A common misconception about self-love is that it is all about the ego and selfishness. Nothing is further from the truth. In his book, The Art of Loving, psychologist Erich Fromm made this observation:
“.. it is a widespread belief that, while it is virtuous to love others, it is sinful to love oneself. It is assumed that to the degree to which I love myself I do not love others, that self-love is the same as selfishness. This view goes far back in Western thought…”
(Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving)
What exactly is self-love? It is the nurturing of our souls. It is the caring actions we take to enhance our well-being and cultivate our personal growth. Part of self-love is eating right, exercising right, resting right, thinking right, and giving ourselves enough space to ponder about life and understand ourselves. The nurturing and caring of oneself in no way means that we have to be uncaring of others. In our modern capitalist society, there is a tendency for us to think that we are in a zero-sum game, that other people’s gain is my loss, and vice versa. But is this really true?
The zero-sum game view of the world is often taken for granted. Perhaps it stems from the perspective of a corporate strategist — in a highly competitive industry, one company’s gain in market share translates directly into other companies’ loss in market share. But it would be a fatal error to apply this logic to all areas of human endeavor. Public health, for example, is not a zero-sum game. When the people around you get sick with an infectious disease, you are more likely to get sick. Thus, other people’s loss is also your loss. Public education is not a zero-sum game. If the people around you are well-educated and cultured, it means that you live in a learned community. That will enhance your quality of life. The well-being of our economy is not a zero-sum game. Does the economic demise of your fellow citizens benefit you? Mass unemployment does not bring overall prosperity. Environmental sustainability is not a zero-sum game. Does the disappearance of other species benefit humans? Can we survive the extinction of the bees, the birds, the fish, and other creatures?
The danger and falsehood of zero-sum thinking are highlighted prominently in our current pandemic and public health crisis. Does it really make sense for the affluent in our society to hold back healthcare from the poor? The Coronavirus does not make a distinction between the rich and the poor. Anand Giridharadas, author of the book Winners Take All observed, “Coronavirus makes clear what has been true all along. Your health is as safe as that of the worst-insured, worst-cared-for person in your society. It will be decided by the height of the floor, not the ceiling.” Who are the poor? They are likely to be the people who care for your child, drive your taxi, clean your house, serve you food, etc. When they are sick and not properly cared for, your own health will be at risk.
The truth is that we are all linked in our fate. The Buddhist worldview is that of Dependent Origination. It says that everything in the universe is linked to other things and is dependent on other things for its own existence. Because of Dependent Origination, the actions we take to hurt others will eventually be hurting ourselves. By the same token, the actions we take to help others will eventually be helping ourselves. This truth can easily be seen in our ecosystem. Anything we do to hurt the environment and other living things will create ripple effects that have a negative impact on ourselves. Environmental pollution is a case in point. If the birds, the bees, and the other insects are hurt because of the insecticide and herbicide we use, we may end up causing harm to the food chain and jeopardizing our own food security. Dependent Origination means that we live in a system. Changing any one part of the system has the potential to impact the entire system, for better or for worse.
The foregoing argument for considering others in our actions is based on reason and a kind of “enlightened self-interest.” We may also argue from a more personal and psychological perspective. We are discussing self-love. The very basic truth about love is that it is an ability that is regardless of the person. In his discussion about self-love, Erich Fromm made the following observation:
“Love, in principle, is indivisible as far as connection between ‘objects’ and one’s own self is concerned. Genuine love is an expression of productiveness and implies care, respect, responsibility and knowledge. It is not an ‘affect’ in the sense of being affected by somebody, but an active striving for the growth and happiness of the loved person, rooted in one’s capacity to love.”
In short, love is a general ability that is not person-specific or object-specific. Erich Fromm observes that William James thought that if one loves only one’s own family but is without feeling for the “stranger,” then it is a sign of the basic inability to love. This is so because love is not a calculated investment. It is not the giving of something in the hope of receiving something else in return. Rather, it is an expression of productiveness and generosity, without conditions and without looking for gains. If one is not able to love another human being, due to the low probability of earning a return, then why would one love the undesirable or the socially-rejected aspects of oneself? A selfish person would be just as unwilling to help others as he is unwilling to help himself. After all, he believes that love ought to be earned. If he sees himself as without merit and undeserving, then he would withhold love from himself also. It is the same self-seeking mindset.
Genuine love is an expression of productiveness. In contrast, narcissism is an indicator of one’s lack of productiveness. In this context, “productiveness” is about one’s ability to generate happiness and contentment from within, without relying on external stimuli or rewards. To the extent that one is not capable to generate happiness from within, one has to look outward to find sources of satisfaction. One is not self-sufficient. But because external sources of satisfaction are unreliable, one will always feel insecure and fearful. Do you think that President Trump is happy? Probably not. It seems that his whole life is driven by fear — the fear of losing popularity, losing other people’s approval, losing power and influence. But in desperately seeking to maintain power and popularity, he is sowing the seeds of his own misery. Even before any consideration of karmic effects, this obsession with power and popularity is hell all by itself.
Genuine self-love must start with wisdom and awareness. One has to see the true origins of happiness and sorrow. But this is exactly what most people don’t see, due to their lack of mindfulness. Our mass culture also is too distracting. It creates the false impression that the source of satisfaction is without. Genuine self-love must start with developing insights into the roots of happiness and sorrow. The education of the heart is imperative.