Narcissism, the troublemaker

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Article Date: 
Aug 09 2010, 2103

The Catholic church in the West has been faced with the damaging problems of sexual abuse of innocent, helpless children. In 2003, soon after the scandals broke in the US, there was a panel discussion in New York City on the topic of sexual abuse in the church. The audience consisted mainly of health-care professionals, clergy and several victims of abuse. The panel included several psychologists and psychiatrists who spoke their mind on the cruel topic of child abuse. The proceedings of the discussion and deliberation were published under the provocative title: “Predatory Priests, Silenced Victims”.
One of the insightful observations of a psychologist is that normally the two main characteristics of the priests who exploited the children were narcissism and grandiosity. The narcissist, according to psychiatrists, does not care how uncomfortable he makes a child, or anyone, for that matter, even if a child expresses or indicates discomfort. An emotionally healthy person would know when another person is feeling uncomfortable. The narcissist does not, and so he persists in his abusive behaviour.
The abuser with grandiose feelings, the psychiatrist explained, is the Pied Piper, the larger-than-life personality, the frequent Lone Ranger, who figures into so many abuse cases. He is the person who attracts children into his orbit through the sheer aura of his personality. Parents mistakenly place their trust in him.
Both of these characteristics - narcissism and grandiosity - are devastating for anyone in any sort of service work. Yet they are the hallmarks, claimed the psychiatrist, of the child-abuser. And the worst case is that of a religious leader who abuses children. As a spiritual leader, he is called to serve all and specially the children, who are the most vulnerable in society. The one who chooses to exploit the innocence of children can never be close to God.
One way to tackle the tendencies of narcissism and grandiosity, so detrimental to spiritual depth, is to deal with children respectfully and reverentially and to learn from them joyfully. Jesus was someone close to God and also to children. Children wanted to be around him. And he even asserted, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
When we are relaxed, and when little children can really relax in our presence, we cannot afford to have a bloated ego. In their presence, we cannot consider ourselves to be unduly important. Unless we accept our little littleness realistically, we cannot get rid of our ego and surrender ourselves to the ultimate.
Genuine spirituality is a call to surrender ourselves totally and unconditionally to someone larger than ourselves. It is to realise that we are here because of someone or something truly larger than ourselves. In the presence of this larger reality, just like in the presence of joyful or playful children, we cease focusing on our own little selves and then narcissism and grandiosity disappear.
So, when we truly encounter the truth of reality, the transparency of love or the innocence of children, narcissism and grandiosity gives way to genuine spirituality, whose hallmark is humility.

(The writer is professor of science and religion and author of Dialogue as Way of Life)