still of a mirror shot from A Portrait of a Lady on Fire

still of a mirror shot from A Portrait of a Lady on Fire

After significant personal reflection, I think I’m ready to become a narcissist. What does that mean? You might be imagining taking a moment to enjoy every time you look in the mirror. But it doesn’t stop there. It also means believing you have a divine right to exert your domain. Like believing that being served the most complicated Starbucks drink on Earth is key to humanity’s survival. Being a narcissist means putting yourself first, before not only others around you, but also your very reality.

I’ve always struggled with being assertive. Whether it’s about my dreams and wants or my emotional and even physical needs, I’ve traditionally hesitated to take up space. I hesitate to insert myself in the world, to drop my name like an interjection in the middle of a run-on sentence. I’m stopped by some fear embedded in my psyche who thinks that desires are a zero-sum game, that putting my dreams and wishes and needs into the world will prevent someone else’s from being achieved.

I wonder where that idea came from, this nagging sense of scarcity. It’s like a tiny weight on my joints, hardly noticeable in the day-to-day but makes acting on instinct impossible in the heat of moments. I miss the window. I forget to jump. I’m stuck in the quicksand of my own mental illusions, imaginary prison walls keeping me trapped.

I don’t easily feel (or show) negative emotion, but I can’t really stand people who don’t have a sense of agency. I feel deeply frustrated on two levels. First, their actions tend to feel fake, like their motivations are misaligned with their actual feelings. I also feel a general annoyance at the world at large, for its environmental properties that lead to agency-less people, that train them to submit their own ideas in favor of some greater “good” or “rightness.” A sickness that conditions people that they can’t create value themselves because it’s out there in the world produced by the meaning makers, the game-changers, the culture tasters. A meekening of the human mind. The voice that teaches us that dreaming is dangerous, that safety is the ultimate virtue, which we accept not knowing the cost of securing it.

You might conclude (rightfully) that this belief is in direct conflict with my hesitation. You might also assume (correctly) that the deep frustration I feel in these moments paralyzed by anxiety is directed at my own lack of agency. I feel a splitting of my mind into dual angers, both at my own body for treating me this way and at the world for giving birth to this situation.

In the Souls of Yellow Folk, Wesley Yang drills primarily into the cultural experience of an Asian-American male (yes, overblown marketing title, i know). He writes fearlessly about tropes that hide in the shadows of their experience growing up, a set of unspeakable what-ifs related to some of our deepest frustrations.

My interest has always been in the place where sex and race are both obscenely conspicuous and yet consciously suppressed, largely because of the liminal place that the Asian man occupies in the midst of it: an “honorary white” person who will always be denied the full perquisites of whiteness; an entitled man who will never quite be regarded or treated as a man; a nominal minority whose claim to be a “person of color” deserving of the special regard reserved for victims is taken seriously by no one. In an age characterized by the politics of resentment, the Asian man knows something of the resentment of the embattled white man, besieged on all sides by grievances and demands for reparation, and something of the resentments of the rising social-justice warrior, who feels with every fiber of their being that all that stands in the way of the attainment of their thwarted ambitions is nothing so much as a white man. Tasting of the frustrations of both, he is denied the entitlements of either.

Re-reading this passage is hard for me. I simultaneously feel repulsed and deeply seen. I feel ashamed to toe the line, angry at the social expectation to occupy that in-between space happily, confused by my natural instinct to do so with my head high, a trained reflex that no job is too low if it means getting ahead. I feel ashamed of my anger, that it’s somehow inappropriate, and frustrated at my shame for holding me back from embracing my authentic reaction. It feels like watching a horror scene unfold and not being able to tear my eyes away.

Yang identifies a strain of thought that repeatedly flits at the edge of consciousness but is actively (eventually, automatically) swatted away to languish in the shadows. It’s the sort of thing you actively avoid thinking about. How can we complain when we’re doing so well as a group? How could we even think about comparing ourselves to someone oppressed or in need of handouts? We’re taught to be resilient, independent, a steady shield for others against the chaos of life. We’re called to bring order to the messy world, to ward away tragedy and hardships with the sweat, salty like tears, streaming down our bodies. We cope with our liminality by choosing to give more and more of ourselves, to accommodate the ugly world around us in hopes of something better.

Moral stories around greed and selfishness are everywhere. There’s a classic Chinese idiom “ไบบๅฟƒไธ่ถณ่›‡ๅž่ฑก” that my mom has certainly recited to me dozens of times. It means something like “a person’s greed (dissatisfied heart) is a snake swallowing an elephant.” Supposedly, a snake cannot swallow an elephant, but is it so bad that it dreams of trying? Maybe it’s true that satisfying one crazy want makes us endlessly thirsty for more, never to be satisfied with what we have. So what if we’re stuck chasing things we love and risking it all to get more? Isn’t that what living is about: risking what we have in pursuit of what we love?

The risk, the danger, the fear. These are the stakes that make everything matter. The way death gives meaning to life, absence gives meaning to presence, suffering meaning to unadulterated joy. Fear is the foil to fulfillment. It needs to feel real, like it’s all on the line for the end to be worth it.

I’ve written about gambling before for my 2021 theme, but it focused on overcoming the fear in every action, but there’s another way to shortcut behavior by addressing the root. I don’t think narcissists feel fear when it comes to their desires. They simply act as if they are right, a divine-given moral superiority that underlies every action. They never hesitate to make space for themselves; rather, it’s their natural duty to fill space, the way gas naturally expands into available space.

Of course, narcissism is pretty universally agreed-upon as a normatively bad trait. Non-psychopaths reading this would probably agree that all true narcissists are dicks. But for people who struggle with being too agreeable, narcissism can be wielded as a tool, a foil to accept the fear of embracing their true desires. For those people, what if aiming for narcissism is good, even necessary? What if the world is missing out on great creations and presence of agency-less people because they’ve kept themselves from inserting themselves into the world?

It’s a lofty goal for those that are so averse to self-assertion, trying to launch themselves to the other end of the spectrum. The socially acceptable way to be selfish or narcissistic is referred to as “self-care,” but the act of dressing it up in acceptable language dulls the potency. If we want to reprogram our psyche, maybe a more extreme approach is warranted. What would it feel like to act like the main character, rather than caveating all we want and explaining all we do? Maybe it’s time to take arrogance for a spin. Have a little villain arc. Accepting an irrational acceptance of everything you create, want, think as necessary and good for the world. Aim for the opposite of your nature to allow your cells to learn from a completely foreign perspective.

Feel for just a moment, the power that comes from moving through fear, from the freedom to weave your dreams into reality, the latitude to exercise your agency. Try lingering for a while in the sun shining for your amusement. Savor the way the world paves a road in whatever direction you head. Fly as if gravity wouldn’t dare drop you. And when you come back to earth, remember what being unstoppable felt like.