On Anonymity and Narcissism

I’ve been reading a terrific book by Henri Nouwen called The Genesee Diary, a daily journal of Nouwen’s reflections during a 7-month Sabbatical in a Trappist Monastery.  Nouwen was himself in an “in-between” season of his life, and it’s remarkable to read his many down-to-earth thoughts each passing day.

There have been several moments of reading when I’ve laughed and thought, “I know the feeling!”  Especially now being in a place of “in-between” and having the pace of my life slow substantially, I can relate to some degree to what Nouwen was going through.

One part that stood out to me the other day was when Nouwen wrote how frequently he checked the mail during the first two months, hoping to receive some sort of correspondence from people he knew – previous colleagues, friends, students he taught, and family.

The mail was sparse and scattered though, less frequent than he would have preferred.  He goes on to talk about how hungry he was to be thought of and remembered, and how he didn’t realize how strongly he needed the validation from others.

I’ve experienced similar feelings since leaving a public role, albeit a small, miniscule public role in the universe of “known” people.

Do people care about me?

Do people remember me?

The answer to these questions (if I really thought about), would be “of course!”  But the more incisive question would be, “what if the answer to these questions was ‘of course not!'”

Then, would I still be okay with myself?

Taking a break from social media has shown me this need for validation in a deeper way, because I realize part of the draw of facebook or twitter for me was to say/write/share something and have people respond.

If there were updates or links or photos that were not commented on or responded to, in a silly and subtle way, it would feel as if I didn’t matter, as if what I was thinking wasn’t important.

I even hesitated for a long while to write this blog post, realizing this is a public offering of some personal reflections that is meant to encourage/challenge, but also containing the subtle hint for feedback and approval found in other public mediums, “be free from the opinions and validation from others!  what do you think about what I’ve just written?”

Ah yes, the follies of the human heart.

Like Nouwen, there are ways to externally “check” measurements of self-importance today, much like checking the mail box in yesteryear.

Unlike Nouwen, the speed and plethora of electronic communication can be dizzying and arguably more addictive, being that there are comments and “likes” to check on, email inboxes to be sifted, and site stats to be counted…

All in the hopes of filling the ego with more affirmation that I indeed, matter.

Interestingly, Tina doesn’t struggle with this nearly as much.  She loves anonymity and would be content to live out in the woods with me and her kindle, reading and penning stories and sharing them face to face, too.

Well, she’d want her extended family there, too.

And a Tex-Mex restaurant.

And a Japanese Tea House.

Being in the Far East does nothing but accentuate my anonymity.  I look like everyone else.  I certainly don’t talk like everyone else, but I rarely talk here, so that doesn’t really factor into the attention-grabbing equation.

I realize that part of my trouble comes from the significance I have found in what others think, and being thought of or remembered is of great importance to me.

But when all that is gone, what am I left with?

I can easily stir up imaginary visions of becoming “significant” again, thinking of how I can become “known”, but therein reveals the sickness of my narcissism.

The goal for anything in life can be to selfishly become “known”.  Even good things can come from the wrong motives, in fact.  Yes, even pastors (and maybe especially pastors) wrestle with this.

And so as an antidote, I need another kind of validation that frees me to be anonymous.

And in yet another ironic twist, it’s the securely anonymous person who can truly, meaningfully handle being publicly “known”.

Where then can I become “known” enough to become significant for all the right reasons?

PSALM 139

1 You have searched me, LORD,
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you, LORD, know it completely.
5 You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.

14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.

PSALM 118

6 The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?

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11 responses to “On Anonymity and Narcissism

  1. Wow. I’ve struggled to acknowledge some of the thoughts you share in this post about validation. I don’t know how to do it without feeling like I’m outing myself, even though it’s all very plain and clear that so much of what we do these days online and off is to make ourselves known. In one sense, I actually don’t believe that I do matter independently of others – because what am I if not for relationship? On the other hand, I never want to base my identity in how those people respond to me. I guess this is another one of those both/and ideas?

    • Yeah, i think that’s the good side (and even the point of) social networks. They want you to connect because that’s what we’re made for. But, of course, the digital world can only go so far in terms of digital connection.

      I think part of these reflections also stem from a heritage (Korean-Am) that says NOT to seek public recognition. So I’m (and you too, perhaps) might be more privy to think of myself as less worthy as I ought, which is the flip danger.

      But in the end, it’s one of those “when good things become ultimate things” kind of danger. I don’t think I would have known this had I not left a “public” position. I see God’s hand in allowing me to be free from whatever vestiges may have been causing me to pursue my vocation in the first place.

      That’s the hope, at least. 🙂

  2. Grace Collins

    Hi Drew! I certainly miss you, and I often think of how you and Tina are doing. Much hugs, Grace

  3. @wayne – you gonna be in h-town in July-August? I’ll be there for better parts of the month…
    @grace – miss you too! please give bruce my best, too.

  4. absolutely. Let’s hook up…

  5. Word, Drew. Word. I’ve been wrestling with this dynamic myself (because I so obviously started blogging right after I lost my house – the place where I was important). It’s hard being stripped of that role, and the validation, feedback, and affirmation that came with it. I’m still deeply uncomfortable with the new dynamic and feel like I haven’t re-anchored yet. Thanks for posting – you put words to something I hadn’t quite named yet.

  6. Drew, I miss you! Well, actually I just miss the snacks at your desk and Tina. ;P I’m waiting for you to get back so we can go to M.Wells and chat. All the best, Julie

  7. @fairybearconfessions – thanks for the reflections – i’ve loved your posts, btw! glad you’re finally blogging.
    @julie – we miss you too! even if i’m missed solely bc of snacks and tina, i’ll take it. looking forward to catching up in the fall…

  8. Pingback: New Beginnings. | while waiting

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