Making Peace with Narcissism (part two)

[click here for Making Peace with Narcissism part one]

Part Two: Living in an Alternative Peace

A friend who grew up with a father with NPD struggles with an image of God as a narcissist. God demands praise of us while meting out punishment for wrongdoings. God created and uses us to build God’s self up. God’s justice requires punishment for the ways we wrong God.

I would go so far as to say this is the most common image of the God of the bible both inside and outside the church. We’ve successfully made God in our own narcissistic image.

Jesus did not come among us to appease an angry God. God came in flesh as Jesus to seek us and to invite us, who had chosen enmity, to become friends. Jesus repeatedly claimed that God was like himself. He told his friends that since they know him they know the Father. God did not kill Jesus, we killed God.

We are called to be Christlike, therefore we are called to be Godlike. Not that we are to become Gods, but that we are to take on the character of the God whose steadfast love endures. The Eastern Orthodox tradition calls this theosis. The western branches of the church have rarely explored this idea.

Becoming Godlike is a troubling concept. If our God is a great narcissist in the sky we should avoid this at all costs. If our God uses power over and against people, seeking retaliation when wronged, quick to anger and slow to mercy, then being Godlike is the last thing we should seek.

Jesus was noticeably unwilling to return violence with violence, unwilling to defend himself or encourage others to do so throughout his ministry all the way through to his own death. “Do not resist an evildoer.” Jesus used his power to come underneath the powerless and lift them up.

In the life of the church, the New Testament ethic is one of mutual submission. Jesus symbolized this by teaching his students to wash one another’s feet. Paul taught communities to take on the character of Jesus by putting the interest of others before one’s own interests.

Life with a person with NPD is one of those cases where the call to mutual submission can become intensely problematic. I found few within the Christian community that were in any way helpful for navigating this without abandoning the idea of mutual submission entirely. God is faithful even when God’s people are not and walked me through the process step by step. This doesn’t mean I completely understand it but I can at least share my preliminary thoughts here.

 

Two kinds of reciprocity

The kind of justice and righteousness Jesus proposes does not involve either returning evil for evil or returning good for good. But it also does not involve avoiding violence from others or seeking to avoid conflict. It involves seeking a fully formed interpersonal set-rightness in which all are honored. We seek the good of all, even our enemies, in the space of our complex interrelatedness. We seek this even at times when it requires a cost to ourselves. We accept harm to ourselves without reciprocating. We do good when it cannot be reciprocated.

Earlier I introduced the idea that the lack of reciprocal empathy is the breakdown that occurs in relationships with people with NPD. I seemed to be holding up reciprocity there as an ideal while rejecting reciprocity here as a response to others. The difference in these two types of reciprocity are, I think, critical to navigating unjust relationships faithfully.

“Reciprocity” conjures an image of two equal and opposite things facing each other. A combination of “re” and “pro”, backwards and forwards, the word describes the reflective give and take of actions or people or numbers or justice.

Reciprocity of actions means that an action by one person or group is returned by an equivalent action by the person or group toward whom the first action was directed. If you hit me I hit you back. If you give me a gift for my birthday I give you a gift for your birthday. If you bomb our country we bomb your country.

Reciprocity of persons functions quite differently. Each of us comes to a relationship with a different head, heart, and body as well as a different set of experiences of the world. Yet we are each fully human and as such fully worth the honor and respect of others. The reciprocity in the relationship between one person and another is connected to our sameness as fully human and our difference, our otherness from one another, as fully unique humans.

Reciprocity of persons does not imply reciprocity of actions. In fact reciprocity of actions destroys reciprocity of persons.

If we conceive of justice as a requirement of a reciprocity of actions then when we demand justice we demand that a wrong be returned with a wrong. If you injure me then justice requires I injure you. I may distance myself from this dynamic by handing the process over to the state but justice as reciprocity still requires punitive retaliation. But in this dynamic you, by wronging me, have set all the terms of our shared world. Your antagonism defines how we interact permanently. I am no longer functioning fully as a reciprocal person in our shared world.

