If I am not for myself, who am I?

Long ago in Ancient Greece there lived a boy, Narcissus, the son of the river god Cephissus and the fountain nymph Liriope. His divine origin had blessed him with equally divine looks. With wavy locks tumbling over his forehead and a body sculpted by years of climbing trees and scrambling over rocks hunting for deer and birds, Narcissus quickly amassed an army of admirers.

People everywhere—young and old, men and women—fell for him almost instantly. Soon his reputation reached beyond the human world. Anytime he wandered through the thick forests or along the rippling rivers near his home, Narcissus inevitably drew a crowd of tree or water nymphs eager to catch a glimpse of him.

Narcissus became accustomed to this admiration, but never offered a welcoming response. As legendary as his beauty might have been, he soon became equally well known for his indifference. One by one, potential lovers approached him and, one by one, he turned them away. He seemed to think himself above kindness or love, above the ordinary world of humans, above everyone, really—even the gods.

One day the mountain nymph Echo joined the ranks of his unrequited lovers. As the sun broke through the trees of the forest she caught a glimpse of Narcissus strolling through the woods on his daily hunt. Her heart burned. Unable to look away, she began to follow him, discreetly at first, peering quietly through the branches and leaves. Then, overcome by passion, she grew bolder, trampling noisily in his path. Soon, he sensed he was being followed. “Who’s there?” he called.

Echo tried to answer, but she had no voice of her own—the result of an ancient curse by the goddess Hera (Echo had distracted her with incessant chatter one too many times). She tried to call out, but could only repeat his words. “Who’s there?” she replied sadly. “Come out now!” he demanded. “Out now,” she answered, tearfully. Growing angry, perhaps feeling mocked, Narcissus shouted. “Show yourself!” “Yourself!” cried Echo, leaping out from behind the trees. She reached out, throwing her arms around his neck. But Narcissus’s heart remained cold. “Get away!” he barked. Then, as he fled, he yelled cruelly over his shoulder, “I’ll die before I love you!”

“Love you!” Echo called, sobbing. Humiliated and heartbroken, she disappeared into the thickest part of the woods. She refused to move, refused even to drink or eat, and her body slowly withered away, until only her voice remained.

Meanwhile, the gods grew tired of the wreckage Narcissus had been leaving in his wake. One man, Ameinias, had become so distraught when Narcissus spurned his advances that he drew a sword and ran himself through. But before he did, he whispered a prayer to the goddess of vengeance, Nemesis. She quickly answered with a curse befitting the cruelty she’d witnessed. Narcissus himself was to know the pain of unrequited love.

One afternoon soon after, while strolling through his beloved woods, he came upon a cool, clear spring, so eerily still that it looked like a mirror. Thirsty from the walk, he bent down to drink, and when he did, he caught a glimpse of a beautiful face. He was so clouded by Nemesis’s curse he didn’t realize he was staring at himself. His heart hammered in his chest. He’d never known a feeling like this before, the depth of longing, the sheer joy of being in a person’s presence. Maybe this is love, he thought.

“Come join me!” he cried. Silence. “Why won’t you answer me!” he bellowed, gazing at his reflection. “Don’t you want me, too?” He bent down to kiss the water and the face, briefly, seemed to fade from view. “Come back!” He tried to approach the man again, to touch him, to feel his embrace. But each time he did, the face seemed to retreat, disappearing into the still waters of the spring.

Hours went by, then days, until at last, Narcissus stood up and dusted himself off. He finally knew what to do. “I’ll come to you!” he called out into the water. “That way we can be together!” With that, he dove into the pool, plunging down into the darkness, deeper and deeper, until he disappeared from sight, never to surface again.

Moments later, at the edge of the pool, a fantastic flower sprang up, a nimbus of white petals ringing a bright yellow trumpet. It leaned over the pool, forever gazing into the waters beneath it.

#rethinkingnarcissism

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