Self-Love Doesn't Require You to Become Huggy and Passive
on the tyranny of love and light
The idea of self-love nauseates some people. To some, it implies passive self-congratulation. There is a certain lifestyle that could be implied by the phrase, one in which you are a gentle, fuzzy creature, always smiling and hugging and dancing and frolicking, never demanding more of yourself, never encountering friction. A sweet, passive existence.
There’s nothing wrong with being endlessly sweet if that’s your thing, if that’s the state you arrive at when you achieve some state of self-harmony. But for a lot of people, trying to become a huggy love machine would mean flattening their identity. It would mean rejecting much of who you are in favor of obeying the Tyranny of Love and Light. There would be a falsity to it.
And you can see this falsity in some guru types, people who preach self-compassion. They’re constantly talking about loving people, and gratitude, and friendliness. But you just feel like what they’re really doing is self-promotion, boasting about their spiritual perfection. There’s a hint of rage and insecurity there. Or maybe they just want to get laid or be sexy. As the immortal words of McLusky go: “my love is bigger than your love, we take more drugs than a touring funk band.” They actually just want to be impressive authorities, and they’re not owning up to it.
But here, precisely, is the difference between love as a feeling, and love as an existential mode. The former is the good brain drugs. The latter is a willingness to be with the fullness of another being, to open yourself to anything they are. The former is not always available, because not everything makes you feel twitterpated. The latter is also sometimes unavailable, but it’s always a direction you can choose to explore, because it doesn’t require any special disposition, just the resolve to encounter whatever’s there.
Frequently, existential love can open the door to feeling-love. When you let go of your expectations for a given chunk of reality and yield to the muchness of it, there’s often a lot to appreciate. But not always, and not always straightforwardly! Sometimes you can open yourself to a tarantula and respect how many eyes it has without thinking it’s beautiful in the same way as your Weimaraner.
And when I’m talking about self-love, I mean the existential mode turned inwards. Looking at everything you are, and saying, yeah, that’s what I am, without hatred. It’s me, so it can stay. It has to. Even if that includes horrible mistakes you’d rather not have made. Even if that yes has an asterisk next to it, in the form of the desire to change, or live in deeper concordance with one of your principles. (Change requires seeing oneself accurately, and if you despise yourself too much to regard yourself fully, it’s going to be hard to change anything.) These parts of you won’t necessarily respond with warmth when embraced. It won’t necessarily feel like Love and Light—maybe it’ll feel more like a truce.
At the core of me is something I could call my Do Stuff Force. It’s a high-frequency emanation, bright and near-constant between the hours of 9 and 5, and intermittent, but often present, outside of that period. What it wants is action, discernment, judgement, making, and mastery. It’s the part of me that likes to pick apart and reassemble reality, to make sure that the paragraph is constructed just so. It’s happy when I choke people on the mat at the MMA gym.
That part of me doesn’t feel huggy. It doesn’t want to receive unconditional warmth. It is interested in conditions! It wants high standards, adversity. It can show love, in the form of making sure the pasta is just salty enough when I serve my guests, but it’s not loving in a cartoony way. It wants respect, and gratitude, and then it wants to relax.
And, when I hated myself, that part of me said, to my consciousness, “why didn’t you do this better, you piece of shit.” Now, that I love myself pretty much entirely, it doesn’t say, “whatever you do is beautiful,” it says, “okay, buddy, let’s maximize our chances of success in this meaningful endeavor.” Embracing it is to let it live in perpetual cycles of dissatisfaction—its ideal state is relishing the struggle of existence, not being totally chill.
It would be terrible if, in the name of spirituality and love, we tried to erase all of the gruff dads, and quizzical observers, and cutting critics, and striving athletes. We need people who live in conflict. It’s part of the human salad, it’s part of what makes us interesting. We can’t all be blissed-out chill people. We can end self-hatred without sanding off all of our rough edges.
If you feel a constant warm glow towards every part of your existence, that’s wonderful. But demanding that of yourself when it feels artificial isn’t self-love. It’s a form of violence towards the self. It’s just another form of self-contempt.