Sunday, May 19, 2013

Living the Moral Life: Beyond Narcissism

Narcissism and the Four Levels of Happiness:

Dr. Drew Pinsky, who is not known for being an advocate for traditional values, once said that for the first time in history the younger generations want to be famous more than they want to be rich. Historically, the most coveted vice was avarice; that is, the desire to become rich. But today’s commonly held desire to become famous is even more sinister. In fact, one can argue that fame breeds the worst vice of all, namely, narcissism. To become famous is to become a celebrity. And according to Dr. Drew, many celebrities struggle with narcissism.

Unfortunately, today’s entertainment- marketed to attract young people -puts a very high premium on becoming famous. It’s all about becoming a star, they say. Because of this, more and more young men and women only experience a superficial kind of happiness. According to Fr. Robert Spitzer, founder of the The Magis Center for Reason and Faith, there are four levels of happiness. The first two- laetus and felix –are the most commonly experienced levels of happiness. However, the third and fourth levels of happiness- beatitudo and sublime beatitudo –are becoming more rare.

The thing to note about narcissism and the first two levels of happiness is that they are ego-driven and sensual in nature. For this reason, they are fleeting and short-lived. But the tragedy of this shallow way of living life is that adverse circumstances can turn it upside down in a heartbeat. Perhaps, this is why the suicide rate has increased in recent years. The grave disorder of narcissism is that it is ill-adapted to the real world. Day to day circumstances, more often than not, will not cooperate with the narcissistic illusion that the world revolves around one individual. Soon or later, the brutal facts will confront that individual; rocking his or her world down to the core.

In any event, here are the four levels of happiness that Fr. Robert Spitzer identifies (in his own words):

1. Laetus: Happiness in a thing. Thus, "I see the linguini, I eat the linguini, it makes me feel good, I am happy." This kind of happiness is based on something external to the self, is short-lived and, on reflection, we do not consider that it is all there is to human happiness.

2. Felix: The happiness of comparative advantage. "I have more of this than X." "I am better at this than X." This kind of happiness results from competition with another person. The self is seen in terms of how we measure up to others. It has been called "the comparison game." Such happiness is rather unstable and, if one fails, can lead to unhappiness and sense of worthlessness. Exclusive pursuit tends to oppress others. Most people would not imagine a world as satisfactory if it was composed of only happiness #2 type people.

3. Beatitudo: (Beatitudo = happiness or blessedness). The happiness that comes from seeing the good in others and doing the good for others. It is, in essence, other-regarding action. Happiness #3 is, in some sense, at war with happiness #2. One cannot be at the same time in competition with someone else and doing the good for and seeing the good in them. Most people would prefer a world (community, family, relationships) structured around the pursuit of happiness #3 than entirely based in happiness #2. Happiness #3 is higher than happiness #2. The problem with #3 is that it is necessarily limited. We cannot be someone else's everything. For example, we or they, will die and if our happiness is contingent upon them, it dies with them. "There must be more than this."

4. Sublime Beatitudo: (sublime = "to lift up or elevate"). This category, the most difficult to describe, encompasses a reach for fullness and perfection of happiness. The fullness, therefore, of goodness, beauty, truth and love. So we recognize in this category, those things that are, in a sense, beyond what we are capable of doing purely on our own.

The fourth level of happiness, of course, has everything to do with God. It is, along with level three, the most fulfilling and durable form of happiness. And the reason for this is that a life based on the love of God and neighbor (as Christ teaches) is best adapted to the real world and to the needs of the soul who chooses this path.

Getting Beyond Level One and Two:

As stated in the previous article,  The Impact of Pentecost on Morality, if we are to get beyond a sensual-ego driven kind of existence, we need a new spirit and a new heart (cf. Ez. 36:25-27) With this, the baptized Christian can- if he chooses –aspire to live up to the high moral standards of Christ. But such an ascent requires a kind of death of the sensual and egoistic part of the self.

