Book Excerpt from "Forgiveness: The Hero's Journey"
Forgiveness and the Flowering Self (pp. 187-190) by Cindy Kay Currier
In his classic narrative, Metamorphoses, the Roman poet Ovid tells the story of a boy named Narcissus who falls in love with himself. A seer prophesies that Narcissus, son of a water god and a nymph, will live “to a ripe old age provided he never comes to know himself.”
By age sixteen, Narcissus is extremely good-looking and full of himself. He attracts the attention of many potential lovers, but scorns them all. One of his love-struck admirers is a nymph named Echo. She has the unique quality of only being capable of repeating words and phrases she has just heard. One day Narcissus gets sepa- rated from his comrades and calls out, “Is anyone here?”
“Here,” Echo replies. “Let’s meet here.” “Meet here,” Echo says. When she approaches, Narcissus backs away. “I would die before
I would give you my power,” he says. “I would give my power to you,” she replies sadly. Echo feels rejected. In her grief, she loses her body and becomes
merely a voice. Narcissus is self-absorbed and unable to connect with soulful
Echo. His calculating self-obsession renders him cold and incapable of intimacy with her or anyone else. The boy, as true with all narcissistic personalities, experiences everything in the world only as it relates to him and does not want to risk giving away his power. Responding to another would threaten his fragile sense of self.
Remember, Narcissus is the child of a water god and nymph. This implies a dreamy, unstable sense of identity. His overdeveloped, rigid pride shows that the very thing he lacks is the very thing upon which he insists. It is the narcissist’s display of defensive self-love that reveals his feelings of inadequacy. He does not truly love himself at all, because he has no concept of who he is. He is an empty body
without soul. The narcissist’s appearance of self-love gives away his very lack of it.
In the story, Echo’s soul yearns for attachment to Narcissus. But in his cold, self-contained presence, her soul dissipates into an echoing voice. In our narcissism, our souls become no more than an echo of our own thoughts. It is impossible to carry on mutually nourishing relationships because, incapable of true empathy, we cannot actually see another person.
This is one of the dynamics that makes full forgiveness so foreign to us. We really don’t know ourselves, much less each other. All we have is our self-defensive displays of pride and distorted justice, which are reinforced to us every day through a culture of advertising and media that considers dysfunctional behavior good business, self-absorption good consumerism, and outbursts of self-defense headline-grabbing news.
As Ovid’s story continues, one of Narcissus’ scorned lovers places a curse on him, “May he fall in love and not have what he loves.” The hope is that he will get a taste of his own medicine and realize how cruel he has been.
The goddess Nemesis answers the prayer. Narcissus is out walking in the dark woods and comes upon a pool, still and smooth, never disturbed by man or animal. The boy is thirsty. He goes to drink from the pool and freezes still, utterly fascinated with what he sees—a visage as though carved in marble (the imagery, here, signifying hardness, a distinguishing feature of narcissism).
Enraptured, the boy yearns to posses the image he sees. He reaches in, but his hand passes through it.
What Narcissus is looking for is nowhere. If he turns away, the image will be lost, the precise dynamics of narcissism. But what starts out as absorption in a soulless self—a loveless, virtual image—grows into a deep mystery; a still, contemplative wondering about our own true nature. Like Narcissus, our once-empty preoccupation with self now stirs intrigue. Where there was no reflection, no curiosity, no sense of mystery, there is now wonder and meaning.
What Narcissus sees is a new image; not an empty self-concept, but something he has never before seen. This is how our call to the journey of forgiveness began. All of our preconceived notions were wiped out some way or another, probably through an offense of some variety. Nothing is the same and there is no turning back now.
Ovid says, “The image you see is nowhere.” We fell upon this new insight amid the dark forest; we found it on our excursion “Into the Woods,” the middle of nowhere. The self-acceptance for which we yearn can’t be engineered. It is discovered in the secret place, far from our usual narcissistic world. It steps out of the night unforeseen and carries us out on a limb with none of our usual points of reference.
Narcissus finds a new view of himself in the pool, in water. He is looking at a fluid image, something of his heritage, his birthright as a water child. While he doesn’t yet recognize the reflection as himself, he sees something soulful, emotional, in an untouched place within himself. Could it be he has a soul after all? Is there depth to Narcissus? Through a glimpse of himself, he has found a cure for his coldness.
In the story, Narcissus longs to unite with the image he has discovered. Just as the lovers he has rejected, he pines and suffers, saying to the trees, “Has anyone ever had as much longing as I have?” This grief connects him with his essence and with nature.
Narcissus is so overwhelmed with his feelings he begins to contemplate death, “Now grief is sapping my strength and only a brief space of life remains for me. I am cut off in life’s prime.” Here we see the hero’s transformation, the inevitable death before rebirth: death to our ego-defensive self, to our inner Narcissus, to the life we knew before, experienced by the soul as a genuine, mortal wound. This death to the old self is where we surrender to a higher design on our lives; the only way to heal our narcissism.
Ovid’s story evolves. Narcissus strikes his chest in anguish and his skin “takes on a delicate glow.” Narcissus is melted by the chas- tening fire of love in much the same way lead melts into gold in the alchemist’s lab. He gently lays his head in the soft grass near the pool; and quietly dissolves into the underworld.
Narcissus’ friends come looking for his body, but all they see is a flower with white pedals and a yellow center. The hard, marble Narcissus has been transformed into the gentle narcissus flower.
Forgiveness dawns like coming home, as the flowering of our true self. Whether as an individual, a community, or a nation, we will never understand the static hardness of our facade until some pain melts us like wax and we lay our heads upon the grassy poolside and surrender to our God, at last.