“If ever he knows himself, he surely dies.”
– Blind seer Tiresias to Narcissus’ mother, Liriope, when asked if Narcissus will live to an old age
My iPhone went dead the other day. Not that it was anything special. Just another episode of me overusing and underpowering this magical handheld device. But something struck me when my screen went black. Suddenly, I thought of Narcissus.
It is a beguiling tale to say the least. It is from a small section of Ovid’s The Metamorphoses. Narcissus is an entrancing, handsome young man born of a woman and river god who finds himself hunting in the woods. He is adored and pursued by woodland nymphs and maidens, most notably an attractive nymph named Echo. Echo has recently been condemned by the gods to speechlessness (for having crossed one of them) with the exception that she can repeat the words she hears. Finding herself smitten with Narcissus but ill-equipped to communicate with him, she ultimately charms him into seeking her out whereupon she is roughly and roundly rejected. Heartbroken, Echo, would recede to the mountaintops where she would wither away only to forever remain the echo that mournfully responds to anyone’s call.
But Narcissus would haughtily carry on. Further nymphs would fall in love, but find themselves dashed when their favor was not returned. But it wouldn’t be too long before Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance, discovers what Narcissus has done and decides to get even. How does she do this? By tempting a hot, thirsty and bedraggled Narcissus to a cool, glassy pool of water. Upon arrival, Narcissus catches the eye of the image in reflective waters – the first encounter with his own visage – and now it is he who is smitten. Finding it impossible to kiss, touch or embrace the image without stirring it into confused waves of water, Narcissus despairs and dies lonely and forlorn (by starvation, or in some renditions, suicide).
Now, what does Narcissus have to do with my dead iPhone? More than I would ever have thought. When I first encountered the iPhone in the hands of a patient, I was in awe. A phone, an ipod and a computer in your pocket??? And when I bought one, well… I made sure I purchased the maximum memory to download as many apps and music and take seemingly infinite pictures and video. Before long, I had bookmarked my favorite websites, joined Facebook, launched twitter (@thinkercatholic, if you are so inclined) and Instagram (catholicthinker) accounts. I checked and rechecked the news, sports scores and weather. I read Magnificat, Word on Fire and The Catholic Thing. All of this from the palm of my sweet little hand. And yet…
A few occasions occurred when my daughters peered at me and said,”Dad, can you put your phone down?”. Today, in the middle of some post-dinner clean up, my wife asked me for my phone only to set it across the room from me. The other night, I set my phone on my chest as I was laying next to my five-year old daughter. As I watched her, she began to slowly slip dreamily into sleep – you know, that beautiful, irreplaceably sweet smile with eyelids that are too heavy to keep open and is accompanied by the rhythm of a small chest rising and falling, rising and falling. I watched. And I watched. And I thought, to hell with my iPhone.
You see, the other day when my iPhone went black, do you know what I saw in that still, mesmerizing, glassy surface? Me. I saw my own reflection. And I realized that MY apps, MY websites, MY music, MY social media, MY time…was all about ME. And I was starting to miss the beauty around me. I don’t want to be distracted from conversation. I don’t want to miss my daughters’ sweet expressions. I don’t want to miss simply being with the people I love.
For me, my obsession with the promises of my iPhone had become Narcissus’ pool. Think again of the blind seer Tiresias’ warning to Narcissus’ mother,
“If ever he knows himself, he surely dies.”
This would make no sense to the majority of us bustling about in our overscheduled lives. Because the world is saying to us,”Get to know yourself. Examine yourself. Find yourself.” In fact, I am discovering, I am getting a little sick of myself. No, this is not some pathetic assault on my self-esteem, but an honest appraisal that I spend too much time worrying about me and what makes me happy. When Christ was asked which is the greatest commandment, the answer was to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. To be sure, we are dignified and valuable creations of God, but we aren’t the center of the universe. Flannery O’Connor, in A Prayer Journal, brilliantly put it this way,
I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.”
“If ever he knows himself, he surely dies.” Yes. I think I’m beginning to understand. If we know only ourselves, our interests, our priorities and we neglect our greater calling to God, to family, to life, perhaps in some small way, we surely die too. Perhaps.
No, I’m not throwing my iPhone away. It serves a purpose, to be sure. But I won’t get lost in the glimmering pool again. I just won’t. After all, I’m trying to be less of a Narcissist.