The Lost Myth of Love
Narcissism with nurture
My parent’s house has a medicine cabinet within a dainty, but beautiful old mirror hanging over the sink. It remained mostly shut as I recall, the inside unusable. Its shelves too thin. In the cracks between the shelving and the walls, old house dwellers tucked their razors into a gap. The blades falling behind the wall to be found when my dad repaired the bathroom and removed a dormant showerhead. When I was younger of course I was too small to see my reflection. I’d brush my teeth at night staring at the white walls finding shapes in the cracks or the splattered paint colors on the sink leftover from years of renovations. A little pink maybe or a bit of gray. I lost a good amount of time with myself in those years. By the time I could see my face in its entirety, during those precious moments of mundanity, I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I kept my head down, staring at the paint even then.
When I turned 16 it occurred to me I understood the world to be a vivid gorgeous plane and had somehow come to exclude myself from its loveliness. I was waiting always for some confirmation of my inclusion. Yet each admission was suddenly discounted by rules I had made up, friends, family they have to tell you you’re beautiful. I was tired of feeling the impossible outside of even the simple beauty I knew existed, that I saw in everyone. Fresh from the shower each night I’d brush my teeth staring at myself in that old mirror reciting what I thought was beautiful. The story of Narcissus was not lost on me. Instead, though I saw this ritual as a rebellion. To know the difference between narcissism and genuine love, what will kill you? What will free you? To not be captured, just caught by your gaze for a moment to say yes there you are. You are lovely. I know it and that is enough.
For this alone, I feel bad for Narcissus. His prophecy tragic in a way. He would grow old on the condition he never came to know himself which is why his reflection became a curse, a downfall. Though for me it was beginning. Strange as the wording may sound or suggest. It seems to know oneself begins and ends with a pool of water, a familiar face looking back. I think I understand what that means. As I got older, as I stood in bathrooms all over Manhattan and Brooklyn this continued gaze changed. The way when you are younger love is something entirely different from what you will crave as you get older. Suddenly this ritual wasn’t about my reflection, but the act of reflecting. It is hard to look inward with the intention of seeing. Harder too, to recognize who you were those years ago and offer the same complexity you give yourself now. Hindsight erases the memory of how it feels to be lost. We can be fatally vulnerable to our own self-judgment then. Only love is a way of seeing people and places and accepting them as they are, as they were. Love and knowledge then are interwoven. Like the saying goes, to know her is to love her. Yet it is precisely that which is so difficult. Looking back I wasn’t sure who that person was. I didn’t recognize her, not really. The question then becoming how do I love myself? How can I love myself? Standing in the apartment of someone who I know treats me badly and remembering who allowed this wounds recurrence. To see a familiar stranger in my memory, who has spent years of her life repeatedly doing what she knows she shouldn’t do. There came a point where looking wasn’t enough.
What will kill you? What will free you?
Culturally, love has lost its possibility. It is something difficult, not because it requires we look past judgment and seek acceptance, but because we have made it something it can never be: an emotion. In his book How To Be an Adult in Love David Richo writes, “Love is a force, but is sometimes called a feeling. When we imagine that love is a feeling, we may be disappointed because we notice that we cannot keep any feeling up and running all the time…Feelings have a beginning, a middle, and an end; love is ongoing.” I learned in my teenage years in my family bathroom something important about love, like a salve to my greatest insecurities. I could not love everything. There would be things I dislike in myself, but I could accept those feelings without consequence or malice. Love does such a service then, it carves out space for emotions and different dilemmas. We use it as a lens to view our life as it passes through it. Those things on our body we’d rather not have. Those nights in the mirror we wish we could redo. We can approach them and say I know you did something that you’re not proud of and though I’m angry I know my love is stronger. To then hold both of these things in the same hand and see love transforms anger into forgiveness. Love becomes the root, not the flower. We reap the rewards in numerous ways. Self-obsession or self-acceptance, love as gratitude, love as grief.
We look again, towards the past, and even though now we have love it still isn’t simple, but it is different. We say I remember you. I remember what it meant to want love so badly you stood in an apartment night after night with the hope that today would be the day they realized they had it. Today would be the day they gave it to you. They will not give it to you, but I will. Then we do what Narcissus couldn’t do, we leave our reflection behind. We return to nourish it when needed.
Self-love is often mistaken for narcissism. Narcissism though is love without nurture. That is what causes downfall. It reconstructs our image as perfection rather than allowing the space needed for morally neutral self-assessment. Narcissism doesn’t leave room for the ingredients it takes to change and grow. To know ourselves enough to see what needs mending. The act of extending love while also receiving it is a practice of being kind and allowing yourself the opportunity to be complex and real which is often flawed and disappointing. But if love is not an emotion then disappointment and love can approach us together. If you spend enough time staring at yourself in a reflective pool the water erodes the sharpest edges of most critique. That is the reward, I've found, in learning to both recognize myself in my reflection and to accept its appearance for better or worse. There is no emotion which doesn’t come with it a kind of gentleness. There is no night that doesn’t end with my knowing I am loved even if I am facing someone at the moment I feel I dislike very much. Lucky I am that love sees, love understands, love knows I’m greater than the sum of my feelings in one particular moment. I can no longer fatally wound myself with my anger because I know I am already in some ways forgiven.
