Narcissus by Caravaggio.
Words matter. They are important for us in many ways, but above all because they mediate reality to us, or at least they ought to. That is why truthfulness is so important. Truthfulness is the basic precondition for being able to deal in reality with others. Words, indeed, matter because they reveal to us the world in which we live and how we see that world.
About a month ago, as I was in Rome for the ordination of Deacon Doug Krebbs, I was making small-talk with another priest from the diocese; a sharp priest, who has an amazing command of language. We should always be wary of small-talk. I know that I am not alone in my experience that I say the stupidest things while trying to make small-talk. I think that the gaffs are God's way of saying "just keep your mouth shut when you don't have anything substantive to say and you won't put your foot in your mouth so often." Nevertheless, I felt the need to make small-talk. I turned to the priest and asked him if "he was enjoying himself in Rome." Without missing a beat, the priest turned to me and replied, "I don't usually aim to enjoy myself."
Needless to say, it took me a second to process what had just happened. You kind of feel blindsided when you ask a "small-talk" question are given a serious reply. This priest knew well that to enjoy oneself is precisely not the aim of one's life. Rather, seeking to enjoy oneself is the epitome of narcissism. The Greek and Roman mythology surrounding the story of Narcissus converges on the moment in the story when the beautiful young lad sees his reflection in a still pool. He is so deeply enamored by the beauty that he sees in his own reflection that he reaches down to kiss the head of the reflection, but as he touches the water the reflection disappears causing Narcissus sadness. He spends the rest of his life in constant frustration, trying to obtain a reciprocated love from his image. Unable to leave his image out of love of himself, he slowly dies through pining away.
As parents and educators we need to be aware of the importance of showing our children that the true aim of their lives is not to enjoy themselves, but rather to enjoy God. Their beatitude (the objective fulfillment of their lives) is the result of an other-focused life; not a self-focused life. Instead of selfies, snapchats, and self-focused tweets, our children need to be put in situations where they are led to a disposition of self-forgetfulness. Spiritually this means teaching them the posture of adoration. Ad-oratio, adoration, comes from the idea of being "mouth-to-mouth" with God. This posture is essentially other-focused. On a more natural level it means fostering the virtues of generosity and gratitude. The generous person is the one who notices the needs of others and cares enough to get involved. The grateful person is the one who realizes that the good things in their lives are gifts, and so then looks to the giver.
This is, however, no easy task. Anyone who has spent an afternoon with a "spoiled" kid has realized just how deeply engrained this tendency to disordered love of self can be. Sin works against us. St. Augustine says that the definition of sin is to be "curvatus in se", curved in upon oneself. Essentially, sin means striving to enjoy oneself as your ultimate good, rather than God and your neighbor. Grace and virtue, on the other hand, lead us to live lives of sacrificial love for others, especially God.
The task of overcoming the tendency to self-enjoyment is one that can be seen as teaching a love for the cross to your children. "For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Mt. 16:25). Teaching the love of the cross to our children is a process of teaching them to lose their lives for the sake of others. It means thinking about God often. It means praying for others who are in need as a family. It means inviting your children to make sacrifices for the good of others at every turn. It means going out of your way to take them to Mass, especially when it is not convenient. It means being generous to them in the expectation that they are generous to others. It means not making them the center of your lives. It means this and so much more.
The next time you find yourself enquiring about your child's life, remember the stories of Narcissus and Jesus, and please don't ask them if they are enjoying themselves.