Christopher Lasch's book The Culture of Narcissism, deals with the ideology "of competitive individualism, which in its decadence has carried the logic of individualism to the extreme of a war of all against all, the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self." [emphasis added]
Egomania, narcissism, is the natural condition of the infant; the world exists merely as gratification or denial of personal desires. The caretaker--parent, nurse, teacher, religious authority--tells the infant what reality is and how he or she must behave in response to this defined reality.
It's at this stage of egomania and narcissism where most personalities stop developing; they remain in an infantile state even though they have matured physically. Ego-satisfaction is the only concern, avoiding punishment by authority figures and achieving one's individual goals is the life-game, and understanding or awareness is totally unnecessary and boring. The authority figures will tell us what is real and what we're supposed to do, so we have absolutely no need to think for ourselves. Since personal satisfaction is primary, however we achieve our goals is okay. There are no moral values beyond feeling good about ourselves and making others fear and respect us. Any consideration for the good of others is weakness and stupidity.
So we have high school and college students who want nothing more out of their educational experience than credits; they have no interest whatsoever in understanding the subjects they study. They're not even interested in developing skills; if they can get other students to do their assignments and tests for them, that's great. The majority of people in our culture merely want to get along, avoid trouble with authority figures, succeed in their careers, and cram as much personal pleasure into their lives as possible. In short, most persons in our society are grown infants. Showing off, having "attitudes," talking endlessly about oneself, swaggering through life, taking pride in ignorance and violence--these have become the norms.
Egomania is not just an arrested stage of development, not merely a slight malady or a minor social aberration; it is a blindness to reality which leads to death: death of oneself and others. The obsession with self and the grudging obedience to authority becomes so pervasive and consuming that we lose touch with reality and begin to live in solipsistic fantasy worlds. The infantile personality responds only to gross symbols, ideas, and commands: TV images of 200% patriotism, slogans ("dead or alive), bluster ("we'll rid the world of terrorism"); norms ("don't think about what American leaders did which led to the terrorist attacks; vote more money for an incompetent intelligence industry; forget about the workers laid off, give tax breaks to corporate executives").
American immaturity is clear from the unthinking, knee-jerk increase in the approval rating for a president who stole the presidency and can barely read his speeches from his cue cards.
"While in our private life nobody except a mad person would remain passive in view of a threat to our total existence, those who are in charge of public affairs do practically nothing, and those who have entrusted their fate to them let them continue to do nothing.
"How is it possible that the strongest of all instincts, that for survival, seems to have ceased to motivate us? One of the most obvious explanations is that the leaders undertake many actions that make it possible for them to pretend they are doing something effective to avoid a catastrophe: endless conferences, resolutions, disarmament talks, all give the impression that the problems are recognized and something is being done to resolve them. Yet nothing of real importance happens; but both the leaders and the led anesthetize their consciences and their wish for survival by giving the appearance of knowing the road and marching in the right direction."
Erich Fromm. (1976). To Have or To Be?
Persons possessed by narcissism are incapable of loving others, but they are also incapable of loving themselves--because they have not developed the ability to love.
We must rid ourselves of our current truncated, lopsided definitions of personal maturity and intelligence, which consider the "greatest" person the one who owns the most things: money, cars, homes, persons.
The Development of Personal Maturity
"The breakdown of the infantile adjustment in which providential powers ministered to every wish compels us either to flee from reality or to understand it. And by understanding it we create new objects of desire. For when we know a good deal about a thing, know how it originated, how it is likely to behave, what it is made of, and what is its place amidst other things, we are dealing with something quite different from the simple object naively apprehended.
"The understanding creates a new environment. The more subtle and discriminating, the more informed and sympathetic the understanding is, the more complex and yet ordered do the things about us become . . . A world which is ordinarily unseen has become visible through the understanding."
Walter Lippmann. A Preface to Morals
Human maturity should be seen as the capacity to understand what's happening in the world and responding to that understanding in a personally and socially effective manner. Maturity is a quality in human beings which makes them capable of awareness in the broadest possible terms, not mere financial or academic or interpersonal success but understanding which makes it possible to make their lives worthwhile and make their society better during their lifetime. This conception of maturity is in the tradition of wisdom, not the more current ideas of "rich and famous" or "smartness" or "cool."