People used to joke I was a narcissist, shallow, they told me to be at least a little modest. I walk the steady line, living still, not immortalized in mythos or stars. Still, I have not felt half as malnourished as those moments I waited for love to come from somewhere else, when I had so much of it to give right here. There is a death in indifference, but it isn’t so interesting to write. Perhaps it was a story told too long ago and has since been lost to years of renovation like paint swatches in a bathroom. There are traces though, there always are. You have to know where to look. I have spent many years staring at their shapes, and I think I can make the words out. They are written beneath a story of a man so beautiful he fell in love with his own face. They say,
Love has never killed me. Love has always set me free.
I like new years resolutions in some regard, though often they do not seem to come from a place of love. Or at least the love feels menacing and self-deprecating. You can see it in the rigidness of it, the pressure we put ourselves under, and the idea that when we forget to do something once we have broken the resolution entirely. I do not usually choose a resolution for each year, but I do try to roll over the resolutions that make my life better. My resolutions are soft usually focused on ideology. Changes that push me towards more joy. One year I removed the guilt in my guilty pleasure. I was tired of being ashamed of the things I liked and the pressure to always pursue intellectual media when in reality I really loved bad movies, reality television, and awful books.
Going into 2021 I knew I had enough success with my old resolution that I now had to make another. Mulling this over I realized I wanted to extend this bubble of love I’d curated outward. I decided to avoid pretentious or judgmental statements when talking to others about their new interests. None of the “oh you haven’t heard of that?” “You haven’t read this book yet! I read it in high school.” Because truthfully, that is a rare and simple pleasure, consuming the same things as someone else. The connection we make when we find we have similar intellectual interests or the excitement of someone reading a book you’ve also read. Somehow I had forgotten this. My friend does remind me every so often when I fall back into old habits so this will be a rollover resolution. I do bring this up for a reason. If you’re looking to change in the new year, root your journey in love. It may not be clear right away, but everyone will benefit.
(This is, as far as I understand it, an adaption of the myth of Selene who drove her chariot across the sky at night bringing the moon. She would visit her lover as he slept, pausing night, holding off the sun.)
“We live in a hard world, my friends. Sometimes it’s extra difficult to be a human being. Sometimes you have a bad day. Sometimes you have a bad day that lasts for several years. You struggle and fail. You lose jobs, money, friends, faith, and love. You witness horrible events unfolding in the news, and you become fearful and withdrawn. There are times when everything seems cloaked in darkness. You long for the light but don’t know where to find it.
But what if you are the light? What if you’re the very agent of illumination that a dark situation begs for?”
What do you think the first winter was like? Scary? That dying of the light. The cold creeping in. When everything turned bright beauty to dust and ash. What did they think? December 8th, 2021 4:40 PM
The days after the winter solstice are always a little brighter perhaps because we know we made it even if we can’t see results yet. December 22nd, 2021 9:28 AM
I was careful in picking a theme for January, perhaps a little superstitious. Last year I picked healing and found without fail each month I was faced with tender acts of forgiving and healing and working to move on from the pain of my past. I am better for it, but it was also difficult. I thought about what I might write about, what I might choose as a running theme through 2022 if I could. Love seemed like a great source.
It’s been suggested that we often see the self with more complexity than we do others. That when we do something wrong we wish people might forgive us, understand us, but extend the courtesy we readily have available for ourselves. I’m not so sure though. Sometimes I find it is more difficult to believe I could be imperfect and make mistakes and be forgiven.
Knowing this I wanted not to choose just love, but our more intimate love. The love we give ourselves. I knew I couldn’t tell you how to do it, my journey to visual self-love has been easier than most due to privilege and circumstance. I knew too how rituals of love are particular and personal and what worked for me may not work for anyone else. What I felt I could do, however, was try to illustrate what self-love looked like, its gentleness. That way, if you do happen to stumble across it, you might find its reflection familiar.
Next Friday my Paid newsletter comes out where we will be finishing our book group book (the Phantoms Tollbooth) and answering this question from B
I can’t help but think of where I’ll be next year. I’m jealous of that person. Because right now the stupid boy I like is with someone else. So I try and distract myself with what I’ll be like after I get over him. Who I’ll be when I graduate college in 9 months. I want to tell him but I don’t want to ruin his happiness. I guess I’m grateful for all the lessons he taught me. But I can’t help but think of the lessons to come. Is this normal? Or am I crazy?
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Here’s to Starbucks Fridays, Narcissus, mirrors, and the single hand which holds both love and anger