Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Problem of the Selfie

Pride is a weakness in the character; it dries up laughter, it dries up wonder, it dries up chivalry and energy… It is not only true that humility is a much wiser and more vigorous thing than pride. It is also true that vanity is a much wiser and more vigorous thing than pride.

Vanity is social—it is almost a kind of comradeship; pride is solitary and uncivilized. Vanity is active; it desires the applause of infinite multitudes; pride is passive, desiring only the applause of one person, which it already has. Vanity is humorous, and can enjoy the joke even of itself; pride is dull, and cannot even smile.

And the whole of this difference is the difference between [Robert Louis] Stevenson and George Moore who, as he informs us, has ‘brushed Stevenson aside.’ I do not know where he has been brushed to, but wherever it is I fancy he is having a good time, because he had the wisdom to be vain, and not proud…

The secret of life lies in laughter and humility. Self is the gorgon. Vanity sees it in the mirror of other men and lives. Pride studies it for itself and is turned to stone…

We should be really be much more interested in Mr. Moore if he were not quite so interested in himself… he intrudes the capital ‘I’ even where it need not be intruded. Where another man would say “It is a fine day,” Mr. Moore says, “Seen through my temperament, the day appeared fine.” Where another man would say “Milton has obviously a fine style,” Mr. Moore would say, “As a stylist, Milton had always impressed me.”

The Nemesis of this self-centered spirit is that of being totally ineffectual…His weakness of introspection and selfishness in all their glory cannot prevent him from fighting; but they will always prevent him from winning.
GK Chesterton, Heretics

Reflection – I suppose it is a vindication of GKC’s rather fierce indictment of George Moore (and I only quote bits and pieces of it here—I think it is safe to say that GKC did not like the man at all) that Moore is largely a forgotten figure today. I don’t know who he is, and after reading Chesterton’s withering critique of him, I’m not terribly interested in going to find out.

Oh, but we live in the Age of Moore, I suppose. Selfies, photobombing, Facebook statuses regularly updating the world on how I feel about Milton, the fine day, or the price of gas and Tweets announcing my lunch menu to a world surely hanging on my every pronouncement on that subject.

Pride is a problem here, in all this social media culture. Look at me! Look at me! Look at me! This is the sad and constant refrain of a great deal of the on-line world. I would add to GKC’s jeremiad against pride that, under the mad, sad fixation of the self on the self, lies a terrible vacancy, a terrible fear of the void, of oblivion, of non-existence.

In other words, so much of the selfie-centeredness of our time, the determination to leave no photo unbombed, to thrust oneself to the foreground of every crowd, comes from a profound lack of a true sense of self, a deep insecurity about one’s own real and proper strong claim to existence and to being.

Pride is a spiritual problem, in other words, before it is a moral one, and perhaps the deepest spiritual problem there is. It ultimately comes down to a lack of faith, ultimately the issue is God and our relationship with Him.

Because if I know the true measure of my worth, which is the love of the Father for me, which is revealed ultimately in the Passion and Death of the Son for me, which is vouchsafed to me by the gift of the Spirit to me—if I know all that, then the fierce scrabbling of pride, the terrible sense of having to claw my way upwards, the need to continually express my ego and make everyone look at me, look at me, look at me which is the deep problem of the selfie begins to abate and subside.

The truth is, our life, our self, our being, our existence is held secure and cherished, made strong and vibrant and beautiful, not by our own ceaseless striving, but by the love of God and His choice for us. 
This is the genuine ‘social media,’ the environment (media) of being in relationship (social) that leads not to endless selfies, but to our becoming icons of Christ in this world, not to photobombs but to the joy of the hidden life with God, not to ego-laden Tweets and status updates, but to preaching the Gospel with our life and with our words


  1. I love this distinction between vanity and pride. A certain kind of vanity can be very endearing. I am immediately reminded of Dali, who constantly said things like "some days I think I'm going to die from an overdose of autosatisfaction." Perhaps it is self-mockery done with great skill and flair and backed up by a measure of true genius. Robertson Davies gets at a very similar idea in World of Wonders where he makes a distinction between 'egoism' and 'egotism'.

    I saw an add for an art exhibit of self-portraiture throught the centuries. The exhibit was called "selfie", the point being, of course, that the "selfie" differs from the self-portrait only in the quantity of works that the technology makes it possible to produce. Of course, this makes all the difference in the world-- you can't change medium without changing content, but it made me think. Does the selfie really represent a turn (literally) to narcissism in our culture? Rather I suspect that any human in any culture, if you gave him a digital camera, is likely to take thousands of pictures, many of them of himself. If Rembrandt, one of the greatest self-porturaitists of all time, had had a camera and a hard-drive, would we not now possess tens of thousands of Rembrandt selfies? Would they not now be catalogued and displayed in the echoing halls of some Dutch art gallery?

    In any case, the selfie is here to stay. As for photobombing, it has been outlawed by the Geneva Convention, but for the most part it is an atrocity committed only upon teenagers by other teenagers, so hopefully the Hague need not get too involved.

  2. Replies
    1. I'm sorry about that - truly didn't mean it as such. I didn't attack any specific person, though, and I do think social media is a fertile soil for narcissism (I'm hardly expressing an original thought in that, as it has been said many times by many people). I am trying to point to the underlying spiritual roots of narcissism and give at least a direction towards a healing of that malady... Anyhow, didn't intend it to be harsh at all - mea culpa!

  3. Well, this is interesting. I have never really thought about the differences between pride and vanity. I think he is saying one is a social sin and one is a personal one.

    We have been talking a lot in our house recently about selfies and what is appropriate to share online or not. How much of yourself is appropriate to share and does that vary according to the reason. It is harder to get underneath it alll.

    It seems like pride or even vanity in and of themselves are really not the issue. The issue is how I have come to that place inside myself. Selfies are just selfies after all.

    It is how we present this and how we receive it that seems to make all the difference.

    Anyway, it just seems to me...
    Bless you

    1. Absolutely! the distinction between pride and vanity is actually rooted in the desert fathers, who of course are a bit harder on vanity than GKC is here. You are right, a selfie is just a selfie. Really, I'm just using the term symbolically in this post as a sort of synecdoche of the narcissistic impulse.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.