While there are numerous versions of the Greek myth, they all tell the same basic story.
Narcissus was a beautiful person born into a privileged family who thought so highly of himself that he would turn others away because they were not good enough to deserve his attention or affection. One day, Narcissus went by a pool of water, looked in, and saw himself and became entranced. In fact, he became so transfixed with his own reflection that he became unable to move, captured by his own beauty, only to waste away and finally die.
This ancient story of Narcissus fascinated artists of all kinds throughout the ancient world, filling canvases and sculptures in art museums all around the world, even today. Yet, one doesn't need to travel the world to find the truth of this story. In the midst of our individualistic Western culture, we are confronted with innumerable opportunities to become fascinated with our own lives and wrapped up in our own interests. Whether it be 24-hour news networks that attempt to convince us that everything in the world worth caring about must have something to do with our own interests, or social media that rewards us with "likes," "hearts," and "favorites" for self disclosure, or the newly branded "selfie," our culture is primed for the advancement of self-interest.
While prevalent in our culture, Narcissus' fascination with self has little place within the bounds of those who seek to follow Christ. Drawing from the deeply respected writings of the early Christian leader and theologian Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther wrote about the Christian's fight with the Incurvatus in se, which is loosely translated as being "turned inward on oneself." Drawing from Augustine's many writings, Luther argued that the fundamental building-block of sin is allowing our lives to turn inward, to block out the vision of the community of faith that surrounds us, and to believe that we are self-sufficient.
The scriptures sound the warning against becoming overly wrapped up in our lives time and again, but nowhere more clearly than in the account of Jesus' life and death. The Apostle Paul, reflecting on Jesus' life, death, and resurrection turned to one of the earliest hymns of the church saying, "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross." (Philippians 2:5-8, NRSV) Throughout the rest of the letter, Paul encourages the Philippians to order their lives around the same kind of self-sacrificial humility and I imagine, if he were writing to us today, Paul's message would be much the same.
Let us not forget that Jesus Christ was willing to sacrifice everything, including his life, for the sake of the world. Anyone who seeks to follow his way is called to give of themselves, to practice empathy, to recognize that outward service to others is of far more importance than self-interest. Even today, God's spirit is active in the world enabling believers to live against the temptation to become "turned inward." In fact, with God's help, we can become people whose lives are characterized by our focus on others, including our hospitality, giving, and cultivation of community. Yet, remember that our path is filled with the same temptations as Narcissus, so let us be vigilant, always reminding ourselves of the Savior who chose humility and death before self-exaltation. In Christ, turn your eyes outward, practice empathy, and catch a glimpse of the beauty of life that far exceeds the shallow reflections of Narcissus' pool.
BY REV. MICHAEL GEWECKE
SPIRIT LAKE FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH