Gaslighting for God, Part 3
The Rise of Narcissistic Cultures
Credit: The Wittenburg Door. Used with permission.
Yes, yes, I can hear it now. "We've always had people who display narcissistic traits throughout history. What's the big dealie here?"
Ah yes, that whole "whose worst" debate. Is it say Caligula or Clinton? Marie Antoinette or Melania? Aimee Simple McPherson or Joel Osteen? Whose behavior is the most odious when those in the media spotlight strut across the spiritual stage all decked out in their full religious regalia?
In her book Who Do We Choose To Be?: Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity, Margaret Wheatley provided some much needed historical background to help answer this question. In her book, she unpacks the work of Sir John Glubb, who studied thirteen empires from Assyria in 859 BCE to modern Britain in 1950. His research documented how these empires declined in the same stages, and it always took ten generations, about 250 years. He defines the trajectory of civilization cycle as beginning with the age of pioneers, then following with the ages of conquest, commerce, affluence, and intellect. Then this cycle concludes with the age of decadence.
According to Wheatley's analysis, we're in the age of decadence. Her description of our current civilization cycle appears to be pulled from today's headlines.
Frivolity, aestheticism, hedonism, cynicism, pessimism, narcissism, consumerism, materialism, nihilism, fatalism, fanaticism and other negative behaviors and attitudes suffuse the population. Politics is increasingly corrupt, life increasingly unjust. A cabal of insiders accrues wealth and power at the expense of the citizenry, fostering a fatal opposition of interests between haves and have nots. The majority lives for bread and circuses: worships celebrities instead of divinities ... throws off social and moral restraints, especially on sexuality; shirks duties but insists on entitlements. (Page 302)
In her analysis, human rights, social justice, gender equality, education, and healthcare benefits all surge ahead during this last stage of collapse as leaders create the welfare state. The leaders, acting as if they'll always be in power with unlimited resources, are hugely beneficent in offering a progressive society to all." Upon further examination, we see these efforts becoming commercialized and commodified by those self-appointed thought leaders who promised us a new way of being that attracted the faithful. In the end, they choose to promote their platform instead.
While one can find such Pied Pipers dating back to the Middle Ages, as well as other mythical figures arising since the dawn of civilization, we need be careful not to play pseudo-historian by interpreting historical eras through a contemporary lens. For starters, the term narcissist and its kissing cousin sociopath/psychopath appear to be relatively recently additions to the public lexicon. Hence, Caligula may have been just as narcissistic as Bill Clinton but the language used to described his debauchery would not included such contemporary therapeutic terms. (Also cigars didn’t touch Western European lips until Christopher Columbus’ sailors lit one circa 1492 but I digress.
Speaking of Christophers, the late Christopher Lasch's book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations first published in 1979 pointed to the recent rise of self-centered behaviors in the United States. In this book, Lasch lashes (wonder how often he got that joke hurled at him) against the swells of self-centeredness that marked the the '70s Me Generation, which was we now know was soon followed by the "Greed is Good" glitz that defined the eighties and continued until the stock market crash of 2008.
This set the stage for the mounds of books that spoke to the rise of narcissistic traits within the U.S. sociopolitical culture well before Trump graced the national political stage. Hence, I would like to shift this conversation though away from the narcissistic traits present within "Trumpvangelicalism" (FYI-Trump’s closest advisors were more of the prosperity gospel sort). Let’s focus instead on analyzing our contemporary society that continues to elevate narcissists specifically, the Christian church and its outgrowths in our society.
Let's face it, some faith based folks are just Jerks for Jesus, A-holes for the Almighty, or a clueless or cranky Christian. (I know I've fallen into these categories on numerous occasions.) But over time, you can peel off that rough exterior and make a genuine connection, albeit one that can be rocky at times.
But when interacting with a narcissist, there's no room for dialogue or constructive debate. When you affirm them, they respond a la Dr. Jekyll. But dare to differ with them and their inner Mr. Hyde emerges with an Old Testament style vengeance.
According to clinicians, narcissism is the absorption with oneself to the exclusion of the outside world, leading to treating other people badly in pursuit of one’s own desires. In terms of the Christian leaders I've encountered of the decades, this translated into putting their own commercial success over extending Christlike compassion.
These are some traits most narcissists have in common:
They lack empathy, and feel uncomfortable with their emotional life.
They are self-absorbed, always manage to make the conversation about themselves, and frequently interrupt others.
They have a grandiose sense of self-importance, and will exaggerate their achievements and talents.
They are hyper-competitive, ambitious, and compulsive with fantasies of unlimited success and a history of making important life decisions with little forethought.
They believe that they are special or unique, and need to be the center of attention.
They resist any efforts for actual collaboration with others.
They are preoccupied with how they are perceived by others, and seek out compliments while reacting to any criticism or contrary viewpoints with condescension and anger.
They have a very strong sense of superiority and entitlement, and will make contemptuous remarks about other people behind their backs.
They can come across as self-righteous and bulletproof during arguments, as they ridicule, shame, and humiliate their opponents.
They cannot express compassion, lack interest in others’ feelings and experiences, and don’t respect boundaries.
They are envious of others and think others are envious of them.
They regularly display arrogant and abusive attitudes and behaviors.
They are easily slighted and will explode with rage and go on the attack when hurt or frustrated with no insight into how their behavior impacts others.
They are master manipulators who modify and distort the facts for personal gain, and exploit others’ weaknesses to get what they want.
They engage in "splitting" by blaming negative outcomes on others while taking credit for positive and good outcomes.
They can be seductive and manipulative, and tend to be overly jealous, controlling, and possessive.
They lack self-control through actions such as overeating, drinking too much, spending beyond their means, abusing drugs, or engaging in inappropriate sexual relationships.
Not every story a narcissist tells is one of victory. But in the stories of tragedy or failure, there’s an air of entitlement and victimization.
At times, one can see some of these aforementioned qualities among those who dare to dream. A certain degree of self-esteem is critical in order to cope in the world and practice healthy self-care. If we didn’t think we could achieve the seemingly impossible, then we’d never achieve significant advances in science, the arts, and other disciplines. That’s sometimes called "healthy narcissism." Also, when we get stressed and emotionally depleted, we can behave temporarily in self-centered ways. Once we stabilize, we’re capable again of displaying empathy and compassion towards each other.
But those at the extreme end of the narcissistic scale, especially those who display sociopathic tendencies, lack a conscience or compassion. Therefore, they’re stuck in their beliefs and behaviors that prevent them from truly connecting with others. Nothing you do will make them truly care about you. Full of sound and fury signifying nothing and all that Shakespearean stuff truly applies here. Simply put, there's no there, there.
So just how prevalence is narcissism within the church, and more importantly, what, if anything can we do when encountering such energies?
Next week, I'll tackle that question.
Author's note: My list of narcissistic traits was culled from these books focusing on the topic of narcissism, psychopathy, and sociopathy.
Joseph Burgo (2015) The Narcissist You Know (New York, NY: Touchstone).
Robert D. Hare (1999) Without Conscience (New York, NY: Guilford Books).
Aaron James (2014) The Narcissist Next Door (New York, NY: Riverhead Books).
Jason MacKenzie (2015) Psychopath Free New York, NY: Berkeley).
Craig Malkin (2015) Rethinking Narcissism (New York, NY: Harper Perennial).
Martha Stout (2006) The Sociopath Next Door (New York, NY: Harmony).
Credit: The Wittenburg Door. Used with permission.
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