Unraveling empathy as Narcissus looks on

Here’s how the Mayo Clinic describes Narcissists (I smiled when I typed and capitalized that word, which Mayo did too):

  • Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power or beauty
  • Believing that you are special and can associate only with equally special people
  • Requiring constant admiration
  • Having a sense of entitlement
  • Taking advantage of others
  • Having an inability to recognize needs and feelings of others
  • Being envious of others
  • Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner

Ho Boy.

I was in a meeting today and was watching my colleagues listen. What does listening look like, and what is the focus of the listening? Specific words/trying to understand/trying to relate/trying to engage/trying to respond/? Which bits of listening is about the ‘other’ and which is about the ‘self’? And with the Mayo’s list describing narcissists I’m pretty sure thinking about how to care, insert or engage doesn’t qualify as narcissist behavior. (Of which I’ve learned being a narcissist is not a ‘behavior’ anyway, but is an actual personality disorder.)

Gabriel Byrne did a great job acting for four seasons as a listener in In Treatment (he talks on NPR about the Art of Listening here). And recently there was a NYT article about supermarket strategies  where they put full-length mirrors in the entryway, and small mirrors in each cart for “…a splash of reality in the otherwise anonymous la-la land of food shopping…”. This was so we get out of our heads and into the reality of the space and task we’re doing. So what will it take in human contact? In conversation? Isn’t the ‘other’ holding a mirror to us with the same layout of the face? Are the eyes, expression, and direction or their gaze so different it breaks the mirror-spell?

At a friends house for dinner last weekend, I listened to conversation about living in Italy, and that ordering at the expresso bar when you don’t speak italian meant you had the best chance to get the attention of the barista with your eyes. I said this was big and wonderful; conversation with eyes only…  Another dinner guest said ‘well of course, how else would you do it’? But I wanted to imply something more—I was thinking how  words are often a  tangled mess with history, perception, posturing, wants and needs, and while this barista-gaze sounded like an interesting challenge though a bit public and utilitarian in this context, it was a fantastic reminder of how much more we use than words when words usually get center stage (unless you’re Gabrielle Byrne in In Treatment).

Where or why do we loose track of taking the other bits of listening in which includes looking? Or, is this where we actually do live—in the looking-only segment of the making sense of listening? Is each conversation a test of hits and misses, a compromise of understanding? This is probably why poetry, fiction, those conversations when neither wants to get up to turn the lights on when dusk is long past, or photographs without the captions held in the hand resonates and lingers.

The description of narcissism is very far from the subtleties of friendship and listening, the narcissist is incapable of hearing or feeling empathy, and isn’t this feeling the first thread to unravel in connecting to another? Maybe with the eyes, expresso in hand, it doesn’t matter, a split second is sometimes enough.