Sandra Sobieraj Westfall ’89’s profile of cancer survivor and blogger Suleika Jaouad ’10 (cover story, Oct. 24) provoked me to think about the myth of Narcissus and about the way in which generations diverge.
What prompted this thought was a line from Jaouad’s blog in The New York Times, reprinted alongside Westfall’s article. “[I]n an age,” writes Jaouad, “when our social media presence is so inextricably linked to our identity — on and off the computer — not updating my [Facebook] profile to reflect my new [cancer-stricken] reality felt inauthentic, even dishonest.”
It might surprise Jaouad, but not all of us are plunged into this particular variety of existential crisis when cancer enters our lives. Some of us date from an earlier era. I lost a close friend to leukemia in 1991 and my father to pancreatic cancer in 1997. I thank God for the fact that I was able to focus my full attention on them, and not on their (or my) reflected images in the as-yet nonexistent world of social media. I shared my trials with my immediate family and friends, not their diffused simulacra among the variously “friended,” “favorited,” and “liked.”
“So much has changed in my life since my cancer diagnosis,” writes Jaouad at the end of her blog post. “But now, when I go to my Facebook profile, I see myself again.” That line chilled me. The myth of Narcissus tells us of a Greek youth who paused by a pond, gazed into it, and was so transfixed by the beauty of the being who gazed back that he remained immobilized for eternity. Narcissus doesn’t realize that he’s gazing at his own reflected image. The myth warns us against misrecognition in the service of self-idolatry: mistaking our own gaze for the gaze of the human other who might truly receive and reciprocate our love. Jaouad’s struggles with and against cancer certainly deserve our attention, but does her Facebook profile really deserve so much of her attention?