Saturday 17 August 2013

I’m Special?

I contributed this week’s ‘Connecting with Culture’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

The takeaway pizza box won’t fit in the fridge.

Too many presents. Had to walk twice to my room carrying stuff.

I can’t get the high def working on one of the flatscreen TVs in my yacht.

You might recognise these as examples of the First World Problems meme. Writing in The Independent this week, John Walsh takes it to task for telling people that their problems ‘count for nothing in the hierarchy of what’s serious’. Indeed, some first world problems are far from minor; nor do we have a monopoly on the need to negotiate everyday trivialities. Even so, #firstworldproblems at its best is a valid reminder that the ‘challenges’ we face are often small compared with many others around the globe.

More seriously, perhaps, the meme has become so commonplace that it’s in danger of lacking any serious empathy for global issues. It draws attention to our narcissism in a knowing, ironic way, which allows us to show how self-aware and ‘switched on’ we are, though without doing anything about it.

And if research is to be believed, narcissism is on the rise. A recent, widely-reported New York Times piece profiled Jean M. Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, whose close study of narcissism has led her to give the designation ‘Generation Me’ to young adults in the west. To be fair, not all accept her findings, with the alleged generational differences being particularly contentious. Still, as one commentator notes, ‘even if we’re not more narcissistic now than we’ve been in the past, I’m willing to entertain the notion that our popular culture is more narcissist-friendly’.

In The Big Ego Trip (IVP), writing from a Christian perspective, Glynn Harrison shows how the promotion of self-worth – ‘boosterism’ as he calls it – has gained widespread acceptance in different parts of culture, including the church, and explores whether there’s ‘a biblical and more psychologically secure approach to the big questions of significance and worth’. He makes it clear he is not arguing against the need for an ‘accurate self-concept’, but calling instead for a ‘radical self-compassion’, where questions of self-worth are ‘sorted out in the context of a larger “story” about our identity and purpose’. We’re special because we’re called to be part of something special, with an identity grounded in the grace and forgiveness of God.

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