Epiphany of a Narcissist

Don’t ask me why, because I either won’t remember or won’t admit it, but I once watched a reality show about Hulk Hogan’s family. In the episode, they visited a theme park in disguise. They strode around the park commenting on how nice it was to walk around without getting mobbed by fans. But it didn’t take long for the fun to wear off, especially when they had to wait in line like everyone else. Hogan’s daughter (who, like most girls with very rich or famous daddies, wants to be a pop star) sidled up to a sweaty, pimpled teenager: “um, so, do you know who Brooke Hogan is?”

“Uh. I dunno. I guess,” the boy replied warily.

“Well…do you think she’s hot?” Brooke purred.

The family couldn’t take it anymore. They stopped in a crowded walkway and conspicuously removed their costumes, wigs and latex make-up. The crowd recognized them and a cyclone of flashing digital cameras engulfed the grinning family, relieved to be back in their element as the center of attention.

Fortunately, not everyone is as narcissistic as reality TV stars. Most of us aren’t utterly fixated on our own selves, we don’t pine for a bevy of cameras everywhere we go, and we don’t feel entitled to whisk right up to the front of the line. Though I say it myself, I (and probably you) are not so selfish. In fact, I’m so far from overestimating my own importance in the world that I maintain a generally pessimistic outlook – because what is undue optimism but an unreasoning belief that the forces of fate take an interest in you – that the world is on your side? By contrast, I’m a pretty firm believer in the inevitability of problems and the natural regularity of wildly frustrating setbacks.

In no other arena of life is this better demonstrated than in the realm of public transit, a service underlying nearly every function of my life, from social to professional. But public transit operates by some hard-and-fast rules that are painful to stomach. If I am on time for the train, it is usually late. If, however, I am one minute late for the train, it is bang on time and just pulling away from the station. When the guy squeezed next to me on the packed 5:49 thinks the train is a picnic ground for his super-size McDonald’s dinner, that is, of course, when the train is marooned for 20 minutes behind a mechanical failure at Temple University Station. When ten high-school students board the mostly empty subway car, they will pile into the seats directly around me as surely as seagulls circle funnel cake, and their screeching will rival the noise of Antarctica’s Bird Island, which is home to approximately 100,000 penguins, 60,000 albatross and 65,000 fur seals. And whether I am running late for a press date determines whether the bus will be late: 20 minutes will pass while I wait at a stop which is meant to have service every ten minutes. Finally, at the precise moment that hope of being on time slips away, two buses lurch into view, one running early, the other late, so that they drive the entire route one after the other, the first bus packed and the second one empty. If I were good at math, I could work out an algorithm predicting how many minutes late the bus will be based on the distance between me and my destination and the number of minutes late I will be once I arrive there, processed with the relative comfort of the outdoor temperature and presence of precipitation, factored by the amount of influence the person kept waiting for me has on my career.

But last night, something strange happened. I had nowhere special to be after work, but the other woman at the bus stop was agitated. She was meant to be at a show whose curtain was in 20 minutes, and the bus was 15 minutes late. Was the universe conspiring against her, instead of me? What happened to the universe’s usual careful focus on my personal desperation? Apparently I am as egotistical as the self-centered people I’ve always reviled. Instead of having an optimistic view of the world’s care for me, I am a pessimistic narcissist – a person who believes that the forces of fate consistently go out of their way to thwart my daily plans. But what about the other 310,000 people riding SEPTA today? The bus can’t be late at a crucial moment for everyone. Do the fates take a break from irritating me to go frustrate someone else? If the universe does not, in fact, single me out for difficulties, am I comfortable with that lack of personal distinction? Perhaps my pessimism boils down to some unflattering assumptions: that I (as I sweat the clock and find myself next to the dude who’s having a cigarette inside the bus shelter on a rainy day) am so special that supernatural forces of the world conspire against me, and that I thrive on this perceived perverse distinction just as much as a wannabe starlet revels in the crass publicity of a reality show.

But can I give up my self-centered, negative views?

It’s true, sometimes events occur which lead me to question my entrenched perspective. For example, I was recently rushing from work in the city to a family gathering in the suburbs. Whether or not I could make it to my grandfather’s dinner depended on whether the bus was on time. I had pretty nearly resigned myself to a hopeless wait when the bus came rumbling down the street immediately.

This is something the optimist might take for granted. Optimists would not write essays about a punctual bus more than a month after the fact – they would accept it as the natural order of their lives, and move on. But I experience the arrival of an on-time bus as a memorable, dazzling, improbable boon. Perhaps the deepest truth of being a pessimist is that I am incredibly easy to please. And when something like this happens, I still appreciate the sensation of being at the center of world – though once, just this once, the world is on my side.

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