A friend of mine recently expressed to me his rather unique thoughts on Narcissus. Narcissus, if you recall, saw his own reflection in the water and fell in love with it, not realizing it was his own image. Unable to leave the beauty of his reflection, he stared at it until he died. This is the origin of our term “narcissism”, which is defined as a fixation with oneself. My friend took the position that perhaps, because Narcissus did not realize that he was his own object of desire, one could say that his love was unselfish and, in a sense, both brave and noble, albeit misguided. It was an interesting point.
I imagined Narcissus peering into the pool and finding that the eyes looking back at him seemed to see into the very essence of his soul, looking beyond all impurities, to the truth of who he was, seeing and knowing him like no other ever could. Once having found the one he believed truly saw and knew him to that degree and still looked back unblinkingly, in love, he could never again look away.
In Genesis 1:27 we read, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” I imagine, at the beginning, were Adam or Eve to have looked in the water at their reflections, what they saw there would have brought only God to mind. They were not yet, as Augustine conceived and Luther later concretized, incurvatus in se, or curved in upon themselves. Their adoration was completely and naturally God-directed.
It was not until after the fall that we read, in Genesis 5:3, that Adam “fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.” Once Adam had, in an act of self-worship, eaten the fruit, that inward curve replicated itself in all of his future offspring. From that point, the image in the water was only our own. Our adoration became completely and naturally self-directed. We retained the desire to be fully known and loved, but we searched for it now where it could never be found, either in our own image as reflected in the faces of others, or by desperately trying to love ourselves as only God could truly love us.
Isn’t that akin to what most of us experience, in passion’s first blush? We subconsciously see (or imagine) a likeness of ourselves in another and are irresistibly drawn to it. We believe we have found our soul mate, with whom we have so much in common that it is almost uncanny. We acknowledge that the other is not perfect, but we find even their faults adorable. No one has ever understood each other the way we understand each other. Then, ultimately, the illusion of sameness begins to dissipate. Differences emerge, and we must decide if we can bear them. Disillusionment is always painful. Most relationships cannot withstand the process.
This inward curve is so complete that it has even taken what Jesus called the second greatest commandment, which was intended to reveal our self-directedness and pull us outward, and used it to direct our loving gaze ever deeper into our own eyes. Contrary to current popular belief, in Matthew 22:39, where Jesus quoted the words from the Law found in Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” he was not encouraging us to love ourselves more. Whitney Houston got it wrong in her 1980’s hit, learning to love yourself is not the greatest love of all! Jesus knew that our intrinsic self-adoration is actually the very core of what keeps us from being able to fulfill the first and greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”
It is only by redirecting our eyes from ourselves to the cross that we will find what we have sought all along. By beholding true love, as expressed in Christ’s life, death and resurrection, for us, our image begins to regain what was lost. Romans 8:29 tells us that it is God’s plan that we be “conformed to the image of his Son.” This verse is not talking so much about our improved behavior as it is about what happens to us on the outside when we begin to grasp on the inside how much we are loved.
2 Corinthians 3:16-18 says, “But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” When we turn our eyes to the Lord, we see for the first time that staring at our own reflection offers us nothing. The veil of self-worship, of confidence in ourselves, is removed, and by beholding Christ as the glory of God, we begin to be transformed back into the image of God.
Colossians 3:10-11 says that, in Christ, we “have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” Only as the knowledge of the degree to which we have been loved by our Creator permeates our beings can we also begin to see our neighbor as beloved, because it is only that knowledge which shows us that Christ, and not ourselves, is “all, and in all.”
Perhaps Narcissus is, after all, less of a figure to be scorned than one who is deserving of compassion and understanding. Both his desire and delusion are much like our own. The Apostle Paul promises us that one day, “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.” (1 Corinthians 15:49.) In addition, John says, “Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)
There will come a time when we will be like him, just as we were before the fall. The inward curve will straighten. We will lock eyes and find that the eyes looking back at us in love are the ones for which we have always longed. We will know then that God alone has seen us, known all about us and never once blinked; and we, having finally seen him face to face, will never again want to look away.