You're So Vain
Well whaddya know - Vanity is on the rise among college students. On the one hand, this isn't particularly surprising - I've been noticing for a while now that many late teens and early twenty somethings seem to have a remarkable sense of entitlement. So there's part of me that's inclined to say, "look, that's just the way these young kids are..." (and then wonders, "Was I like that?")
But the story seems to suggest that what we're seeing now is not simply a continuation of past trends - the numbers actually seem to be increasing...
"We need to stop endlessly repeating 'You're special' and having children repeat that back," said the study's lead author, Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University. "Kids are self-centered enough already."This gives a hint at what the researchers view as the cause:
The researchers traced the phenomenon back to what they called the "self-esteem movement" that emerged in the 1980s, asserting that the effort to build self-confidence had gone too far.And that's a little surprising to hear coming from someone in the professional sciences (of course, my parents have been saying that for years). As do the calls for remedies:
Wow. I'm shocked. And this leads to some interesting questions.
Campbell said the narcissism upsurge seemed so pronounced that he was unsure if there were obvious remedies. "Permissiveness seems to be a component," he said. "A potential antidote would be more authoritative parenting. Less indulgence might be called for."
For instance, what does this say about a younger generation often characterized as "postmodern" - postmoderns supposedly love and value authenticity more than anything else, and yet vanity is decidely inauthentic; it's seeing oneself as better than we really are.
It's also worth pondering how they measure this stuff. The test measures narcissim by asking "for responses to such statements as 'If I ruled the world, it would be a better place,' 'I think I am a special person' and 'I can live my life any way I want to.'
Ask yourself how you'd respond. Are these really simple yes/no questions? On the one hand, I want to say, "No, I'm not a particularly special person. If I really want to be honest, I actually suck in a lot of ways - my motives are often very impure, even when I'm doing very good things. (And what about those times when I'm actually doing bad things?)" At the same time, that answer doesn't really cover it.
You see I AM a very special person - not because of me, per se, but because God loves me. Scripture says that if we are "in Christ", if we are "part of the family" so to speak, Christ actually does something special for us - he intercedes with God on our behalf, he takes the blame for what is wrong with me, he covers me with what is right with him. So there is a very real sense where God looks at me in the here and now and sees me as glorius, perfected, holy.
16th century reformers had a term for this - they said we are simultaneously saints and sinners, and if we do not somehow account for BOTH of those realities, we will fail to do justice to the human situation. If we don't acknowledge human sin, we'll fall into narcisism - we'll think we're better than we really are. But if we don't acknowledge the saintliness that is presently ours in Christ, we'll never really be able to live with one another, because we won't be able to stand the imperfections in others (and they won't be able to stand the inperfections in us).
Bonhoeffer talks about this in his Life Together - as Christians, we must always look at one another through the lens of Christ, not through our own eyes. Fail to do this, and community is over, dead, kaput even before it gets started. This is the only possible way we can really be honest and authentic about just how messed up we really are.
It's not vanity, because we see ourselves as we really are, but it's not despairing either, because we deal with one another on the basis of what we will someday fully become in Christ. Ultimately, I'm not sure how a scientific survey is ever going to capture that full spectrum of understanding.