Does loving yourself really come first?

A while ago, I read an obituary for the lost of a love one. Please, could you look away from this screen for a few seconds and dedicate your silence to that very special person you loved who is no longer around. Thanks.

The obituary was reflecting on whether love can be defined as “giving to another before yourself” or as “giving to yourself before another.” I won’t mention the article nor the author since the subject came across to me as too personal to reveal its identity.

The text was making a strong assumption about the dilemma of love

sketched above. It accepted an unchallenged premise that was begging for the question: Why are there only two choices defining love by way of an “either/or” junction?

What do the outcome of preferring the “this and that” junction instead of the “either/or” junction reveals about the “either/or” junction? Aren’t we relapsing back to the “either/or” junction with a new binary choice between “either/or” or “this and that” junction?

If the solution to solving such problem could be narrowed down to two choices that obviously would make it easier to solve it. Fortunately, actual problems often have more than two choices. Nonetheless, let’s play along with the assumption of having only two choices to see if the assertion would still hold.

The statement was as follows: Love can be defined as “giving to another before yourself” or as “giving to yourself before another.”

The logic in favour of the second choice, “giving to yourself before another,” as the choice more suited to show love for another person didn’t strike me as unsettling, but rather cheeky and wickedly faulty.

It is not so because it leans more towards self interest than to altruism, but because further down the text the author gave priority to self interest with the clear intent of presenting it as true altruism and as true love. From there it concluded that a philosophy of self interest would be more suited to love one another.

The main reasoning behind the priority given to self interest is based on the belief that the self would need first to be filled with something before we could give away anything to another self or person.

However, the self is never empty per se. The self is born with a natural kinship towards its kins. We can witness this in the formative years of an infant’s relationship with its mother and the kinship that ensues.

From the moment the infant is born it naturally reaches out for the mother’s body as a source of warm, comfort and food. The infant is born in this relation of attraction and within an interplay of distances with the mother who comes to represent the self of the other.

The infant is unable to be self sufficient and yet the mother is in equal situation of bondage and attraction without neither of both having to hold to their self first.

This absence of strong hold to the self tells us clearly that under certain conditions we do not require of our self in order to bond with one another. We don’t need to be self aware and bond with ourselves first in order to bond with one another.

Obviously, at some points in our lives we gain self awareness and we bond with one another depending on the way we bond with ourselves. Only then, and up to certain extend, bonding effectively with ourselves reinforced bonding with others. However, bonding first with ourselves by way of self awareness is not a necessary nor sufficient reason to bond with others.

In the aforementioned text, the reflection went like this:

“In order to say ‘I love you’ you must first be able to say ‘I’. So, in order to love, you have to be able to express selfhood and individuality first. When I say, ‘I love you’ the ‘I’ has precedence over the ‘you.’”

Well, there is a problem here with such deduction. Even when the “I” has temporal and syntactical precedence over the “you” it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has logical precedence or that the temporal precedence overwrites the logical one.

When I say, “I love you” even when the “I” comes first we can’t rigorously stablished that because it comes first it is automatically more well defined than the “you” that follows. So, it does have precedence, but it doesn’t necessarily have more relevance or importance just because it is being uttered first sequentially.

Furthermore, to say “I love you”, certainly, we must first say “I”, but we don’t have to BE ABLE to say first “I”. One thing is to say it first and another to BE ABLE to say it.

We don’t learn words and their meanings that way. We don’t know first what the “I” is and then later what the “you” is. We have a more or less complete picture of both of them as we utter the sentence, “I love you.”

In fact, children shape a rough understanding of objects around them before they have a solid idea of what “I” means to them, even when they start gaining sketchy ideas of the “I” as they are call by their name and also see themselves in the mirror as a whole.

If in order to love another person we would have to be able to express our selfhood and individuality first, being individualistic actually would mean being more altruistic than the so called altruistic person. But obviously, this doesn’t seem to be making any sense and, in fact, it does not.

The individualistic position is truly trying to assert that there is a kind of individualism that can show far greater sign of being altruistic than certain kind of altruism. They do it, however, by dismissing altruism altogether if it were validated from a non dominant individualist viewpoint.

Obviously, this complicates things a bit. It is very hard not to see in any of the assertion that tries to validate an individualistic behaviour as altruistic or, reversibly, validate an altruistic behaviour as individualistic a sophistry or manipulation by semantic distortions of the terms at play.

It is worth noticing that by playing along with the idea of self interest as better equipped than altruism to contribute to the benefit of others we end up with an oxymoron. In that sense, nurturing self interest would encourage altruism and create a kind of self interested altruism.

We can also see this happening with another oxymoron currently in vogue. It goes like, “let’s go slow to go fast.” Or, to be more precise, “if we back off from the relentless pursuit of getting more done we actually get more done.” It sounds coherent, right?

The irony of this oxymoron is that in the way it is usually used it means, “let’s take a break to go faster.” Going slow is actually an strategy to try to go faster without burning out. To attempt to solve the problem of speed and acceleration by taking breaks to go even faster is not solving the problem of speed and acceleration, it is simply masking it.

When we express our intent to slow down in principle when in reality we would only slow down as an strategy to go even faster we are creating deception. Breaks should be taken with no plan and no certainty that going faster is what would eventually follow.

Historically, egoism is not just the stigmatised label that we give to some people when they are mean and horrible to other people. We have ethical, psychological and rational egoism and none of them are based on the assumption of its bearer being horrible to other people. On the contrary, they have solid philosophical foundations and have aimed to solving the conflicts between the individual and society.

Altruism has too historical bases and it would be naive to assume that all forms of altruism has contributed effectively to solve the conflicts between the individual and society.

Both, egoism and altruism have done their good and their bad. It is never the same the definition of a word and its historical embodiment. The obituary missed to highlight this historical element of the position it was holding to.

It let its phoniness see through by emphasising that its position was that of love without being able to disengage itself from all the historical crap of egoism. It took self interest from a metaphysical stand instead of using it in a heuristic way to validate as much our individual as our collective leanings.

A close friend, who I love very much, told me a story:

“My father would argue that the love in your heart should be already there regardless what others around could show you. I remember vividly reading with him “God’s Feast” by Ibn Roshd who is a great Middle Eastern Philosopher. It was a very hard book to read in terms of its depth. It shows how the human love to themselves and to ( creature ) are a kind of an instinct. The little child who is lost in the woods and raised by wolves. He ate and hunted like wolves, but was able to think alone about love to himself and to others. I will tell you more about that book but the precise message is that love to ourselves and to others ( humans ) is more like instinct. The only change ( towards hate ) is done later by others who teach and dictate it. That kind of love the boy learned from the wolves was only a kind of surviving solidarity. The love towards yourself and other ( strangers ) couldn’t be taught or shown by wolves. The precise message was ‘even though I was raised by beasts, I can still learn and keep my love towards others.’”

My friend taught me a lesson with her story: Love is already in us, but there is a higher love that is not instinctual. It is a love that can’t be requested nor dictated. It is a love that is not learned directly with lessons.

It is with the free and non survival love towards other humans that we can also discover the love for the human in us, for the individual human we are. We discover so when others’ humanity is reflected back upon us.



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Ulysses Alvarez Laviada

Ulysses Alvarez Laviada

Genuine tragedies in the world are not conflicts between right and wrong. They are conflicts between two rights. Friedrich Hegel.