Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Beauty doesn't ask for attention. ~ Sean O'Connell

My friend and co-author, Dr. Lynn Smith and I used to talk at length about what we called the "Walter Mitty personality type." Risk-aversive, detail-oriented, traditional (though not necessarily conservative), and inclined to play by the rules. Good, solid people like Bilbo Baggins, who aren't likely to rush out their front door in pursuit of adventure. Their secret is, they'd like to. They dream about it, but they can't let go. Until they have to.

This is the story line for the marvelous film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2014), starring Ben Stiller. By day, Mitty is a quiet, unobtrusive supervisor in the photographic negative department of Life magazine. At any other time, his imagination may have him miraculously rescuing damsels in distress or besting arrogant, narcissistic asses like the one in charge of transitioning Life from a print to online format. In daydreams, he's everything he's not from 9 to 5: creative, brave, articulate, and appealing. In life, he can't even bring himself to speak to the woman who's stolen his heart.

Whatever author James Thurber originally intended, this particular film version depicts a journey of the soul. Mitty is an ordinary guy who's become a worker bee. He contributes, he's efficient, he does his job very well. His life has purpose but no passion. He'd like it to and his daydreams are filled with it, but he's ambivalent. Even his e-Harmony profile is incomplete. He's at a crossroads and needs a guide, a mentor, someone who can show him how to make his own choices and live his own life.

Enter Sean O'Connell, played by Sean Penn. O'Connell is a photographer of the old school. He still uses film and submits his photos for publication by snail mail. He doesn't own a cell phone and would probably misplace it if he did. He's unpredictable and follows his own rules. As it happens, he sends Mitty a roll of film with instructions indicating the last negative on the roll is his preferred photo for the final cover of Life

The problem is, Mitty can't find it. It wasn't enclosed in the packet containing the rest of the negatives. Nearly at wit's end, he notices a photograph of O'Connell and imagines him beckoning for him to follow. Without warning, Mitty dashes out the building and boards a plane for Greenland, O'Connell's last known location. No baggage except a briefcase, no clothes except for what he's wearing on his back. 

Unable to hook up in Greenland, he follows O'Connell to Iceland, and on to ungoverned Afghanistan in the high Himalayas, where he stumbles upon him, photographing the elusive snow leopard. O'Connell explains the negative was in a wallet he sent Mitty as a gift. Ironically, the negative was in Mitty's possession all the time, but he was so focused on where it ought to be he couldn't consider where it might be.

O'Connell thought he was being "playful," assuming his partner would get the joke. Mitty saw it differently. Sixteen years and millions of negatives made him good at his job but lousy at spontaneity. In the course of things, he'd forgotten how to play. He's not alone; a lot of us are like that. The pressures of life and work build until we take everything so seriously. We turn to alcohol or drugs to unwind, but they don't help, not really. They disinhibit, that's all. Play is something more basic, more in touch with what makes life worth living.

Observing O'Connell refuse to take a shot of a snow leopard because the moment itself is too precious, Mitty realizes some things are too special to be captured. They can only be experienced. Moments later, playing soccer with a group of young Sherpas, he learns that play and transcendence are linked, and both can find expression in the work we do. Mitty knew all about work. What he needed to learn was how to play once again.

On returning to New York, Mitty confronts the arrogant narcissist in a way that, unlike his earlier fantasies, doesn't involve physical violence. Having rediscovered himself in O'Connell's company, he is able to speak as a mature man with a secure and certain center, to a spoiled and self-centered child. No longer fearful and timid, being with the archetypal "wild man" has changed him. He commands respect and his words carry weight. 

Does Mitty ever get the girl? You have to see the film to find out. Sorry, I'm only willing to leak so much. Besides, you do want to see why that bloody negative was so important, right? Most of all, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is worth seeing for a contemporary glimpse at the ultimately spiritual journey to earn and achieve maturity, to become confident, to feel truly capable as a human being. It's a study in contrasts, too, between Mitty, who is willing to undertake the journey, and an arrogant narcissist who for all his posturing, has not and probably never will. 

(Creative Commons image by Sheng Wang via Flickr)

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Narcissist or Antisocial?

Following-up on my last post, "Mirror, Mirror," a reader wrote and asked if I might address Antisocial Personality Disorder in contrast to pathological narcissism. There was a time when I thought doing so was pretty straightforward since antisocial personality disorder was usually associated with a criminal history. I've since realized that's too simple because narcissists who become violent can end up with criminal records and antisocial types can be attractive and charismatic in the same way we usually think of narcissists. 

The picture becomes even more complicated when you think about other features they may have in common. For instance, both are well-known for being manipulative, self-centered, and resistant to feelings of guilt and remorse or responsibility for the damage they cause. "Lack of empathy" is how we describe this professionally, but in simpler terms, it means they can't imagine how it feels to be on the receiving end of their behavior. If a person's ability to empathize is impaired, they tend to act without considering the impact of their actions on others. The way this is expressed gives us an idea about how the narcissist and antisocial type differ.

