This generation of emerging adults is often referred to as a narcissistic generation. Between the selfies and The Kardashians it is an easy label to apply, but this generation is no more narcissistic than the ones before it. Like the previous ones, the Millennials are a generation of young human beings learning how to be old human beings. The difference for them is the technology. Today, every child has a powerful computer squeezing out of the back pocket of their stretchy jeans. With this microprocessor a teenager can look up whatever she wants. In other words, she controls her access to the world of information. Porn, food, cats, or cat food porn, it does not matter; it can be found. She can communicate with her friends, lovers, complete strangers without her parents even knowing the names of these people or the content of their conversations. This is the significant difference between this generation and the ones before it: information control. She can control her content exposure. In a very real way, she can create her own world. She rarely has to engage anything that challenges her ideas. However, the scary thing is that teenagers are not the only ones doing this. Everyone is doing this. We are all becoming Narcissus.
The label Narcissist is thrown around almost as easily as the epithet Hitler. However, the word Hitler, a euphemism for megalomania and cruelty, has the power of black and white films filled with raised right arms, human atrocities, and a short man with a Charlie Chaplin mustache. While “narcissist” only has an ancient Greek story of some pretty boy so stupid that he did not recognize his own reflection and dies of grief because he can not touch himself. However, a closer look at this story’s message offers insights into our modern world. Narcissus, the boneheaded pretty boy, was a hyper-androgynous hottie. His toga was like a public bathroom; because all genders wanted to get inside of it. But, unlike the Target bathrooms, he did not let anyone in. More importantly he died with only the echo of his own words in his ears. This is the significant part of the story. It is also the most relevant to the modern internet experience. Many of us are now marching to the end of our lives with only the echo of our own words in our ears and we do not even have to live with thirty cats to achieve this. No longer are we challenged by a community of ideas; our ideas have become our community. Our funny neighbor with the weird kids can be ignored. The Grumpy old man down the street can be avoided. The single mother dismissed. Everyone with a different experience than our own can be disregarded. We never have to visit their peculiar worlds or listen to the strange things they have to say. All we need is a screen like Narcissus’s silver pool at which to stare, so we can admire the beautiful reflection of our minds. Like Narcissus, we are too prideful to accept any other ideas than our own. Unless we are wise, pride will curse us to the fate we deserve: ignorance.
Unfortunately, wisdom is hard to come by. It is gained by seeing, hearing, and experiencing new things. New experiences give a person cross referencing points between what had worked, what works now, and what works better. Even then, the experience might be misleading. Only the right experience will bring enlightenment. To highlight this point, I read a book about identifying edible plants. It said that one should use three sources to identify a plant and then remember that it still might kill you. Most of us just revel in our confirmation bias and move on to the next easily digestible piece of information. Few of us in this post-truth era, this gullible age of belief, take the time to verify the information we consume.
It is going to take an ergonomic solution to solve this lack of skepticism. Some programmer needs to develop software, an app, or a platform that automatically sources the material for us and does not let us share the information until we have read the source material and two opposing opinions about it. Another programmer might create a SEO that searches original material and labels it: verifiable news, editorial comment, opinion piece, or unicorn poop. Perhaps someone could make a program that, after delivering a message to go to a coffee shop and talk to someone new, shut the phone off and only turns on after its owner chats with another human for an hour. There are probably a hundred different solutions, but like any problem, it can only be solved if the problem is admitted.
The problem is that we let our beliefs define us: I am a Christian; I am pro-choice; I am conservative; I am a vegetarian. One of the most enlightening things I have learned is that there are very few things that we can claim to be. The list includes being human or not; conscious or not, alive or not, but the most important entry is our relationships. I am a son. If my mother dies, I am still her son. I am a father. If my daughter denies my existence and finds me embarrassing and impossible to talk to until she needs money, I am still her father. Most everything else we claim to be are either feelings or beliefs, and beliefs do not define us. They are defined by us. This is true whether or not we put effort into our beliefs, but our problem is that we stare at them reflecting back at us from our little personal Narcissus pools and become infatuated. Maybe someday we will each have a flower named after us?