Almost every single one of my 6th-graders wanted to be rich and famous.
I was teaching middle-school math in New York City public, and one day I asked them, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
There were essentially four responses:
3. Professional athlete
4. Doctor/Lawyer. I group Doctor/Lawyer like that because the kids did. They responded, “I want to be a doctor or a lawyer.” The professions were interchangeable.
Out of 50-plus students, every one volunteered one of these four selections, with only two exceptions: one wanted to be a business mogul, and one wanted to be a nurse.
This is hardly a statistically representative sample, but you've got to admit there's something noteworthy going on here, especially when you consider the reasons for these dreams.
“I want to be famous.”
“I want to be rich.”
“I want to be rich and famous.”
Almost all 50 wanted to be famous, rich, or rich and famous.
Only the nurse responded differently. “So I can help people,” she apologized.
It's not the kids. The weirdest thing is that we don't think it's weird. We think, “Well, who wouldn't want to be rich and famous?”
Awareness of the narcissism epidemic is dawning, though. “Epidemic” is a loaded word, but it's the word psychiatrists are using.
Serious studies confirm what numerous publications proclaim:
1. There are more narcissists among us than ever before.
2. Everyday, non-narcissists have more narcissistic tendencies than ever before.
3. Our culture encourages and facilitates narcissism more than ever before.
4. All of this is causing a lot of pain and problems.
Narcissism in painful. Many people feel unfulfilled and disappointed, because let's face it, we're not all gonna be American Idols.
We feel vulnerable in this hypercompetitive climate. Even worse, we're missing out on the best things life has to offer.
All the really good stuff, like great friendships, marriages, working relationships, involvement with organizations who do meaningful work, and faith in something or someone bigger and better -- these things all refuse to be all about me. If I try to make them about me, they stop being good things.
Could we make this holiday season more about “we” than “me”?
I'd like to make a couple of counter-cultural suggestions about how:
1. Recover the lost art of listening. This could transform our society. Imagine, as an example, how American politics might change if we were as good at listening as we are at making ourselves heard. It feels so good to be listened to that we're all constantly trying to make it happen for ourselves, and therefore seldom experiencing the real thing.
Listening cures narcissism is us. When you truly listen to someone, you implicitly say, “What you have to say is more important than what I have to say.”
This Christmas season, give this gift to your family and friends: Listen to them. Repeat back to them what they've said so you can be sure you heard them correctly. Ask questions and then pay attention to their responses. You might be pleasantly surprised by how conversations go at the family gathering you were dreading, or with that guy at the office party you were avoiding.
2. Create room for wonder. After a recent snowfall, something wonderful happened on my walk to work. The super of my building scattered salt from a bag like a farmer sowing seed. I shuffled past and through the streets of Manhattan towards my office, head down, when I heard a chorus of honking ... from above.
I stopped, and lifted my eyes from the snow at my feet to the fire escapes above and finally to the sky. High above the skyscrapers soared two V-formations of geese, pointing South. They looked like tiny squiggles. I didn't know they could fly so high! The two flocks slowly merged, and the geese honked to one another, negotiating their new positions in this joint venture.
For one blessed moment, I forgot where I was. I forgot about myself entirely. It was delightful.
Narcissism folds us in on ourselves. Wonder pulls us up and out into the expanse of Other.
On the night before this Christmas, could you light a candle and read The Night Before Christmas?
When visiting family or friends, find a baby to hold. Look into his or her eyes and think: God came like this.
Participate with church, not out of a sense of moral obligation, but to wonder. Wonder at words written thousands of years ago, and how they've been passed down to us. Wonder at the way our voices join together in song, negotiating our new positions in this joint venture, like those merging flocks of geese.
It's wonderful, this wonder. It's much better than me and my stuff and my wants and my concerns.
I wish you a merry Christmas. I wish you a wonderful Christmas.