Narcissus and the Cellphone

Don’t lock yourself in a little chamber. Live a life of encounter.

(photo: Mabel Amber/Pixabay/CC0)

While walking around my classroom before class started recently, I saw a student doing something that I had seen done many times before, but it struck me in a new way. She was looking at the image of herself made by the camera on her cellphone. Students often use their laptops or cell phones to check their hair or see how they look. In the absence of a mirror, this is an ingenious way to check if they have broccoli in their teeth or whatever else they may want to check regarding their appearance.

Like I said, this is not an uncommon occurrence. But this time I was reminded of the myth of Narcissus who killed himself after falling in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. In brief, Narcissus was pursued by many women because of his beauty, but he scorned them all. One of them, after being rejected, punished him by leading him to a pool of water where he could see his own reflection. He fell in love, but, when he realized that he could never fulfill his love, he killed himself out of despair. Thus we have in the English language the word “narcissistic” for those who are particularly wrapped up in themselves.

So on this occasion when I saw my student gazing into the self-reflective pool of her screen, I saw the cellphone as a whole labyrinth in which we see ourselves, search for ourselves, and possibly even lose ourselves to a false self...

(Before going on, let me confess that I, too, use my cellphone, and I do not stand in judgment of this student or any else who spend time on their devices. Technology can be a good thing when used for noble purposes. I cannot say where this student’s intentions and heart were at this moment. It just occurred to me as a parable for the danger of falling into the black hole of the false self that we create in our small, cramped virtual worlds.)

Okay, where was I? Oh, right.

...possibly even lose ourselves to a false self. It is all about my feed, my preferences, my apps, my customizations, my subscriptions, my notifications, my likes, my comments, my friends, my profile, my selfies of me, my photos, my videos, my appearance, my case, my story, my my my my. Me, me, me, me.

And yet none of it is real. This is not the true self we interact with — it is the ego. It is an entire cosmos of appearances which lack substantiality. The reflection which we create and fall in love with on the shiny little rectangle may be pretty, enticing and captivating, but none of us want to be captives to something less than ourselves, a mere reflection, a fiction of reality.

Even the word cellular derives from a Latin word that means “little chamber.” Narcissus was wrapped in the “little chamber” of his self. We carry in ourselves the same tendency, and the “little chamber” of the phone is there to help us, but the virtually created cosmos of the ego, the false self, is a cramped and crippling space for a being created in the image of God.

Far from being a true expression of ourselves, we forget who we are when we live in the world of self. Even when we interact with other people through social media, we are not really interacting with them but with their appearance filtered through our own digital display.

We were made for more.

God created us for communion with himself and with other human beings. Martin Buber writes, “The I is actual through its participation in actuality. The more perfect the participation is, the more actual the I becomes.” Elsewhere in the same book, he writes, “All actual life is encounter.”

In this encounter with others we become fully ourselves and we know ourselves. The self simply does not exist as an isolated entity, physically or spiritually. The spirituality of me as my lone self is a pernicious illusion.

I realize the irony of the fact that you are most likely reading this on a little chamber of a device of some kind. But let this be a reminder to us all that this reflecting pool is not our true self or the true self of anyone else. Don’t lock yourself in this little chamber. Live a life of encounter. A self becomes most fully a self when it becomes a You in relation to other Yous. Find yourself by losing yourself in the Eternal Thou.