The Widow's Echo

March 12, 2019 | Church | Seth Pierce

In Ovid’s rendition of the tale of Narcissus, he writes of a talkative nymph, much admired by Venus, the goddess of love, for her beautiful voice. The nymph plays a trick on the wife of Jupiter, making her think Jupiter is in the city when he really wasn’t.

Jupiter's wife, Juno, curses the nymph, making it so she can only repeat the last words of other people, unable to say anything on her own. She is called Echo because that’s all she can do.

Tragically, Echo falls in love with Narcissus and tries to explain her feelings to him but can only repeat the last bits of his words to her, which he takes as mockery. He rejects her, and, heartbroken, she prays to Venus, who makes Echo vanish, except for her voice that everyone can now hear when the acoustics are right. Shortly after, Narcissus falls in love with his reflection and pines away, thus concluding a gloriously depressing love story and providing us with the term narcissism, as well as a metaphor for a lesser known, but just as devastating condition: echoism.

In Rethinking Narcissism, Craig Malkin, suggests narcissism describes a spectrum of behavior. On the low end of the scale are echoists, which he defines as people who cannot allow themselves to feel special or receive positive attention, who are self-effacing and self-abnegating to the point where they lose their sense of self and feel worthless and impotent, out of a fear of becoming narcissists.[1] One of my friends who struggled with echoism told me, “They feel shame for taking up space.”

You want to cause damage to an echoist? Praise them, and they will shrivel like a salted slug. They also suffer from “need-panic” — terror at the thought that they need something from someone else. This is especially challenging for Christians, as the Bible seems to support this behavior.

Some “echo texts” (my term) say things like: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16:25), “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13) and “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11). These texts promote humility, regard for the other and self-sacrifice; but as an often-cited saying goes, the devil likes to mix truth with error to throw people off. Often these texts are twisted by a spiritual-sounding interpretation that reads these texts through a lens of self-loathing rather than self-sacrifice. Instead of actions being motivated by a love for others, they are motivated by a fear of becoming a narcissist or deep feelings of unworthiness.

Because the Bible records people who spoke and acted it is difficult to find echoists, but there are echoes here and there of what we are studying. One case study might be the tale of the widow’s mite (Mark 12:41–44). This is a classic offering-call text: The widow gave her all and so should you! Yet the context (v.38–40) is Jesus indicting religious leaders for “devouring” widows' houses and then parading their wealthy selves around the temple while acting as though they are giving sacrificially. Widows had very little voice, which is why throughout Scripture God calls on His people to take care of them and others who dwell on the periphery of our experience. This seems to be a woman whose basic needs have been absorbed by wealthy religious leaders who contribute to culture where those barely able to survive are still expected to give to support the very system stripping them of their ability to live.

This doesn’t diminish the generosity of the widow, but all of this together makes the words of Jesus an indictment of the religious leaders and broken system, not primarily a story about how people should give more. The irony here is a story meant to challenge those of us with means to sacrifice more has become, in the hands of some, a story to get those already in poverty to give more. The widow’s actions, honored by God, are also an echo of the needs of abusive people. The widow’s echo shows how easy it is to vanish someone’s true identity into something others can use. 

Echoists need to remember the words of Jesus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39, emphasis added). We can’t give what we don’t have. If we don’t allow ourselves to receive love, how can we give it to others? Flight attendants tell you, should there be a change in cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the ceiling. Who do you put masks on first? If you can’t breathe, you will pass out before you can love other people the way Jesus calls you to do. We have value, a voice and a life that needs to be lived in a way that only echoes the love Jesus has for others and the love Jesus has for us.


[1] Malkin, Craig, Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping With Narcissists (NY: Harper Perennial, 2016), p. 23.