We live in a culture with a desperate focus on personal validation and constant affirmation.
In a world of political turmoil, a raging global pandemic and the stifling, pervasive presence of internet culture, perhaps this reflex is warranted. That said, the ways our culture tends to pursue this affirmation is often strange and even actively harmful.
Much of our discourse about self-love is especially problematic.
Over the past few years, I have started to notice the rise of a very specific pseudo-philosophy of self-love permeating the media we consume on a daily basis, often presented in terms of “you’re great just the way you are” and “never change, no matter what people tell you.”
I think it is questionable whether this contemporary ethos of personal satisfaction is a healthy or even ethical approach to self-love.
While I am by no means looking to rag on well-intentioned attempts at mental health or imply that we should simply fold to the demands of others, I am concerned that there is a blind, superficial optimism at play here which might be doing more bad than good.
However, before we attempt to break down problems with contemporary notions of self-love, I think it is important to think about what it truly means to love something in the first place. After all, I think this entire issue has emerged from a much larger cultural misunderstanding about the word “love.”
Around this time last year, in honor of Valentine’s Day, I wrote an article that made the case for reclaiming a long-lost way of thinking about love.
In it, I argued mainstream notions of interpersonal love had devolved into overly-sentimental romanticism, defined by its unhealthy emphasis on emotion.
As an alternative, I offered a description of love put forward by one of the most profound thinkers in human history, 13th-century philosopher Thomas Aquinas.
Aquinas’ version of love is not some elusive emotional force that grabs ahold of its subject to induce vague, inexplicable bliss, as many see it today. Rather, according to Aquinas, to love is to simply “will the good of the other.” It is to actively choose what is best for someone, regardless of if it is comfortable or easy.
While emotion is certainly important, it cannot be love’s defining characteristic. Feelings come and go by the minute. If love is to be properly described as sustaining and unconditional, it must be grounded in the choices we make and hopes we have for one another.
That said, it is critical to note this does mean that we often give love to others by doing nice things for them. However, “willing the good of the other” also means upsetting, disappointing and even enraging those same individuals when it’s what’s best for them.
For instance, if someone is suffering from a harmful addiction, genuinely willing their betterment might easily become an extremely unpleasant experience for both parties. Love, as I feel many of us already realize implicitly, is not always cheerful bliss.
While all this talk of abstract philosophy may appear to complicate the dilemma at first, Aquinas’ assertion is, on the contrary, exceptionally rational and realistic.
I suppose a comparable concept might be the commonly made distinction between being nice and being kind.
Niceness is a superficial formality; a helpful but hollow tool for managing social interactions. The goal of niceness is to avoid conflict and maintain some sort of emotional stasis.
Kindness, on the other hand, seems much more akin to authentic love, allowing ample space for depth, complexity and nuance. To be kind to someone is to genuinely work for their betterment.
Moreover, as I am sure we all know, doing so is often painful and laborious. This could not be further from so-called “niceness,” which is easy and effortlessly gratifying.
With all of this in mind, we see that in order to truly love ourselves, contemporary notions of passive “self-love” are not much help.
When we flip “willing the good of the other” around and will the good of ourselves instead, a much healthier approach to self-love becomes evident.
We come to see self-love not as a complacent satisfaction with the status quo, but as a productive, critical assessment of one’s current situation: a willingness to change when it is best to do so. Obviously it is vital that you recognize and come to terms with your flaws, but it makes zero sense to think of them as qualities you love about yourself.
Again, this is a common-sense stance I think many of us already realize intuitively.
As we painstakingly stumble through these intense, troubling times, I concede that placing special emphasis on self-love is critical right now.
However, we need to be sure that we are genuinely being kind to ourselves and truly willing our own good. Simply being nice to ourselves, getting caught up in the pitfalls of contemporary ideas about self-love can only lead to more emotional distress.
Evan Leonhard is a 20-year-old English and philosophy sophomore from New Orleans.