Recently, I shared a few thoughts on the struggle to move towards a sense of our own sacred worth, which often comes up against our tendency to self-rejection. I referred to stories from the New Testament, with a brief reference to the stories of Narcissus and Sleeping Beauty.
Many of these stories arose within the context of a patriarchal tradition which took for granted that men are superior to women, that women must be in some ways subordinate to men, and that they are suitable only for certain types of work in home or society. Rosemary Ruether makes what is for me a very helpful distinction. She says that, while these stories are inescapably sexist, they have also wrestled with issues of life and death, and we can separate this wrestling from their limited context.
What this approach suggests to me is that we can look at these stories with new eyes. We can explore them from a standpoint of the fundamental equality of all persons yet the uniqueness of each one. We can affirm our common sacred humanity yet respect the diversity in which it is clothed. Within this new angle of vision, we can them explore and accept what they can tell us about what it is to be human and the meaning of our lives. They can help us to live our questions.
In the story of Narcissus, for example, we can look at the situation portrayed by Echo. In the story, perhaps originally suggested by actual echoes, the young woman, Echo, is condemned never to initiate a conversation but only to repeat, to“echo” what she hears. The story suggests that we must discover and speak from our own voice, not just echo the voice of others, of our society, our family, our friends, our nation, or the strangers who pass through our lives. If we do not find and live from our true inner voice, the voice of our sacredness, we will fade away and die. That is, we will never discover and live from what Thomas Merton calls our true self. We will become an impersonator rather than the person we truly are. And among the voices we hear, and perhaps repeat or parrot for most of our life, there is the quiet voice that calls us beloved daughter or son, the voice of our gifted sacredness, and that is the voice to listen to, tune into, and live from. Only then can we become free and fully alive for ourselves and others. We do this, I believe, through a blend of solitude, friendship, and social involvement.
The story of the young man, Narcissus, is perhaps likewise drawn from the experience of the life cycle of a flower by that name. In the story, Narcissus flees from any closeness until one day he sees his reflection in a pond of water, falls in love with it, and yet cannot embrace it. In one version, he falls into the pond and emerges only as narcissus flower whose gold centre stretches toward the sun.
In an insightful interpretation by Thomas Moore, the story is about how we will flee from intimacy, we will not let ourselves be truly loved, and we will inflict hurt on others, unless and until we discover an image ourselves as lovable. The fear of rejection, the fear that we are not enough, leads us to try to fashion an image of ourselves to project to others. This image of what we regard as acceptable becomes a wall behind which we hide. It is a wall of fear which readily becomes a wall of hostility. If we become silent enough we can begin to listen to the voice of our sacredness. Or it can be conveyed to us by another who senses that sacred self beneath these walls.
We then undergo a process of death and rebirth. We die to, that is, let go of the layered images of self that have lived behind walls of fear and hostility, and allow our sacred self to emerge into the light of day. We learn to trust where it is safe and appropriate, and allow ourselves and intelligently trustworthy others to experience our vulnerability. This is not a once and for all experience, but a process that is continually undergone, as the cycles of the season.
Gabor Mate, a physician who helps people recover themselves after childhood trauma or addictions, says that from the beginning of our lives we are drawn both toward authenticity and attachment. Often, however, the need for acceptance leads us, even unknowingly, to sacrifice our authenticity. Yet, he insists, it is never too late to rediscover and live our authenticity. I would add that genuine belonging is not fitting in by presenting an acceptable image of ourselves. It is belonging in our uniqueness–which is perhaps a good understanding of friendship.
In sum, we can look at these stories from the standpoint of our unique sacredness, our shared and equal humanity, and our enriching diversity. And we can ask, what do they tell us about discovering and growing into and sharing our unique personhood and common humanity. And they tell us that we are beings of worth, although it is only on the other side of sorrow and struggle that we can discover and live from our sacred authentic self. Yet as we do so, we will gradually become more free, truthful, trustworthy, loving, and just persons.