[originally published on 3/28/15 on PsychCentral and HuffPo 9removed from HuffPo by editor on 3/28/15)]
When I read about the crash of the Flight 4U 9525 in the Alps, particularly, about the 8 minute long ominous silence from the cockpit and that even breath, I had a clinical hypothesis: narcissism. I shared this with a fellow psychologist, who said: “Why?! Maybe it was a psychotic break…”
As you probably know from the recent reports, a conclusion emerged that co-pilot Lubitz locked out his pilot (during a bathroom break) and deliberately crashed the plane. Huffington Post summarized the prevailing sentiment with one title word: “Why?”
Today I read that the investigators became aware of the following: according to Lubitz’ girlfriend, Lubitz had fantasized about “notoriety” and about “one day changing the system;” additionally, he apparently tried to conceal his psychological/psychiatric treatment for depression because it threatened his ambition to become a pilot.
When I read this, I had a “stigma alarm” go off in my mind – a concern about misunderstanding of depression by the general public. And sure enough, a related article on BBC about why people commit murder-suicides seemed to be focused primarily on preempting “stigma danger” for depression.
As I looked through the media coverage, I kept scanning for the “N” word – the word “narcissism.” It was conspicuously absent.
Let me clarify: I am not offering a psychological autopsy. I am offering a point of discussion which is: narcissism is all around us and we are not very good at spotting it. The reason is that pesky old Greek myth about the beautiful Narcissus being enamored with his own visage in the reflection of the mirror. General public misunderstands narcissism as vanity. Narcissism can manifest as vanity but there is a lot more to narcissism than meets the eye. Narcissism can be closeted – it can be camouflaged as ambition, perfectionism, idealism.
Lubitz fantasized about “one day changing the system.” Sounds familiar, right? Sounds even kind of good, right? What might be possibly wrong with that? There is idealism and there is narcissistic idealism. Narcissism comes with a deficit of empathy. A lofty goal with a lack of empathy are a dangerous mix.
A frustrated ambition that morphed into a Machiavellian desire for notoriety-at-any-cost is what’s behind these eight minutes of even-keel breathing – the breath of indifference for 150 innocent souls that got dragged into another ego project.
Lack of empathy, not depression, is the closed door of indifference.
But Lubitz is no monster, not in my way of looking at the world. If he was, in fact, a narcissist, he was just another fellow sufferer, not all that different from the rest of us. You see, narcissism is all around us. We elect narcissists into the White House every four years. I shudder when I think about a certain minimum of narcissistic lack of empathy that is required of many of us who pursue the ambition to lead others in one form or another. This is a curious paradox of existence: leadership and narcissism seem to be two sides of the same coin. You don’t have to be a pilot, in charge of a human cargo, to feel the burden of this responsibility. You can be a school bus driver – it’s the same kind of karmic load, isn’t it?! You don’t have to be a brain surgeon or a heart surgeon to battle the weight of tremendous responsibilities on a day to day basis. You can be an elementary school teacher and feel the same weight of responsibility over the lives of your fellow human beings.
Narcissism is the Jungian shadow of leadership, a point we ought to be discussing. But we don’t, right? Why, you ask – I think it’s because we fear the self-exposure, we fear that we will out ourselves, that we will lose our icons and idols as we examine the self-serving motives beneath the saintly exteriors.
But, perhaps, we are finally ready to talk about the omnipresence of narcissism. Perhaps, that’s the notoriety that we can come to assign to the name Lubitz.
In closing, three points: 1) It’s not about depression per se – it’s about narcissism. 2) A prognosis: we will be seeing more and more narcissism (I’ll address this in a separate post some time). 3) Condolences to all involved, including Andreas’ parents… Such tragedy.