Posted by: Mark Nielsen | October 26, 2009

The Wilderness Journey of a Narcissist

Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937, Salvador Dali

“Metamorphosis of Narcissus”, 1937, Salvador Dali

Doing some homework this week as part of  a sort of inner inventory. Specifically I’m looking at some of the classic myths, stories and symbols that I have taken up or been given as my own personal “sacred stories” (to use Soulcraft author Bill Plotkin’s term).

The main type of myth I realize I’ve been engaged with is the “wilderness journey” tale, with a strong dose of  rejection or “exile” thrown in as well. As opposed to a battle, a love affair, or some other self-defining archetypal model/structure, the metaphor of a journey has always had the most resonance for me. Furthermore, the isolation or estrangement (i.e. “exile”) that often accompanies such a journey has been the primary metaphor that I have defined myself against, or worked to avoid. In other words, my journey and focus is not away from “home” as a selfish explorer or conqueror, but towards it — as a friend, a family member, and a fulfiller of promises.

It is also an essential journey toward integration, since like many people I am estranged even from certain parts of myself (usually the best and worst). So I’ve spent a lifetime digging deeper, processing my experiences, trying to understand myself and my role in creation. Maybe then I’d better understood others as well, and be understood by them… or so the plan is supposed to go. Thus, this repeated “journeying” pattern has impacted my choices and relationships, my career and home life, my joys and struggles, year after year. It’s the reason to blog, and on many days, for me, the journey is the reason to live. Simply stated, I don’t easily “stay put” from a social, intellectual or spiritual perspective, even though physically I’ve always lived within a thirty mile radius of Chicago.

Below are some mythical or historical examples of  personally influential journeys and exiles (pulled off the top of my head today, …tomorrow I may cite others):

  • the original expulsion of Adam and Eve from The Garden;
  • traveling and exile (in wilderness, or in another culture) in the tales of  Abraham, Jacob and his son Joseph, the y0ung King David, and Moses;
  • the 40-day desert journey of Jesus and his encounter with Satan (or darkness, sin, shadow, pick your own variation…);
  • my favored gospel writer St. John’s imprisonment, his travels in Asia Minor, and his purported  island exile on Patmos at the end of his life;
  • St. Francis’ many wanderings through the wilds of Italy, and his concurrent journey from wealth and war to poverty and peace;
  • political exile/public rejection/imprisonment of many of my modern heroes of faith and social justice, plus similar revolutionary writers, musicians, or visual artists –people like Thoreau, Van Gogh, Magritte (and fellow Surrealist Salvador Dali, who painted the above image), James Joyce, Paul Robeson, Gandhi, Bonhoeffer, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Mandela, etc… though some of their rejection was temporary, I will admit ;
  • MOST ESPECIALLY the fictional journey of Odysseus/Ulysses, and various later work that mirrors his complex inner/outer journey of transformation and struggle, especially to overcome basic fear, in characters like Hamlet (plus King Lear and The Tempest‘s Prospero), Huck Finn, the Apocalypse Now gang, Frodo,  …heck, even little Harold with his Purple Crayon and Max from Where the Wild Things Are (BTW, the current film version is excellent, but dark).

I’m gonna have to follow up this “journey” idea, mine it for the gold I know is still there. But that’s enough to chew on for today.

However, I’ve also discovered a secondary myth/archetype which I have also been defined by, though unfortunately I only discovered this connection quite recently. That would be the myth of Narcissus, of course. And –trust me on this one– it takes a true narcissist to go forty three years before realizing what a narcissist he is, as I did during my initiation experiences last year (ripples of which continue to this day). The Narcissus myth captures the essence of what I’ve come to call my deepest “sacred wound” (to use Richard Rohr’s term), and it probably dates all the way back to my toddler years.

Again, I won’t get too in-depth about my own personal growth and challeges. Enough for now to recommend the book Deliver Us from Me-Ville by David Zimmerman, which put me back onto the basic Narcissus principle and its connection to my own psychic journey, to U.S. culture overall, and to issues of faith. I read the book along with most of our church last year, and its wise but simple ideas about human nature and God continue to shed much light upon my own personal tendencies.

And speaking of personal tendencies… I’ve been at this particular post far too long. Time to go brave the wilds of suburban Chicago on a few errands.



  1. It sounds like you’re doing very valuable work, Mark.

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