It’s official. “Selfie” entered the cultural mainstream recently when Oxford Dictionaries declared it the word of the year for 2013, thus sanctioning its continued use and popularity. According to Oxford Dictionaries’ statistics, the word “selfie” increased in frequency an astounding 17,000% over the course of last year, so chances are you’ve seen people snapping digital self-images or have taken a few yourself. With its only prerequisite being the possession of a smartphone, selfies were captured by everyone from President Obama to Pope Francis. So what’s the deal with selfies? And more importantly, now that they are a permanent fixture of our social reality, what do selfies say about our times?
One interpretation of the selfie’s rise to prominence could be found in the work of historian Christopher Lasch. Writing in 1979, Lasch lamented what he called a “culture of narcissism” which he believed had infiltrated American society and corroded traditional moral values. From Lasch’s perspective:
“The contemporary climate is therapeutic, not religious. People today hunger not for personal salvation, let alone for the restoration of an earlier golden age, but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health, and psychic security.”
With these words, it is clear that Lasch would look out at Facebook and Instagram’s vast fields of selfies as firm evidence for what he critiqued more than three decades ago. With the decline of the family and other social institutions, people have turned inward and turned the camera around, hoping only to capture that transient second of self-satisfaction and fleeting contentment.
But is the selfie the digital embodiment of a narcissistic culture gone haywire? Have Lasch’s observations been vindicated with our apparent self-obsession?
While there may be some truth to Lasch’s critique, a second interpretation of the selfie offers a more constructive and hopeful take on the issue. From this perspective, the selfie is still evidence of an individualist culture, but this newest digital expression is simply the latest manifestation of America’s long history of lauding the lone ranger. From the courageous pioneer to the rustic cowboy or tech-savvy entrepreneur, America has long celebrated heroic individuals over whole communities.
Despite this trend, there is something to be said for our peculiar fascination with individuals and even, I would argue, the selfie. Perhaps we take pictures of ourselves not because we are pure egomaniacs but rather because we are mystified by our own curious existence. Besides, what other creatures are capable of laughter and love and language like we are? Unlike other species, we are capable of immense despair and heroic martyrdom. Science may be able to explain a sunset or a beautiful landscape, but who can plumb the depths of the weird, mysterious self? As Walker Percy incisively asks, “Why is it that of all the billions and billions of strange objects in the Cosmos—novas, quasars, pulsars, black holes—you are beyond doubt the strangest?”
Another tremendous Christian thinker, St. Augustine, was equally perplexed by his existence and set out on a journey to discover who he was in this vast cosmos. In the process, he penned his magnificent work, Confessions, which happens to be the first autobiography in Western history. For those unfamiliar with the story, Augustine’s self-discovery was that nothing in this world could satisfy his desires but a perfect God and Savior who had entered human history. Recognizing his own massive imperfections, Augustine’s “selfie” brought him to his knees to pray, “Restless is my heart until I rest in Thee, O Lord.”
For truly imperfect and mysterious beings such as ourselves, perhaps we should look to the wisdom of Percy and Augustine in the age of the selfie. If we are really made in God’s image, as the Scriptures testify, then let us with all our creative fury, imagination, and technological know-how investigate the promises of those great traditions which claim to help us understand ourselves and the Creator who made us. In fact, like Percy and Augustine suggest in their writings, the selfie says we are strange, beautiful, messed up creatures who deserve more than facile explanations and superficial attention. Certainly, this does not mean we should spiral into self-absorption or forget those around us, but perhaps to avoid that, we need not turn away from ourselves, but instead go even deeper than we did in 2013.
You could add Thomas Merton on to your list of great thinkers who might have some understanding and compassion on the “Selfie”. In a number of his works, especially his book “Contemplation in a World of Action” he argues that one of the greatest evils of the modern world is that we are lost in a “mass society”, which destroys individuality and any sense of meaning to our individual lives. He was speaking of novices who come to the monastic life seeking an authenticity and genuine value for their lives, but I think the point is applicable to us all. The “Selfie” could very easily be understood as another way of expressing individuality in a culture that, despite paying lip service to it, demands conformity and annihilates personal value. Perhaps it is an action to present oneself to the world in the hopes of recognizing our value as a unique person. I think Merton would be very sympathetic to that plight, and really saddened by how little effect the “Selfie” has in achieving that goal. Like Augustine, he would find his identity, value and authenticity in God, and the “Selfie” is only a shadow of what is and can be.
Thanks for your comments! I hadn’t thought to include Merton, but your points are excellent and worth more reflection. Cheers!