Similarly if we live in a world where favors are expected to be returned by equal and opposite favors we forfeit our ability to step out of the endless return of good for good. The biblical passages from the sermon on the mount that encourage us to not retaliate when wronged fit within this rejection of reciprocity of actions. But so do the passages throughout the New Testament to provide care for those that are the victims of injustice, especially those that society rejects. We are to care specifically for those that cannot provide care for us in return. We serve others not expecting payment or reward.1

Some New Testament passages, though, look like Jesus and his followers openly expressing anger or intentionally provoking discord. Jesus calls the leaders of his own people “whitewashed tombs” and “children of Satan”. Paul calls his rivals “mutilators of flesh”. John refers to divisive people in the church as “anti-Christ”. Stephen refers to the leaders of his own people as “opposers of the Holy Spirit”, “killers of prophets”, “workers against God”. They don’t respond well to this. Does the fact that these acts of aggression are words rather than physical attacks make them less troubling?

Notice that these words are spoken to people with authority over the speaker. They are spoken “up” to those above them in the cultural hierarchy. They are spoken to people with the power of life and death over the one speaking and in the case of Jesus and Stephen death was, in fact, the consequence.

 

An alternate peace

“As much as it depends on you, be at peace with everyone.” The particular flavor of peace we are to seek with those around us cannot be demanded or forced. We cannot create a system through which everyone will automatically become peaceful. We can, however, seek this particular kind of peace with everyone knowing that it may not be returned.

This kind of peace, this shalom, is not a generalized niceness (though it does preclude being a jerk). A peace that is not just an absence of conflict, that’s a beloved community where our relationships are good and just, may in fact seem not very nice to those who build and maintain their own interests over and against others.

As we interact with others from within this alternate peace we can simultaneously reject reciprocity of actions while fully affirming the reciprocity of the people with whom we interact. All of them. Our interactions may seem appealing to others or they may seem threatening to their world, but at the very least they will seem strange. I’ll outline here three characteristics of this alternate peace.

These characteristics inform what this peace looks like in practice and how we connect to those not living within it. In a previous blog post (“Church, Kingdom, & Bodies”) I described the physical and spatial ways I can present “half Kingdoms” when doing the strange things Jesus described like turning the other cheek or walking a second mile with someone who forces me to walk one. Here I’ll delve further into the principles behind this half Kingdom or what I am here calling an alternate peace.

 

1: We look in vain for rules.

Part of our inheritance from modernity is the desire for formal rules through which we can make moral decisions that escape our subjective human reasoning. It’s as if we seek a position outside our own finite, messy, complex lives where we could apply principles to situations with scientific precision. Making judgments about how to respond to the various challenges we encounter that take into account the history and context of the people involved can seem to us unfair, irrational, relativistic, even arbitrary.

When we import this kind of formal moral reasoning backwards into the Hebraic world of the bible it creates all kinds of distortions. The wisdom literature of the Old Testament looks contradictory and incoherent as it presents principles that are good but not applicable in all situations. As Paul writes letters to communities to help them wrestle with how to follow faithfully this crucified and resurrected Messiah in particular contexts we read these letters as universally applicable rules for all times and all places. To do otherwise can seem like ignoring the clear teaching of the bible. Some respond by holding to Paul’s wisdom for particular communities as if it’s fixed and universally applicable. Others respond to the seeming arbitrary moral reasoning of the bible by abandoning it for broad, vague principles imported onto the text from modernity.

It is possible to have a non-arbitrary moral vision without a rigid, impersonal set of rules. The Old Testament frequently pairs the two terms mishpat and tsadaqah as characteristics of God and the call on God’s people. Some common English translation of this pair of terms are justice and righteousness or judgement and justice. These translations don’t, however, do these words justice (sorry for the pun). This set of terms combine our contemporary concepts of justice and righteousness into a broader set-rightness, and then they add on right judgment in particular actions. The boundaries we often have between generalized justice and personal morality don’t exist. And the vision of justice is fulfilled through the specific, lived judgments we make in order to enact justice in particular situations.

This presents us with a relational, dynamic ethic that helps us to navigate the challenges of giving ourselves to one another while setting boundaries against letting ourselves be used by others. We can accept being wronged at times, forbearing one another’s injuries toward us for the sake of a potential reconciliation. We can challenge others at times, being fully prepared to bear the consequences without retaliation.  It takes us out of the realm of rules and into the realm of wisdom, of listening, and of making judgments about how to respond to situations from within the communities in which we participate.

