A few months ago, I was playing with my son Theo. Only a few months old at the time, one of his favorite things to do was staring at himself in a mirror (a typical past-time for infants who are a few months old).
This particular playtime, Theo was propped up and sitting in my lap. I brought over the mirror for him to look at. He was so enthralled by his own reflection, he leaned forward– and started to fall and face-plant into the mirror!
Luckily, I managed to catch him before he smacked his face into the mirror. I held the mirror up again, hoping to keep him upright. But every time he saw himself in the mirror, he pitched face-first into his own reflection.
The Story of Narcissus
Theo’s forward fall into his own reflection reminded me of the ancient Greek story of Narcissus. One day, Narcissus saw a reflection of himself in a pool of water. He fell in love with his own reflection, and couldn’t drag himself away– eventually dying there (either of starvation and thirst, or by his own hand).
It’s from this story that we get the terms “narcissism” and “narcissist,” describing those who suffer from an overblown sense of self, needing constant admiration, and lack of care and empathy for others.
Obviously, Theo is not in danger of narcissism, at least right now– he is still figuring out that the baby in the mirror is actually himself. But the story of Narcissus serves as a cautionary tale for those of us who follow Jesus and are attempting to live more minimally.
Curving Inward on Ourselves
Hearers of the Narcissus story often focus on how he died because he wasn’t able to tear himself away from his own reflection– which is obviously a tragedy.
But what gets less notice is how, because Narcissus was so taken with himself, he was unable to see anyone or anything else around him. And as humans, we do this. A lot.
Augustine and Martin Luther used the Latin phrase incurvatus in se to describe the human tendency to only focus on ourselves. Incurvatus in se means “curved inward on oneself.” Basically, only looking at ourselves keeps us from looking at others and the world around us.
Now [Jesus] was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.Luke 13:10-13
This woman was bent over, curved inward on herself, for 18 years. When Jesus healed her, for the first time in almost two decades she was able to see not just herself and her own path, but those around her and the world. Jesus not only healed her physical ailment– he healed her view of the world. She could now see outside of her own experience.
Our Own Curve Inward
We may not be physically curved inward like the woman Jesus healed in the Bible, but we are often mentally and spiritually curved inward. We can get so fixated on our own path and our own wants, that we are unable to fulfill our calling to love and serve others.
Being curved inward and only focused on ourselves in consumer culture is the origin of greed and mistreatment of employees. When making money so that we can be rich is the focus, we lose sight of those around us, including those who are in need (see: Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol).
In other words, when we are curved in and only focused on using the gifts God has given us for our own benefit, we are using God’s good gifts at the expense of others. This is the exact opposite of our call from God to love and serve others.
Even when we try to live as Christian minimalists, it’s easy to get so into our own minimalism journey that we become unaware of others. Living more simply can help us to become more aware of wealth inequality, and motivated to be generous with others and work towards bridging the widening wealth gap in consumer culture.
But if we are curved inward on ourselves all the time, only focused on ourselves, we will never be able to use the gifts God has given us to serve others in Jesus’ name.
Healing from our Curve Inward
But there is hope! We do not have to stay curved inward on ourselves all of the time. Just as Jesus healed the bent-over woman, Jesus is in the process of healing us from our constant focus on ourselves.
Here are some practical suggestions of how to lean into Jesus’ healing and to be less curved inward:
Pray. Spend time with God, and listen to how God is calling you to use your God-given gifts to love and serve God and others.
Serve. Find ways in your congregation and local community to volunteer.
Share. If you’re able, be generous with your monetary resources and possessions. Donate things that are in good condition that could be used by someone else in need.
Advocate. Research ways to help make a difference for those who are struggling to find affordable housing and make ends meet.
Be. Practice being in the moment, noticing those and the world around you.
God has given you gifts for a reason. How is God healing you and calling you to be less focused on yourself, and more focused on others and the world?
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