Sitting in the park recently, my contemplations were interrupted by a man wielding a large camera, three young ladies pacing behind him.

Motioning to the bench on which I was sitting he asked, “Can we use this for our photo shoot?”

“Oh, um, sure,” I said. Glancing over my shoulder as I left, I saw the three girls freeze into picture perfect poses on the bench I had vacated.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, my favorite place for reverie doubles as a picturesque background for people to take pictures of themselves. When not sitting on the little bench lost in my thoughts, I often observe people posing in front of the waterfall or on the little bridge, preening themselves with selfie-stick in hand.  

Such a scene is now familiar in American society. It’s also a signal that Christopher Lasch’s predictions made 40 years ago in his book, A Culture of Narcissism, have come true.

A remembrance of this milestone anniversary was recently commemorated by professor Jack Trotter in Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. Trotter, like many of us, recognizes a sad fact: The narcissism that Lasch identified as a rising trend 40 years ago is now a full-blown epidemic.

Reported self-esteem has exploded, with over half of young people achieving a nearly perfect score on the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, a score “10 to 15 points higher than the historic normal range,” Trotter writes. Counterintuitively, this rise in self-esteem is correlated with a sharp decline in reported happiness.

It seems that feeling overly good about ourselves also makes us unhappy when we engage with a world that doesn’t share our high estimate of value.

We all know these symptoms: the disrespectful child who tells his mother to “shut up”; the college student who thinks the world must accommodate her interest in an obscure degree; the young adult who jumps from job to job because he thinks the entry-level tasks he’s been given are beneath his dignity – these are all common occurrences in today’s culture.

Dr. Boris Vatel, a practicing psychiatrist, provides Trotter with a striking insight into the underlying cause: the decline in the influence of fathers:

With respect to the loss of the father and other traditional sources of authority in American culture, it does seem reasonable to conclude that this has also encouraged the rise of narcissism. When a child’s every whim is catered to and parents become primarily sources of gratification rather than instruction, the child grows up into an ‘adult’… who believes that the entire world revolves around him. The child does not learn how to patiently endure, how to strive for something higher than himself, and how to tolerate frustration. He grows up into an adult who really does not live in the real world in the sense that he does not develop a true appreciation for other human beings as being something other than mere extensions of himself.

A friend of mine once observed that you can tell what type of relationship an adult has with his father just by the way he carries himself. Those with good relationships reflect a confident stability. Those lacking a good relationship, don’t. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that many young people would try to compensate for this stability by putting up a front, delighting in themselves, and acting like they have everything together and under perfect control – the narcissists which populate our society.

We’ve worked hard as a society to promote equality, to advance women and minorities that have long been oppressed. But we’ve often done this at the expense of our fathers and other traditional authorities, arguing that they deserve to be overthrown and given a backseat.

But if this is one of the root causes of the narcissistic society many have come to loathe, is it time for some re-evaluation? Could the revival of good, solid, supportive fathers sound the death knell for our self-absorbed society?

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