 

2: We function from within rather than outside our network of relationships.

Acting wisely in particular situations from within an alternative peace means expending our time and energy on bringing about reconciliation in the lives immediately around us first. Notice that Jesus critiqued his own community more than he did the distant empire of Rome. He challenged the leaders of his own people, the ones he saw in action and knew, even the ones with whom he shared meals. He also gently challenged individuals that wanted to follow him but had barriers that were keeping them from doing so fully. Martha held on to cultural limits on the role of women so he gently encouraged her to sit and learn from him as her Rabbi. Then she in turn could teach others. The rich young ruler sincerely wanted to follow Jesus but Jesus saw the burden his wealth placed on him so he encouraged him to let go of it. Jesus spoke from knowledge, having seen the heart of these people in action. He made discernments as to the appropriate words and tone to bring about change.

A primary characteristic of the way he worked within the web of relationships that he inhabited was that he acted differently towards those above him than to those below him. To those below him he was gentle, encouraging, and uplifting. To those above him he was willing to be bold, even caustic at times. It’s so much easier to do the opposite. We see ourselves as “speaking the truth in love” when we are willing to tell vulnerable people what they are doing wrong even though Paul’s use of the expression was towards unity among the strong and the weak. We also see ourselves as challenging the powerful when we critique those at a great distance from us when there is no risk to ourselves in challenging them.

Offering an alternative peace from within our network of relationships involves encouraging a set-rightness of the small set of interactions that we participate in every day. We lift up those that we see others putting down — the young, the outsiders, the vulnerable — and we invite those that have direct authority over us — our bosses, our elders, those with some prestige in our communities — to do the same. Knowing when to do which requires knowing the relationships involved and risking losing our own status in the process.   

 

3: We project a world that includes everyone, even those that are against this world.

Offering this alternative peace becomes the most challenging when we remove the boundaries that limit who it includes. We offer it to those below us and to those above us. We even offer it to those that are set against it. The peace we offer is universal, not just for those we like and those with whom we share this vision.

As difficult as it can be to imagine, reconciliation with our enemies must always be left open as a possibility. When we retaliate, when we return wrong for wrong or violence for violence, we have closed off this possibility. Challenging them in a way that leaves open the possibility of their eventual inclusion changes the tone and the strategies we employ as we interact with them.

Passivity in the face of injustice is not just uncaring toward the victims of injustice, it is uncaring toward its perpetrators. It is not caring for the oppressors to leave their oppression unchallenged. It can be honoring to them to challenge their world. They are rejecting those for whom God has a deep concern. It is their loss to not be connected.

Sometimes those they are rejecting are other people that need our help. Sometimes the one they are rejecting is me.

 

This is where I struggled the most in my relationship with a person with NPD. I recognized, I think rightly, that I needed to give of myself and accept wrongs without retaliation. What I didn’t recognize was that there were everyday judgments that I could make that included care for this person and care for myself. I could, without entering this person’s world, claim a different world, a different reality where we both mattered. I could speak and act from within the specific dynamics of our relationship and our community in ways that could bear with wrongs at times and resist them at other times.

And I could let go of the results. My job isn’t to effect shalom. My job is to offer it, to invite others into it. When it is continually rejected for a long period of time I may discern, in conversation with others and with God, that my role in the relationship is over and that I need to move on.

 

For people trying to move on from a relationship with someone with NPD, coming out of his or her distorted world requires a lot of time and energy. The longer and more intense the relationship, the deeper our immersion in their world and the harder it is to extract ourselves from it. A helpful book I’ve found on the subject uses The Wizard of Oz as an analogy for the world of NPD2. Getting home from Oz is a complex process.

Extracting myself from this world requires moving myself into a better one. It’s moving from one world where we are each used as tools to build up others to another where each and every one of us is reciprocally honored and cared for as our full selves.


1 I am indebted to Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Justice in Love, chapter 11, for these insights into the two sides of Jesus’ rejection of reciprocity of action. He refers to it as the rejection of the “reciprocity code”.

2 The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists: Coping with the One-Way Relationship in Work, Family and Love by Eleanor D. Payson

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