like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, my favorite color has always been purple.

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