Viewing human maturity and intelligence in this way, we could no longer speak of an intelligent or mature terrorist who kills without compunction because of some insane ideology or an intelligent, mature corporate CEO who takes American jobs abroad and destroys vast parts of American life--cities, families, facilities.
A wise prophet once said (to paraphrase): What shall it benefit a man if he gains all the wealth in the world and lose his soul as it becomes a hell-hole of money-obsession, banality, and ignorance? In other words, you can be ludicrously wealthy and still be stupid enough to destroy yourself. And in including social responsibility in our definition of maturity we can update that same sentiment: What shall it benefit twenty-first century American people if they gain all the money in the world and lose their country as it becomes a hell-hole of obscene wealth for the upper class, wage slavery for the middle class, homelessness and grinding poverty for the lower class, and banality and ignorance for everyone?
"The narcissistic orientation is one in which one experiences as real only that which exists within oneself, while the phenomena in the outside world have no reality in themselves, but are experienced only from the viewpoint of their being useful or dangerous to one. The opposite pole to narcissism is objectivity; it is the faculty to see people and things as they are, objectively, and to be able to separate this objective picture from a picture which is formed by one's desires and fears."
Erich Fromm. The Art of Loving
By maturity, then, we mean the qualities of:
- seeing through the current social myths and diversions
- understanding the necessity of life-long self-education
- recognizing the necessity of social action, including discerning what the social situation requires and creating a program to realize social reform
- developing genuine feelings of compassion and regard for one's fellow human beings
The world social situation is in such a state of crisis that no other group of qualities qualifies a person to be deemed mature or intelligent. With regard to social awareness, we are fortunate to have the work of many different investigators who clarify this facet of maturity. From Greider's disclosure of the political Big Con to Chomsky's penetrating expose of international skullduggery to Kevin Phillips's uncovering of the disparity between hyper-wealth and abject poverty to Neil Postman's brilliant study of how we are amusing ourselves to death in front of our TV sets to C. Wright Mills' dissection of the power elite's strengths and weaknesses to Paulo Freire's radical pedagogy for the socially illiterate, we have an invaluably broad panoply of sources to diagnose the ills of our society and realize the ways personal maturation and social reform must be carried out.
Maturity includes the whole range of humankind's relationships with other humans and with the world in general. Maturity, in other words, is much broader than political awareness or psychological savvy or enlightened activism. It includes discernment of all social conditioning, from ritual to religion, from MTV to metaphysics, from jet-set to down-sizing, from anti-terrorist legislation curtailing our freedom to the Orwellian crippling of our language and our minds. Thus, in creating a new definition of maturity, we are talking about the whole range of human thought and action. It includes an examination of the mythologies of contemporary science and a review of the work of investigators who are pushing us beyond the current Newtonian-Einsteinian ideologies to new ways of viewing reality.
Part of what we want to accomplish with a new definition of maturity is to distinguish between people who possess this congeries of abilities and attitudes and people who do not possess it. A major difficulty with the commonplace definition of maturity is that everyone is supposed to have it--in larger or smaller doses.
Taking the opposite tack, we can say that only a few people at any given time have genuine maturity or social intelligence. A major element in maturity is the ability to see through the social myths dominant at any particular time in history. And at any given time, only a few people are able to achieve the necessary understanding of their social conditioning to break through the delusions, myths, and fantasies peddled by the people controlling social ideology and behavior.
This aspect of maturity has been described by Paulo Freire as critical consciousness and it requires extraordinary abilities to recognize oneself as being a member of an oppressed class and seeing our oppression as a situation which we can transform through informed action.
Part of what we must learn from the horror of September 11, 2001 is that we are now so self-absorbed that we do not even see when our lives are being endangered. Americans today are rapidly losing the intellectual ability to realize or be concerned that their very lives are threatened by globalistic economic policies:
- institutionalizing slave labor
- creating a two-class society:
- the super-rich (the top 1% in America now own more than the lower 90%)
- the destitute poor
- despoiling the ecosphere without any concern for the future
- destroying civil liberties
Our narcissism is actually endangering our lives, making us totally unaware that what our leaders are doing is resulting in death for civilians. We must awaken from our narcissistic blindness if we are to save our lives.