The question is: How do we get there? Sure, all of these truths are fine and good in the abstract but what are some practical ways to overcome the narcissist in each of us? Keep in mind that that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the soul needs the cooperation of the soul to do his work. To be sure, the Spirit of Christ not only inspires ideals, but he presses the soul onward toward practical resolutions. Fr. Robinson, author of Spiritual Combat Revisited, gives the rationale behind this: “This is not so much an effort to build up a series of virtues; no doubt spiritual exercises should have that effect; but even more so, progress in spirituality is intensely personal; it means growing in a more intimate union with Christ.”

Living a moral life that leads to a level three and level four happiness cannot be reduced to a program of "do’s and don’ts" apart from Christ. In fact, living the moral life flows from an intimate union with Christ. Try as they may, but when public institutions ignore this theological principle they will continue to fail in trying to create a just and moral society. No political or social program can substitute for a new spirit and a new heart given to us by God.

Although living the moral life cannot be reduced to following a set of moral precepts, the Saints give us plenty of tips on how to put it the moral life into effect; that is, once we received a new spirit and a new heart through baptism. Below are five tips:

1. The first cause of moral goodness: To pray to God throughout the day is to act on the First Cause of moral goodness. The Saints and the great monastics that made this world a better place because they knew the discipline of prayer. Do your best to pray- even if it is a short spontaneous prayer –in the morning before work, at noon (Angelus is good for this), at 3pm to commemorate our Lord’s death and in the evening. This will keep alive the presence of God throughout the day.

2. Acts of self-denial: The Eucharistic Sacrifice at the altar is the supreme act of love because it is the supreme act of self-denial. When we give up a little something here, and a little something there, we rehearse for the hour of our death. Indeed, at that hour we will have to say “good-bye” to all earthly goods. These penitential acts are a reminder that we are a people in exile; that this earth is not our abiding home.

It also trains the will to do acts of love for others. After all, is it not the case that the substance of love is sacrifice? Without sacrifice or without self-denial, love is impossible. Make little sacrifices throughout the day and say to Jesus: “I offer this up to you in gratitude for what you did for me on the Cross. May this sacrifice be a pleasing aroma to you and may it lead others to you.”

3. Better than you: People may mistake this tip as a form of self-loathing, but it is far from the case. As Fulton Sheen said, try to see the best in others and the worst in yourself. To foster this mindset it is important to daily examine ourselves; that is, to examine where we sinned and fell short throughout the day. Our Lord wants us to become small in our own estimation so that he can become big in our hearts and minds. Anyone who thinks too much of himself will hardly be a servant to others or even to God.

4. Bite your tongue: Do not lose your peace when others criticize you, especially when the criticism comes from those who are closest to you. St. Francis of Assisi said that to remain silent while you’re being criticized is worth more to God than ten days of fasting. There are plenty of people who are self-proclaimed sinners, but as soon as someone confirms it- that is, points out their faults –they become indignant and even irate. When loved ones remind us that we are imperfect, it is a service to our humility. And it occasions a step forward in holiness. Oh! I forgot to mention: It goes a long way in improving one's marriage.

5. Accept all things: Many fail to see long-term gains through short-term sacrifices; especially narcissistic people. Christianity renewed a dying pagan civilization precisely because it saw the value in suffering. The reason for this epiphany- which was wholly unique to Christianity –was that Christians worshipped crucified God. Furthermore, throughout his life, it was he who glorified poverty, chastity, martyrdom, the infirmed, the persecuted, and the outcasts of society. In other words, he taught us to see glory in lowliness and adversity.

To do the right thing, therefore, requires that we see beyond immediate pain and setbacks. In Scripture, it is illustrated over and over again that God uses setbacks, failure and even death to achieve his purpose. Our criterion for success is not the same of God’s. With this in mind, we can better accept all things as coming from his hand. Each day- with all of its favorable and unfavorable circumstances –contains the content of God’s will for us. We do not have to search for his will; it is given to us every day…in the circumstances of each moment. Many a good Catholic balks at this. Trust me. This is a teaching of the Saints. And it is one that leads to a peace of mind when we are afflicted.

There are more tips in living the moral life. But the five mentioned above- every single one of them –are prescribed by the Saints. They will help us to move well beyond the narcissistic (and the level one and two forms of happiness) tendencies that are becoming more prevalent in today’s society.