In the myth of Narcissus, the protagonist of the mythical tale after whom the narcissistic personality disorder is named, looks into a pool of water and falls in love with his own reflection. I always thought it a rather odd story. Let me tell you why.
We cannot tell the tale of Narcissus without speaking of his invisible and long suffering sidekick Echo. Who was Echo, anyway? She was a nymph who had fallen in love with Narcissus. It is a story of unrequited love–of loving someone who would never love you back, of loving someone who neither saw you nor noticed you and of loving someone who rejected you time and time again.
If you have ever loved someone deeply and wholly and waited for them to love you back–but they were too caught up with themselves to see you or notice you–you are not alone. Many have fallen into the trap of pining after someone who is only in love with themselves and finding themselves deeply hurt.
Not too long ago, a friend of mine told me a story of a woman whom he loved. The funny thing is, that she loved him, too. So what’s the problem?
Perhaps Narcissist was not seeking an Echo of his former Self. He was looking to move on. He wanted to see himself as he was, not who he had been or the deeds that he had done. He wanted to reveal himself to himself as well as the world. He no longer wanted to be trapped by the persona that he inhabited and so zealously had to maintain. And nor did he simply want to escape it or run away from it. He wanted to see his True Self so that he could reveal it to those whom he loved.
Sometime last week, I was rummaging through my own belongings. I found some report cards from when I was in primary school. I also found a health booklet from when I was a newborn.
Who in the world was this person?
I could not recognise ‘myself’ in the things my teachers said about me. And I definitely could not recognise ‘myself’ in what the doctors wrote. If you had told me that was me without providing evidence, I would have denied it vehemently!
Even if that is who I was, that is not who I am anymore!
How dare you judge me based on something that happened decades ago? After all, I am an entirely different person to who I was when I was in primary school. Imagine if some archeologist were to find these documents some 2,000 years later and based on the evidence that was found, turn around and say, “Here lays Dipa… She was good at… and bad at… Her best subject was…”
Not very interesting and I doubt any archeologist would care. In fact, I myself, did not care. The ‘Self’ that I am now is so different to the ‘Self’ that I was in primary school. A lot of times, when we look back on who we were or used to be, the feeling is not one of pride or love, but rather, of embarrassment or even surprise.
That was who I was back then?
Other chapters we look at and think, “Oh, those were such happy times and I should have cherished it more.” And at other times we think, “What in the world was I thinking?”
But those are not the thoughts that flash through our mind in that very moment. In that moment, we think we are making all the right decisions and all the right choices. But when we look back, we quickly realise that this wasn’t the case.
The true verdict on who we were cannot be judged by anybody. We all make poor decisions and poor choices. Are we punished? Are we called to account? Are we forced to pay the price for the karma that we have created? If we are, I have not found any confirmation that this is what occurs.
In the myth, Narcissist gazes into his own reflection. Is he aware that it is his own reflection that he is looking into? You say yes, but I’m not convinced. Do you have memory of the first time someone explained to you that when you look into a mirror, you only see yourself? Maybe or maybe not.
I remember when my dog was just a puppy, he would bark at mirrors thinking it was another dog. With time, he figured out that it wasn’t. Very quickly, the mirror stopped being interesting him. Why? Because he knew that it was just him… That there was no one in the mirror who looked back at him. What do I mean when I say that there was no one in the mirror?
I am referring to the temporal self. A persona that we create and recreate and sometimes even destroy. Sometimes, we simply no longer wish to be who we once were. We are seeking a new Self. A new life. A new existence.
So tell me, why did Narcissus look into the mirror? Why did he gaze at a pool of his own reflection? To see the True Self, one would have to gaze long and hard at oneself.
Who was I? Who am I now? Where am I going? Or more importantly, where do I want to go?
You know, when I was living in Japan, I used to look into pools of water all the time. I rarely saw my reflection. But if the water was really still, I would see my silhouette reflected back. But water is hardly ever that still. It is always moving, always flowing. That is the true nature of water. Even when it solidifies and turns to ice, it is only a temporary state.
In Chinese cosmology, water is considered the strongest of all elements due to its ability to change and to find its own path. It is in its pliable and yielding nature and its ability to create, host and sustain life that water emerges not only as a life-giver, but also a life-sustainer. Water can also take our lives. Think of tsunamis and floods and you will know what I mean.
Anyways, you want to know what I saw when I gazed into a pool of water? Small fish eating grass. Small pebbles. Turtles. Toads. Reptiles… I saw how the river changed colour each day. Some days she was wild and other days she was calm and serene. By looking at water, and gazing into it, we see change. The continuity of change.
And what exactly changes? The Self? You could say yes. We change through the annals of time. We meet new people, are placed in a new environment, and we change. We, or at least the old life that we once led, becomes unrecognisable to our very eyes. We cease to be who we were as we become who we are meant to be.
And who are we meant to be? Well, that is the great mystery of the Self.
At the end of the story, Narcissus undergoes a metamorphosis and becomes the Narcissus flower, a type of daffodil. To me, it symbolises not so much the death of the old self, but the birth of a new self.
Our True Self is always within us. It is covered away and hidden away. Wife, mother, daughter, sister. Even these basic units of family life can be aspects of the Self that can fade away. We become widows, we lose our children and siblings and we can become orphans.
You could conclude, as many theologies do, that the only way to experience the True Self is through death and the stripping away of the flesh. I disagree with this notion entirely. Yesterday, I finally saw a part of myself that I had kept hidden. It wasn’t hidden from everybody, but definitely from someone who deserved to see it.
Flowers may wither and die. But when they are in full bloom, they are always beautiful. Their beauty is in their fragility. Everyday when I take my daily walk by the river, I find discarded flowers on the floor. Stepped on and trampled on. But Nature continues to create and recreate these marvels.
Similarly, the Self, the true self, is in a state of eternal youth. We renew, we resurrect and we flower… But we can never fail or flounder.