A Voice of Her Own
Echo and Narcissus is an important story, especially these days as we more freely identify people as “narcissists.” That is, people who are overly concerned with their own happiness and well being at the notable expense of everyone around them. We are focused on the character who wasted away, staring into the water and trying to kiss his own image: the story of the narcissist. Poor Echo, though, often and ironically gets ignored; while we are often on the look out for soul-sucking levels of narcissism, we rarely notice the empty eyes of Echo who is quite literally dying to be seen and heard. As with any archetypes, having a certain level of both characters is absolutely necessary to be healthy, but like all things in life it is a spectrum and too little or too much becomes destructive. This is true for both sides of this story, Narcissus and Echo. We have to be Echo to some degree. But, for many of us, it’s hard embrace our inner Narcissus.
The Basic Story (based on Ovid’s telling…just in case you need refresher)
Narcissus was born to a nymph and a river god. He was so beautiful that pretty much everyone fell in love with him. The famed prophet Tiresias told his mother that he would live a long life as long he never “knew himself.” (Immediately, ya know this isn't going to end well.) The kid grew up and though he was followed and fawned over, he didn’t love anybody. In short, he believed the hype a little too much.
Meanwhile, a young nymph, named Echo, was protecting her sisters from the wrath of Hera. You see, Zeus, the king of the gods, had a wandering eye (and other things) and Hera, the queen of the gods, really hated that. She couldn’t really take it out on Zeus, so she traditionally took it out on the ladies and gents into whose laps Zeus had wondered. Echo, spent lots of time diverting Hera’s attention while her friends got away by chatting it up with the goddess. Hera was not dumb and figured it out. Then, she took her rage out on Echo, cursing her to only repeating what she had heard. Suddenly, Echo was suddenly a really, really bad conversationalist. So off she went, sadly wandering though the forests.
Narcissus, for his part, was hunting one day and had chased some deer into a lovely glade, where a perfectly clear and still pool of cool water lay. He was hot and thirsty, so, obviously knelt down to get a drink. By chance, our poor, cursed nymph was near by and saw the lovely young man. Both of them fell in love…with him. He saw his reflection in the pool and said (paraphrasing here), “damn! You are a hunk of burning love!” Echo called out, “You are hunk of burning love!” The conversation basically went like this for a while. Eventually, after tearing at his own clothes, pounding his chest, and generally carrying on in overly dramatic style, Narcissus simply laid next to the water staring at himself and pitying himself because he could not have himself as his lover. Echo echoed his love and pity. He died there, and so did she. But she continues to echo the grief of all the people who cried at the loss his beauty.
The greater tragedy here is that everyone focuses on friggin’ Narcissus (just like he wanted!). We talk about narcissists, and worry about falling for narcissists–they can be very beguiling when looking for their Echo. It has become the preferred insult in many groups. But, we rarely (if ever) discuss the Echoes. As I noted above, we are all a little narcissistic; we have to be. If we are not the center of our own world, the main character in own lives, that is its own form of illness. That is being overly Echo, agreeing with everyone, making sure everyone feels heard and seen, forgetting (or simply foregoing) your own needs in favor anyone else’s as a default position.
Perhaps more than anything, we all want to be genuinely seen and heard; in other words, respected for who and what we are. This is most obviously seen in little kids, who love to make art so that their creation can be enjoyed on the refrigerator door by all members of the family and everyone who comes to house. Part of a parent’s job is to be Echo. At some point, however, even little kids need to grow up and and realize it's not all about them–balancing Narcissus and Echo. For women (and other minority groups) this has been a little bit too easy of a transition into the role of Echo, leaving Narcissus almost entirely behind.
When Echo is ruling too much, we can become hyper-vigilant to everyone’s needs and wants. Rather than telling your friend, “I’m tired and I just don’t want to go out,” for fear that they might be disappointed, we agree to the movie and dinner and stretch ourselves too thin. The biggest challenge, at least for me, is that I’m so used to doing this that I often don’t even know what I really want in a given moment; the response can be like an automatic reflex, 'what do YOU want?'. It’s not until I’m throwing plastic around the kitchen and on the verge of tears that I realize I’ve stretched myself too thin in my efforts to make sure everyone else is hunky-dory. Awkward. Especially because no one around me is even demanding this, as a true narcissist would; this is just cultural conditioning.
It’s is really hard to get out of this pattern because we risk being seen as selfish or worse when we change our behavior. Our mothers did this Echo routine, their mothers did this, and so on, and so on…finding the balance between Echo and Narcissus is tricky when we’ve never actually seen a good balance modeled and supported. This is one of the continuing challenges for many of us.
Being overly Echo creates trouble in every part of our lives, especially in the work place, where the perception of women gets particularly dicey: being assertive is seen as 'shrill' or 'bitchy', and the resulting frustration is called 'overly emotional'. We tend to be quiet in meetings, soft in our approach, "well, what do you think?". Even in schools girls are told their bodies must reflect what is best for the guys; they must echo random rules of ‘appropriateness.’
Remember, this is true not JUST of women, but of many minority groups, including people of color.
We need to call out Echo every bit as much as we call out Narcissus. We need to break the curse of Hera and her anger. We have to ask ourselves AND each other “what do you want?” and we have to wait for the answers, patiently. It’s hard to access that information when you’ve been ignoring it for so long. It’s time to see what all the Echoes have to say for themselves.