Despite their belief that they are independent and need no one, narcissists really are very dependent upon others. The arrogant type needs admirers and the covert type, someone to use as a resource for self-esteem. As a consequence, in the initial stages of forming relationships, these individuals are seductive, conveying the image of the perfect friend,  colleague, or significant other. What they want is something else. Like the vampire's victim who willingly exposes her neck again and again, they want your trust, availability, and eager compliance. Only when you've been finally worn out, do they toss you aside like a wrinkled, faded newspaper.

Antisocial types can be seductive, too, but their goal is to obtain something specific and move on. Once they have it -- your money, property, virginity -- the relationship is over. You could say the narcissist invests for the long-term and the antisocial for short-term, immediate gains. A classic example is the retirement scheme that drains seniors of their financial resources, operated by the "pleasant young man who was so eager to help" and has skipped town with the money. Antisocial types consider people too much trouble to spend a great deal of time on them -- it's what you have that they find interesting. Narcissists want you and that's why they are so appealing.

Notice how both types can use people freely without the inconvenient interference of Freud's Super-Ego or conscience. Covert narcissists may be vaguely aware that others consider their behavior wrong or hurtful, but ultimately, how others feel doesn't matter to them. Arrogant narcissists and antisocial types simply don't take morality or conscience into account; they are ruled by pure self-interest. 

All three types are inclined to excuse their behavior on various grounds and criticize their victims for any negative consequences. Instead of internalizing blame and feeling guilty or ashamed, like most of us, they externalize these feelings and try to make it sound as though you're the one with the problem.  Techniques like "gaslighting," making up information in order to prompt a victim to doubt their perceptions or sanity, are commonly used to cover their true intentions. The antisocial type doesn't care whether their behavior violates the law; the idea may even be exciting to them. Arrogant narcissists can't imagine being held responsible for their actions since their natural superiority places them above culpability. Covert narcissists are convinced no one would even consider thinking of them as blameworthy in the first place. 

The reason covert narcissists feel immune to blame is due to their adeptness at creating a facade of innocence and using it to conceal their ulterior motives. Many find it hard to believe such a sweet, caring and ethical person could be deliberately deceptive. And, of course, this is precisely what the covert type is counting on. Their carefully-crafted, false persona enables them to operate surreptitiously, sometimes going undetected for years. Publicly, they don't wish to appear bothersome; privately, they are extremely high maintenance, intentionally draining others of their energy and well-being. 

In a sense, antisocial and narcissist exist on a continuum with the antisocial type lying more towards the asocial extreme and arrogant narcissists on the extroverted, social end. More introverted, yet also socially-oriented, the covert narcissist lies somewhere toward the middle. All of them exhibit an absence of regard for the thoughts, feelings, and values of others. All of them find it easy to lie and all of them are predatory to some degree. 

Predatory is a strong word but it gets to the heart of the matter. The individuals we've been describing are serial users. Whether they appear innocently grandiose or intentionally deceptive, they view others as resources, as means to an end. Adulation is just as important to an arrogant narcissist as ill-gotten gain to a criminal antisocial type. A covert narcissist plans his emotional ambush as carefully as a master thief. To them, the rest of us are sheep waiting to be sheared or resources waiting to be tapped. That we might be anything else never crosses their minds.   

(Creative Commons Image of Narcissus by Tiago Costa Nepomuceno via Flickr)

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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall

Bond:  "You're cleverer than you look."
Q:  "Mm, still, better than looking cleverer than you are." ~ Die Another Day (2002)

As most readers already know, I'm a fan of 007. For several years, Timothy Dalton was my favorite -- he possessed a certain darkness that rendered the "killer" aspect of Bond's character believable. Well, move over, Timothy, Daniel Craig does it even better and with a conscience thrown in for good measure (Skyfall, 2013). I like that best of all: Bond is capable of empathy, he is not a narcissist.

He is brutally honest; he's willing to do pretty much whatever he has to in order to get the job done, but looking clever means nothing to him if it's not real. Were he a narcissist, on the other hand, looking clever would be everything. Furthermore, he would think himself exceedingly clever, even though he was not. It's difficult for me to imagine Bond gazing dreamily at himself in a mirror and saying, "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the cleverest of them all?" He hasn't got time for such nonsense; a narcissist has nothing but time for it.

That's one of the many problems with narcissists: they believe their own press. They think they're far more intelligent than the rest of us, true or not. They're wise, we're foolish, they're cosmopolitan or sophisticated, we're naive or impressionable. If a narcissist appears to admire someone, it's because they covet what the other possesses. Admiration is a cover for competition and narcissists are poor losers. 

Ironically, the narcissist's intelligence tends to be less lofty than they'd have us believe. Engage them in a discussion and you'll discover their knowledge base frequently represents a collection of disconnected assumptions and quotes selected from sources they consider influential. Original thinking is not their strong suit. They're like Mockingbirds, whose song is a chaotic repetition of all the other birds in the sky. What matters is not what they think but how impressive they sound, citing statistics and references, and leaving you breathless in their presence. At least this is the case for the arrogant-type narcissist.

