More Spiritual Warfare in 21st Century America
"The trouble with my generation is that we all think we're fucking geniuses. Making something isn't good enough for us, and neither is selling something, or teaching something, or even just doing something; we have to BE something. It's our inalienable right, as citizens of the twenty-first century. If Christian Aguilera or Britney or some American Idol jerk can be something, then why can't I. Where's mine, huh?"According to a new study, college students in the United States are more "narcissistic" than their predecessors. The already controversial report warns of trends that could be harmful to the students'
--Nick Hornby's "A Long Way Down"
relationships and society. It states that narcissists are more likely to "exhibit game-playing, dishonesty, and over-controlling and violent behaviors."
The study's lead author blames this reported trend on parents, teachers, and athletic coaches who endlessly tell children they are "special," i.e. more special than their peers.
A search of university blogs and websites reveals that students and staff are not taking this "news" well. Many dispute the study's results, claiming it was biased and based on a poor understanding of the culture. Andrew Granias of the University of Wisconsin-Madison writes, "...what they have confused in their research and conceptually failed to grasp is that the very essence of Western society since, oh I don’t know, the Enlightenment, has been a sentiment of individualism, not egoism." (Link:
Others argue that in our culture, narcissism is an essential personality trait. A blogger on progressiveu.org writes, "People have to be self-centered in this world. Appearance is everything and taking care of yourself should always be your first priority. You are judged everyday by the way you look. No one cares to get to know anyone now.
It's pointless to get to know people." (Link:
Still others concede that a trend toward narcissism may exist, but is nothing to worry about. The Arizona State website writes: "What's wrong with feelings [sic] special or unique, or thinking you have a right to lead a life of your choosing?" (Link:
Form my perspective, neither the study's reported findings nor the reactions of today's college participants are surprising. The struggle to find a balance between healthy and necessary individualism and unhealthy and destructive self-obsession is an enormous challenge for most human beings, but especially so for contemporary Westerners (and particularly Americans.) Our society was built on the principle that every individual must be equally free to pursue happiness, and in this freedom (or what remains of it) has inevitably emerged an unhealthy competitiveness.
The attitude of "win-at-all-costs" has always guided our economy (just ask the former stockholders of Enron, Worldcom, Adelphia, etc.). In fact, cost of living throughout most of the U.S. has become so exorbitant that personal wealth is not a decadent aspiration, it is a brute necessity. And the need for extraordinary personal "success" is endlessly reinforced by the media saturated culture. Everywhere we look, we are pummeled with images of Very Special People. Professional athletes, rock stars and Hollywood actors have been the national icons for decades, easily outpacing past heroes such as astronauts, statesmen, authors, and others who may have actually contributed something of merit to the human race.
American Idol, in all its garish, sadistic ugliness, has been a consistent ratings leader for half a decade. The message it sends to American youth is, "If you possess a one-in-a-billion talent, you are something. If not, you are nothing."
Are we becoming increasingly narcissistic? Yes. And the knee-jerk reactions of college staff and students against this revelation only reinforces the depth of the problem.
To anyone whom claims that narcissism is harmless or even healthy, I point out the deadly effects of narcissism taken to its extreme, which is sociopathy. A rhetorical question to consider: Is it a coincidence that the United States, with just 5% of the world's population, has reportedly produced 76% of the world's serial killers in the last century (according to "The A to Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers")?
Yes, our country was founded on the right to pursue happiness, and it is also founded on the principle that ALL HUMAN BEINGS ARE CREATED EQUAL. According to our forefathers, intrinsic equality is a truth so obvious as to be "self-evident." The need for personal specialness -- which is fundamentally a desire for SUPERIORITY to others -- is not only an active resistance of equality, it is a denial of REALITY.
It is not an indictment of our national integrity to admit that we are narcissistic. Most of us had little choice in the matter. In the U.S., to stand out from the crowd is collectively considered both desirable and necessary. Parents, teachers, and athletic coaches tell children that they are "special" to build their confidence and make them feel loved. But it is a myth that personal excellence and narcissism are necessary bedfellows. In fact, individual success can be greatest and most healthy when it is motivated by the desire to contribute to others.
