We've probably all encountered one. A human vortex. You know, the person in a gathering who is so charismatic, so charming, so engaging, so magnetic, so loud, so out there, so over the top others get sucked in. The crowd hovers. Watches. Listens. Laughs. Feeds the ego. Soon it's as if no one else is in the room.
Or maybe the vortex is more subtle. That happens too. You're in a conversation. One on one. You know the person well and believe you have a good relationship. A question is asked of you. You respond. But the next thing you know, the conversation is focused on the other person. All about her/him. Whoa, you think. How did that happen?
Narcissism is the big fancy word for it. We get the word from the mythical story of someone who sat gazing at his image in a pond. Obsessed with self. We know people like this. And it can be exhausting to be around them. Draining from the constant pull to have everything circulate around them.
Respected church analyst Peter Steinke once spoke of people with "narcissistic tendencies." He refused to label individuals as a narcissist as if that defined them. But he also writes bluntly about how such people can be like a virus in a community. In his book Uproar he claims that people "share basic behavioral patterns with our own cells." Steinke reports that "cells have the primary tasks of protection and growth." Similarly, we humans have "dual needs in our differentiating process - being separate and being close." It may sound overly simplistic, but Steinke goes on to suggest that "anxious, reactive individuals function in a way similar to viruses - neither have boundaries or respect the boundaries of others. Consequently, they go where they don't belong. They must have it their way, and they never learn from their experience. Self-regulation is a chore beyond their ability."
A human vortex. Sucking up the energy and attention of others. Not concerned with the wellbeing of others. Even, if you will, feeding off of others. Not an ounce of self-regulation. How are we to survive when a human vortex gets cranked up in our midst?
In 2015, Erin Lane published a rather raw reflection on her generation's reluctance to commit to much of anything. Her book is titled Lessons in Belonging and in it she states, "According to researcher Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, there is a developmental stage unique to our times called 'emerging adulthood,' a period 'during which young people are no longer adolescents but have not yet attained full adult status.' Soft on responsibility. High on narcissism. Delaying, delaying, delaying the pressures adulthood. Some say we were coddled and cuddled and given one too many trophies for participation. I say we're scared out of our minds to be disappointed." She goes on to write, "While my middle- to upper-class peers have been criticized as affiliation-averse, commitment-phobic wanderers who would rather find themselves on a trip to India than in a church in Iowa, the picture of belonging is more complex."
It's a challenge for those of us with more years under our belts to understand. And for those of us who find purpose and value in community. Yes, even church. "Just come be part of us!" we think. That could have a hint of a vortex to some; will we be swallowed up? Belonging is more complex. As is the life of faith. Not about getting but giving. Not about me but us. Not about consuming but sharing. There's much more than meets the I!