Selfless Narcissism
photo by Dave Mathis
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What does it take for a genius, billionaire, and playboy philanthropist to break out of his narcissism and put his life on the line for others? Tony Stark had all our culture covets and he was content to live for his own pleasure with little thought for the consequence it may have on others. A seismic shift in his perspective occurred when Stark suffered under his captors who commandeered the very weapons he created. He could no longer live with zero accountability. His suffering would forever awaken his sympathy for others he witnessed suffer. Responsibility in the midst of tragic circumstance proved the metal of Iron Man.

(For more on Tony Stark from the recent Iron Man film, see my related post: “Play Boy to Iron Man“)

Our Shared Degrees of Narcissism

Before we judge Stark to be too full of himself at the beginning, could we be just as self-absorbed? Don’t we dream and consume most of our energy striving to be the person that Stark is? We seek to be a:

Genius: Intelligence. Education. Potential for wealth, security, and power.

Billionaire: Money. Self sufficiency. Self determination. Toys. Technology.

Playboy: Pleasure. Indulgence. Entertainment. Stress relief.

Philanthropist: Social Status. Recognition. A good name.

Like Stark, our obsession with personal advancement, money, self satisfaction, and reputation gets in the way of living for others and often even adds to their suffering. We have a magnetic attraction to experiences that satisfies our self absorption.

We are often unaware of the consequences our narcissism has on others because we distance ourselves from people who suffer for our choices. Furthermore, we who evade suffering have little sympathy for those who do suffer. Tony didn’t face the terror of his own weapons until he was held captive by those who commandeered them. So what can pry open our clutching hands to self obsession and start to live more fully for others?

A Seismic Shift.

Stark both suffered and saw many people he cared about suffer because of his own actions. He now had that powerful combo of both empathy and sympathy to drive him to do what was right. This tragic suffering freed him from his myopic focus on self. He would have probably never chosen this path, but he still had to make a costly choice. In addition to the suffering he and others endured, he needed to take responsibility. Such circumstances surfaced a deeper conviction within Stark to do what is right, even though taking action to save others risked financial loss and shame.

Tony Stark addresses the press conference following his escape from his captors, saying, “I saw young Americans killed by the very weapons I created to defend them. And I saw that I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero accountability.”

I had my eyes opened. I came to realize that I have more to offer this world than just making things that blow up. And that is why, effective immediately, I am shutting down the weapons manufacturing division of Stark International until such a time as I can decide what the future of the company will be. What direction it should take, one that I’m comfortable with and is consistent with the highest good for this country, as well.”

What ingredients are the recipe for a hero?

(endures personal suffering)+(the ability to identify with others who suffer: empathy)+(ability to respond with self abandon to save others: responsibility)=Hero.

The loss of comrades was more important to Stark than financial loss. The American Soldiers in the attack on the convoy. Yinsen dying sacrificially as he gave Stark extra time to escape his captors.

Personal enemies caused him to suffer in all 3 movies. The Chitauri invasion of New York in “The Avengers” gave him his greatest dilemma and showed his most heroic selflessness. He was willing to die to spare the city. Suffering offers us a way out of ourselves. We are humbled in the suffering we go through. We feel compelled to think about others we see suffer. It convicts our conscience to do the right thing, reminding us that life is not only about our comfort and pleasure while turning a blind eye to those who suffer.

Living for Others

Like Stark, there is hope for us narcissists that we can still live a life for others. Many of us have suffered in circumstances that humble us and make us see that our life is not only about us. We sympathize with others who suffer. Our love for them puts our life on hold, sometimes at great cost so that others can have a better life. When you are close to someone who is suffering, you want to do all you can.

Real Suffering

We are more aware of the suffering that we can cause thanks to the media revealing stories from places far away from our place of purchase. Whether it is cheap clothes made in sweat shops that collapse in Bangladesh, or workers pushed to suicide, we can now make more informed ethical choices.

Real Heroes

More heroes are coming together to fight disease, eliminate extreme poverty, bring ethics into our trade, and stand against human trafficking. There are every day heroes who suffer, empathize and take responsibility and do what is right. What we need is more Iron Men.

Perhaps you are content living a life of pursuing your own ambitions with little thought about others who suffer. Well, be warned. Your turn is coming. Either personal suffering or someone close to you will change your perspective and cause an internal conflict. Will I continue to live for myself or live for others? That is where your ability to respond and take action will make the difference, or not.

(See my last post of this series on becoming selfless: My Narcissism Meets an Unwelcome Hero)


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4 thoughts on “Selfless Narcissism

  1. Eric David Nielsen

    Corey, thanks for the article. It seems that Tony Stark represents many people who give themselves radically in service to others as a result of a life-transforming experience or event. It seems many famous philanthropists or social advocates from documentaries I’ve seen of them, attribute their change to a life-altering event of some kind. Do you think that as empathy from identifying in others struggles makes someone more responsive to helping them, that this forms much of the solution for how I can become more changed for meeting the needs of others?

  2. Corey PorterCorey Porter

    Good insights and question Eric.

    You are right that we need to identify with the struggles of others and that it is a key ingredient to becoming a person of action to meet the needs of others. Perhaps I can elaborate more on the article to demonstrate how it is one key ingredient of many.

    The experience of personal suffering prepares a foundation for us (perhaps more than anything else) to identify with others we see suffer. How we respond and process our suffering is critical to whether or not we will build on the foundation to identify with others. We could become more self absorbed and give up (filled with self pity and bitterness). Just because we suffer does not mean we will identify more with others who suffer, but it certainly affords us the opportunity if we learn from our suffering and apply it to help others who experience suffering. I have seen so many people who have started organizations out of their personal suffering with the desire to help others who equally suffer. Others have become embittered, secluded and self absorbed. What we do with our suffering is critical.

    If we grow in character through our suffering and then empathize with others who suffer, it can give us more motivation to be involved. We feel their pain. We understand the implications of their suffering more profoundly. The closer you are to those who suffer, the more opportunity there is to identify with them. It might be good to note that you might suffer a great amount as someone of close relation to you suffers, even though you haven’t suffered in the same way. And then there are people who just seem to naturally have more empathy, their inner sense of justice or concern for the well being others compels them to action regardless of if they have suffered in the same way or are in close relation.

    However, in addition to personal suffering and having empathy for others, there is still a choice whether or not to accept further suffering by helping others. Sadly, we can suffer, have empathy for others who suffer, and still choose to do nothing. Working through our personal suffering in a healthy way, identifying with others who suffer and taking action (responsibility) are all key ingredients to being selfless and helping others. All are critical ingredients needed to have sufficient commitment in order to risk your own comfort/safety to serve/save others.

    In answering this question it really impressed on me the importance of processing our own suffering and then using it to identify with and serve others. Perhaps what is most important is our selfless character development. How do we become more selfless? I actually plan to address this in my next post.

      1. Corey PorterCorey Porter

        I would have to say that my experience working through clinical depression has been a major influence in shaping my ability to relate to and serve others. In my own steps to come to terms with my condition and make the life changes necessary I am able to sympathize with others and be a better listener.

        I also am more hesitant to give answers and instead ask more questions to help those who suffer work it through for themselves. I think it has developed character in me to accept my imperfections and limitations. I can also observe others who are demonstrating the symptoms that I experience and ask them to consider whether they are experiencing depression as well. When you have experienced something and are continually working it through, you can recognize it more readily in someone else and come alongside them in support and understanding.

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