Today at the farmer’s market, a man handed me a postcard that reads ” If you’re not working on yourself, you’re not working.” An apt reminder for me. What do we spend most our time working on? Generally that which pays our bills, and perhaps after that, some sort of external, creative project. Something we affect, manipulate outside of ourselves. To accept that working on ourselves is worthwhile is to accept that transforming our individual experience is possible without changing anything outside of ourselves.
I often wish the job that I get paid to do could be more closely tied to the internal work of self-transformation that I am engaged with. I wish that we could speak more openly, systematically about the process of working on ourselves, and not only at the watercooler, but as part of the bulk of our work. We should question our patterns and wonder about the way we do things. We should consider our past, reflect on our assumptions and judgements, destabilize what we think is our unchangeable way of being, brush our teeth with the opposite hand. We ought to know ourselves intimately, and possess ourselves fully.
Recently, my pops recommended I read “The Art of Loving” by Erich Fromm. It is a very short, completely digestible volume that I recommend to absolutely everyone. I am moved also to write about self-love, and yet so aware of the hippie, mushy, cliche of that statement. But, actually, it is revealing of our culture’s limitations that speaking of self-love has been stigmatized. Any kind of love begins first with love of self. One’s relationship with oneself is a reflection, a microcosm of one’s relationship with everyone, everything else outside.
What can it mean to truly know and love oneself? And how does that kind of love affect the way we exist in the world? And how can our existence in the world as self-loving individuals, affect our communities, societies, countries, world?
Here is a trimmed version of the introduction to the book I just mentioned. I hope you will read the book, and I hope it will encourage you to make the work of the self a greater priority in all that you do in your life.
“Is love an art? Then it requires knowledge and effort. Or is love a pleasant sensation, which to experience is a matter of chance, something one ‘falls into’ if one is lucky? This little book is based on the former premise, while undoubtedly the majority of people today believe in the latter.
Not that today people think love is not important. They are starved for it; they watch endless numbers of films about happy and unhappy love stories, they listen to hundreds of trashy songs about love – yet hardly anyone thinks there is anything that needs to be learned about love…
Most people see the problem of love primarily as that of being loved, rather than that of loving, of one’s capacity to love. Hence the problem to them is how to be loved, how to be lovable… Many of the ways to make oneself lovable are the same as those used to make oneself successful… As a matter of fact, what most people in our culture mean by being lovable is essentially a mixture between being popular and having sex appeal.
A second premise behind the attitude that there is nothing to be learned about love is the assumption that the problem of love is the problem of an object, not the problem of a faculty. People think that to love is simple, but that to find the right object to love – or to be loved by – is difficult… Our whole culture is based on the appetite for buying, on the idea of a mutually favorable exchange. Modern man’s happiness consists in the thrill of looking at the shop windows, and in buying all that he can afford to buy… He (or she) looks at people in a similar way… Two people thus fall in love when they feel they have found the best object available on the market, considering the limitations of their own exchange values… In a culture in which the marketing orientation prevails, and in which material success is the outstanding value, there is little reason to be surprised that human love relations follow the same pattern of exchange which governs the commodity and the labor market.
The third error leading to the assumption that there is nothing to be learned about love lies in the confusion between the initial experience of ‘falling’ in love, and the permanent state of being in love, or as we might better say, of ‘standing’ in love. If two people who have been strangers, as all of us are, suddenly let the wall between them break sown, and feel close, feel one, this moment of oneness is one of the most exhilarating, most exciting experiences in life. It is all the more wonderful and miraculous for persons who have been shut off, isolated, without love. This miracle of sudden intimacy is often facilitated if it is combined with, or initiated by, sexual attraction and consummation. However, this type of love is by its very nature not lasting. The two persons become well acquainted, their intimacy loses more and more its miraculous character, until their antagonism, their disappointments, their mutual boredom kill whatever is left of the initial excitement. Yet, in the beginning they do not know all this: in fact, they take the intensity of the infatuation, this being “crazy” about each other, for proof of the intensity of their love, while it may only prove the degree of their preceding loneliness.
This attitude – that nothing is easier than to love – has continued to be the prevalent idea about love in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love. If this were the case with any other activity, people would be eager to know the reasons for the failure, and to learn how one could do better – or they would give up the activity. Since the latter is impossible in the case of love, there seems to be only one adequate way to overcome the failure of love – to examine the reasons for this failure, and to proceed to study the meaning of love.
The first step to take is to become aware that love is an art, just as living is an art; if we want to learn how to love we must proceed in the same way we have to proceed if we want to learn any other art, say music, painting, carpentry, or the art of medicine or engineering…
If I want to learn the art of medicine, I must first know the facts about the human body, and about various diseases. When I have all this theoretical knowledge, I am by no means competent in the art of medicine. I shall become a master in this art only after a great deal of practice, until eventually the results of my theoretical knowledge and the results of my practice are blended into one – my intuition…
the mastery of the art must be of ultimate concern; there must be nothing else in the world more important than the art… And maybe, here lies the answer to the question of why people in our culture try so rarely to learn this art; in spite of their obvious failures: in spite of the deep-seated craving for love, almost everything else is considered to be more important than love: success, prestige, money, power… Could it be that only those things are considered worthy of being learned with which one can earn money or prestige, and that love, which ‘only’ profits the soul, but is profitless in the modern sense, is a luxury we have no right to spend much energy on?”
Erich Fromm, “The Art of Loving”