When I found my first Erma Bombeck book at the Little Free Library in my tiny hometown, my reaction was “Where has this wonderful woman been all my life”? And my second reaction was, “I guess we are all the same after all!” Like her, I can never find a pen, a rubberband or a piece of tape when I need it. They’re never where they should be and once you unload the drawer to find them, the moment has passed and you don’t need them anymore! Plus I can never find matching socks (so I’ve given up on wearing socks entirely) and several pieces of jewelry have mysteriously disappeared.
But what if Erma Bombeck isn’t just a funny writer, a comedienne of the pen. What if Erma is the antidote to narcissism? What if we all need to be more like Erma Bombeck and less like the Kardashians? What if Mrs. Bombeck is the cure we’ve long been looking for?
We can all agree that narcissism is epidemic, right? I mean, hello! You hear the word bandied about more and more frequently in the mainstream and alternative/citizen medias. And each time, my ears perk up cause they’re singin’ my song.
We’ve tried the whole “self-esteem” and “confidence” things and they’ve kinda’ backfired. The result is a generation of you-can’t-tell-me-anything narcissistic social media addicts. They’re all “winners,” no matter how lazy and slovenly they may be. They’re disrespectful. They’re brittle. They’re fragile. They’re humorless. They’re selfish. They’re shallow. They’re shrill. They’re cold. They’re harsh and adversarial. But boy! Have they (supposedly) got “confidence” and “self-esteem!” And they’re just plain a big fat narcissistic pain in the ass.
So what’s left? If so-called self-esteem and faux confidence seem to cause narcissism instead of cure it, what hope do we have?
Enter Erma Bombeck.
For three decades this wonderful woman stood before the nation in her weekly column in her proverbial tattered, dishwater gray underwear with no pretense, no guards, no airs nor graces. She told us what we already knew about ourselves but were trying desperately to hide: that we didn’t have all our ducks in a row, that there was always a thread hanging from our hem, that our pantyhose were perpetually laddered and there was a pearl missing from our strand. She did it by inviting us into her topsy-turvy, undusted , disorganized home and showing us that she was just like all of us…and it was okay!
Each week, she came into each one of our homes and reported back to us on us, without being intrusive. And along the way, we had a few belly laughs at our own expense. She led the way and made it safe. We just climbed aboard.
Wait! What was that about laughter? It’s ringing a bell. Oh yes! According to a website titled www.leaveyournarcissist.com, “Narcissists are hypersensitive, easily offended and have no sense of humor about themselves.” Aha!
But Erma did. She laughed at herself and made all of us laugh at ourselves. It was safe.
She had the true inner confidence to be imperfect before the whole nation (nay, the whole world) and still walk home with her head held high. Now that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the cure for narcissism.
There’s another word for it: humility
Yeah, you never hear that one outside of a church and usually not even then. Humility has gotten a bad rap. Like charity (the love kind), humility has gone out of style and society is the poorer for it.
Walk with me through the ferned lanes of Risinghurst, Oxford, England. Near Headington Quarry, we see the abandoned chimneys of the Kilns, now converted into a private home. We tiptoe up the path and peer in the window. The sagging walls of the neglected room are literally held up with bookcases. There, at the desk, is a bespectacled, balding man smoking like a chimney whilst writing feverishly.
Meet C. S. Lewis.
You may remember him as the author of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. But he was much, much more. He was an atheist who was wounded in the Battle of Arras during World War I and nursed back to health with champagne. He became a Christian on the way to the London Zoo, yet hated church and loved his pints, his tobacco and a good ol’ dirty joke. He was a theologian who never attended seminary (and we are the richer for it!) He was a teacher at Magdalen (/mowd-lin/) College Oxford yet hated teaching. He was a confirmed old bachelor who suddenly married an American woman dying of cancer (and lived happily with her for many years.)
But most importantly, he’s one of the only writers to talk about humility. True to form, he did it in an upside down, topsy-turvy way in The Screwtape Letters. Lewis wrote Screwtape from the perspective of a Senior demon, Screwtape, teaching his protégé, the junior demon Wormwood, how to subtly and successfully tempt mankind (patients) into losing their eternal souls.
In Chapter 14, Screwtape writes:
My Dear Wormwood,
The most alarming thing in your last account of the patient is that he is making none of those confident resolutions which marked his original conversion. No more lavish promises of perpetual virtue, I gather; not even the expectation of an endowment of “grace” for life, but only a hope for the daily and hourly pittance to meet the daily and hourly temptation! This is very bad….
Your patient has become humble…
But, what is humility? Lewis does not leave us wondering.
You must therefore conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulnes but a a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character. (emphasis mine)
Stop right there!!! Now turn it upside-down. This implies that the opposite of humility, narcissism, is an absurdly, inappropriately and inaccurately high opinion of one-self and an obsession with oneself. Interesting!
The great thing is to make him [the patient] value an opinion for some quality other than truth, thus introducing an element of dishonesty and make-believe into the heart…
Narcissism indeed. In my article about my own brush with narcissism, Confessions of an Ex-Narcissist, I included this quote from The Screwtape Letters:
“…[God] wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the, fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another.”
That is humility. Not holding an opinion of oneself that is untrue by being either too high nor too low nor being overly obsessed with oneself. Humility according to Lewis is not “pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools,” but rather…
…free from any bias in his favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour’s talents — or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognise all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things…a new kind of self-love — a charity and gratitude for all selves, including their own; when they have really learned to love their neighbours as themselves, they will be allowed to love themselves as their neighbours….
He would rather the man thought himself a great architect or a great poet and then forgot about it…he can very well go on improving them [his skills] to the best of his ability without deciding on his own precise niche in the temple of Fame.
Erma Bombeck understood this. Even when she was dying from genetic polycystic kidney disease, she did not use her celebrity to jump to the head of the transplant line. In her writing, she belly laughed at her own faults and foibles, making it safe for us to laugh at ours. Sometimes I think if a narcissist would just laugh one good belly laugh at themselves, the dark spell of narcissism would be broken, their shackles crumble, the scales fall from their eyes. (No, even that probably wouldn’t work — but it’d be a start!)
What Lewis wrote about sex also applies to narcissism:
“We have reached the stage
at which nothing is more needed
than a roar of old-fashioned laughter.”
May 2018 be the year when we all, narcissists or otherwise, feel safe enough to laugh at ourselves, to take ourselves with a giant grain of salt and to cultivate the humility to release the psychological shackles that bind us.