The other day I was having a philosophical conversation about love with a friend. She made a remark, a quote from something she read, the gist of which was that we have to learn to love ourselves. I completely understood and appreciated her point about loving ourselves. So many people are unhappy with themselves, feel ignored, forgotten, have been psychically wounded; they beat up on themselves, hold themselves in contempt. These people can’t love, are afraid to love, and don’t know how to be loved. So, for sure, we need to make friends with ourselves, and in a sense “love” ourselves. It does, however, seem a bit strange to use that verb and seriously talk about “loving” oneself.
So suppose I woke up and felt vibrantly in tune with myself, alive and full of vital power and high spirits—yep, I can feel it! I love myself! I dress, shave, and breakfast. Before I venture forth into the day, I pause before the mirror and say to myself: “Oh Michael, what a wonderful day! Truly, I love you. Let’s go out and show the world what a divine couple we are!” Okay, this is a case of reductio ad absurdum. But I think you’ll agree this would be the least admirable form of self-love or let’s call it by its proper name—narcissism.
But there is much more to love than learning how to feel comfortable with oneself. It is important to feel right with oneself. I think a certain amount of amour-propre is essential for one’s all-round health. But I agree with Shelley the Romantic poet who said somewhere that to live is to love. Love is about overflowing with good will. And of course, I’m sure we would agree there are all kinds of love. A mother’s love for her child is surely one of the great models and archetypes of love. But here the love is not about self but about the other.
The anthropologist Robert Briffault wrote that maternal love for offspring is the model for all higher forms of love, not the sexual instinct. The latter is ultimately about one thing (regardless of the associated conscious feelings): reproduction. Feelings associated with the sexual encounter are window dressing; the real story is about the will of life to replicate itself. That story is about 4 billion years old while our personal sentiments are the trivial byproducts of the moment. Briffault tells the story of the reported case of a tigress in a zoo that mated with a tiger, after which she killed her sperm donor.
But to return to the idea of love you might hear discussed nowadays. I think it misses the point. When I’m feeling brimful of life-loving energy, I’m not thinking of myself at all.—I’m an overflowing river of beneficent energy—everything looks beautiful, everything resonates with meaning. There’s no ‘me’ left when I’m filled to overflowing with love.
The greatest love frees us from ourselves, from affirming, thinking, obsessing over ourselves. The heroic love on the battlefield transcends the self. When I’m lost in painting a picture, I forget time, food—I totally forget myself. When I listen to the music I love I’m out of this world, I am happily, blissfully elsewhere.
Then of course there is erotic love. For the ancient Greeks eros was a daimon or intermediate spirit that lifts the soul to the realm of the gods, and the power of eros is the love of beauty which makes one ecstatic and indeed manic to the point of insanity. Here the soul is ravished, the self is engulfed (if it loves aright) in a sea of beauty. In that lofty Platonic love, the lover completely transcends himself. He doesn’t love himself; he loses himself.
However, most lovers are ‘pandemic’ and fall prey to becoming instruments of mere replication, sperm messenger boys for the future of the species.
There is, I believe, a mystical sense of loving the higher self that is very different, and I think my friend was intending that. The irony is that any attempt to unite with our higher mystical self is to radically break from the habits and values of mundane existence. The last thing one needs is being preoccupied with oneself.
Ironically, in the highest form of love, we forget ourselves—the lover disappears and at the same time expands into a kind of infinity. The ecstasy of love is a place beyond boundaries and beyond our carefully guarded selves. Consciousness and love cry out to be unbound. The Prometheus of love is tied to a mountain crag; the vultures of our loveless power-brokers are sucking the life out of his entrails.