Covert narcissists are less willing to risk their fragile self-esteem by trying to impress you with how much they know. Instead, they prefer to listen, treating you like an amazing conversationalist who has them hanging on every word. In the process of winning your trust, they're actually searching for those points at which you are most vulnerable. The time will come when they'll use those points to your detriment, revealing themselves to have been a cunning adversary clad in the guise of a friend. 

It probably sounds terribly unfair, if not unkind, to draw attention to the predatorial aspect of pathological narcissism, but it's necessary in the same way we have to recognize the killer aspect of the James Bond character. The difference lies in the fact that Bond doesn't kill indiscriminately. He's not a cold-blooded murderer despite the numerous notches he might carve into the handle of his Walther PPK. He only shoots (or stabs or drowns or blows up) those who have it coming. There's either justice or necessity in his sights.

Narcissists are rather indiscriminate. Anyone is a good enough target if they're vulnerable and nearly all of us are, to some extent or another. Narcissists wish to demonstrate their self-assumed superiority and doing so is their ultimate value. We are either their privileged audience or an unwitting resource for supporting their self-esteem. We are never individuals worthy of respect and dignity. We are things and for a narcissist, one thing is as good as another, as long as our life blood lasts and we don't realize what's happening to us.

Prevention is the best defense and discovery our key strategy. Learning to recognize the wolf in sheep's clothing is hardly a waste of time. You can't avoid a predator if you don't know what one looks like or how s/he behaves. My four-footed neighbor, Freddy the Porcupine, has only one natural enemy, but you can be certain he knows who that is and how to steer clear of his habitats. In the same way, learning how to identify pathological narcissism and its practitioners is the way we sidestep being reduced to the level of "things" and retain our humanity. Trust me, this is definitely worth the effort.     

(Creative Commons image of Bond and Q by Andrew Becraft via Flickr)

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Uncarved Block

In your heart, you already know.~ Zen saying

Depending on the space we happen to be in, the heart's knowing can be a curse,  blessing, or one more unanswered question. The hard part is getting our head into alignment with what we already sense, intuitively, to be true. A Zen master would probably suggest meditation might help, but that just puts me to sleep. Besides, I'm more an uncarved block kind of guy.

The uncarved block is a concept expressing naturalness and the oneness with nature embraced by Taoism. You may be familiar with the delightful book, The Tao of Pooh, in which the author, Benjamin Hoff, describes Winnie the Pooh as the uncarved block. Simple, uncomplicated, genuine -- these are words that describe Pooh. A complex bear he'll never be. His most severe problem involves getting his head stuck in a honey jar. Unlike me, unlike most of us.

Getting to the lowest common denominator in my own life has been a challenge and continues to be. Circumstances don't always cooperate with the effort and making a move in any direction can stir up a beehive of complications. The uncarved block, fortunately, isn't a way of living as much as a way of being. It's who we are more than how we live, though right being ought to result in right doing.

Living on this farm the past five years has been an exercise in simplicity and one that I've cherished. I've learned to consolidate errands because "town" is twelve miles away, down a curvaceous country road. Walking my dogs around the hayfield is a pleasure I can scarcely describe and gazing out the front window at a barn dating to the late 1770s is a childhood fantasy come true. I've never gotten past the sense that some late night I'm going to encounter the shimmering remnant of a colonial someone who lived here long before me.

When a person's focus is directed externally, it's difficult to be simple. The world does everything it can to tell us we've got to keep busy lest we be left behind. Complexity isn't the template for the uncarved block. A piece of wood that has yielded to knife and sandpaper no longer depicts its untouched state. The uncarved block must be seen with the mind's eye.

It's like that with people, when we intentionally overlook skin color, clothing, distinctions, differences -- foreignness. When we allow the potential for relatedness to take precedence over presumption. Turn on TCM (Turner Classic Movies) sometime when The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming (1966), is on the schedule, as it was last evening. It's a comedy depicting a Soviet submarine that runs aground in a small, New England harbor. The residents of the town are up in arms because it's the era of the Cold War and instead of the British, the "Russians" have arrived at their doorstep. Townspeople and Russian sailors forget national pride to help rescue a child and suddenly, they're no longer enemies. 

A year ago, when bombs went off in Boston, Islamic-American doctors risked their lives alongside European-American doctors and first-responders to help everyone they could. The uncarved block was all that mattered. Getting simple enough to see that, all the time, is hard, especially when the voices of paranoia crowd the media, warning us one false step is only a single step away. Paranoia isn't a guide; it's psychosis, it's madness. Taking each other as we are is a better one. I'm quite certain, Pooh would agree.

(Creative Commons image "The Uncarved Block" by Beth Hoffman via Flickr)

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