Numerous studies have found that married men who wish to provide for their families live longer and healthier, perform better at work, earn more money, and are more likely to finish their higher education.
(Study: http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/cheri/wp/cheri_wp75.pdf). From my perspective, this indicates that human beings simply do better when we are not solely driven by the desire for selfish gain. Altruistic and loving intentions do not paralyze us, they propel us to greater feats because they engender no internal conflicts.
Consider the extraordinary achievements of many Olympics athletes who were largely or entirely motivated by the desire to honor their countrymen and their families. In comparison, astronomically wealthy professional athletes in the U.S. are notorious for their spoiled attitudes and erratic efforts. Self-admiration and egotism provide only transient and limited motivation while inevitably inspiring greed and apathy.
Perhaps confirming this point, as narcissism among youth has reportedly grown, overall academic achievement has declined. According to recent federal reports, high school students' tests scores have worsened even as their grades have suspiciously improved (Story:
If kids are indeed becoming more narcissistic, this effect is predictable. One of the most damaging consequences of a narcissistic personality is that it breeds a sense of ENTITLEMENT. A person who views himself as intrinsically special is LESS motivated to expend the necessary effort for success, because he is too thoroughly convinced of his own grandeur.
Today's allegedly narcissistic college students probably did not spend their youth struggling to help their families keep food on the table and coals in the fire. It's doubtful that their mental focus has ever been, "How can I help? What can I contribute? What MUST I do to keep myself and my loved ones alive?", but rather, "What do I want? What will make me happy? When will I receive what I think I'm entitled to?"
The generation caught in the grips of this illusion must not be viewed with contempt, but rather with pity. They are victims not only of perverse cultural conditioning, but of an illness that has to some extent afflicted all human beings since the beginning of time. This illness is the perception that personal superiority (i.e.
"specialness") must be achieved as a defense against the ever-present threat of personal INFERIORITY: "I have to win or else I will lose."
This problem is continuously addressed in purely spiritual literature.
Virtually all of the material advocates some form of ego abdication as a necessary step on the individual's path toward greater peace and fulfillment. One of the most comprehensive teachings offering an alternative to egotism is A Course in Miracles. ACIM attempts a "reversal" of the classic human thought structure in which the perception of "gain" is literally backward: "Today, I learn the law of love; that what I give my brother is my gift to me."
ACIM asserts that the ego's need for superiority is an attempt to compensate for the loss of the naturally loving and unified state in which consciousness existed prior to a fall from grace. The reader is encouraged to "lay down his sword" (abandon all strategies for
"specialness") as an act of faith. To do this successfully is to simply recognize that the intrinsic, incorruptible equality of every human being is a fact that does not harm or diminish us. This revelation occurs through the removal of obstacles, which are primarily defensiveness ("In my defenseless, my safety lies"), mistrustfulness ("I trust my brothers, who are at one with me") and judgement ("My sinless brother is my guide to peace. My sinful brother is my guide to pain. And which I choose to see I will behold.").
If these teachings are valid, then the imagined need for personal superiority is 100% illusory. This is a difficult pill to swallow, because in this world (and particularly this culture) to not be "better than" is to become a loser. In consideration of this, the word "special" may not even be appropriate to the problem. For individuals to develop unique talents and soar to great achievements is not only valid, it is the KEY to the betterment of the human condition. Nothing is "wrong" with personal excellence, as long as it does not engender a belief that one can gain by being separate and superior.
With the recognition of the safety in equality comes the desire to use one's abilities for the benefit of all. The focus shifts from acquiring what is "out there" to radiating all of one's internal gifts outward.
The natural healthfulness of charity, unity, and cooperation becomes obvious, and entails NO SACRIFICE whatsoever. We have no reason to view ourselves as soldiers of fortune on a hostile battlefield. Rather, we are individual players in a grand orchestra, and the sound of this cosmic symphony will be most beautiful when each of us learns to play his unique and equally critical role in harmony.
Article received from Michael Goodspeed