Love and the relatedness of things.
Those behaviors we subsume under the word altruism I hold to be nothing more than a service to one's ego, which has expanded sufficiently to be able to imagine the importance other people attach to their own lives. This enables the altruist, therefore, to gratify his or her own needs to feel important by saying words and performing actions which will serve the needs of others.
If Christ had said, "Love yourself in order to be able to love your neighbor," centuries of misplaced emphasis would have been avoided. The injunction to love one's neighbor, considered apart from the needs of the self, afflicts mere humans with what Reinhold Niebuhr has called an "impossible ethical ideal": the denial of self. According to Niebuhr, the impossibility of fulfilling this ideal reduces people to hapless, ineffectual creatures stewing in a cauldron of guilt--easy prey for manipulators and charlatans. What may be even worse, however, is the veil of moral superiority assumed by the self-appointed selfless, one which obscures their real motives and intentions--especially from themselves.
These notions are certainly not new. Aristotle in his Ethics observed: "But which is that which we love, the good as such, or the good relatively to ourselves?" He then responded, "The answer is that each man loves what is good in relation to himself . . . Each likes the other, not for what he is, but only for some benefit he can supply. Similarly with love based on [reciprocal] pleasure"
In more recent times, Walt Whitman declared, "I find no sweeter fat than sticks on my bones/Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself" Henri Bergson, the French philosopher, noted that, "when man first begins to think, he thinks of himself first" A book reviewer in the June 6, 1994, issue of the Nation put it very succinctly by declaring, "The truth of the matter is that most people's lives are interesting only to them ....Most of us are both the main actor and the only member of the audience in the drama of our existence."
James Harvey Robinson was more comprehensive in The Mind in the Making: "There is nothing else anything like so interesting to ourselves as ourselves. All thought that is not more or less controlled and directed will inevitably circle about the beloved ego.
It is amusing and pathetic to observe this tendency in ourselves and in others. We learn politely and generously to overlook this truth, but if we dare think of it it blazes forth like the noontide sun"
Does reliance on such conclusions mean that behavior which is normally referred to as "selfish" is morally justified? That aggrandizing the self at the expense of other people is somehow "right"?
Not at all. To blithely sanctify one's self-interest because one comprehends the centrality of the self to the self is to retreat behind that very same veil of moral (or perhaps intellectual) superiority which obscures the perspective of the so-called selfless altruist.
When the reviewer quoted above observed that most of us are both the main actor and the only member of the audience in the drama of our existence, she was echoing a theme persistent in the poetry and letters of the German poet Rilke, who was convinced that "in the deepest and most important things, we are unutterably alone" The corollary of this, for Rilke, is "that for one person to be able to advise or help another . . . a whole constellation of things must come right in order once to succeed"
To feel this "unutterable" aloneness makes us sharply aware that each of us is a microscopic speck in an infinite universe and, thus, in dire need of an escape from isolation. This very aloneness encourages an expansion of the self in order to understand the aloneness of other people and the importance they, too, attach to their lives.
In this way, fascination and preoccupation with and service to one's self transmutes into a vicarious identification with the aloneness of others and their needs. This is the necessary prelude to loving your neighbor, the real font of altruistic behavior.
If we wish to promote loving relationships among people, we must refocus our thinking. When the well intentioned children of light admonish us to love one another, it is like the nutritionist advising us to consume healthy food. Such prescriptions are desirable, even necessary, for individual and societal well-being, but they are after-the-fact directives which do not take into account the complex internal histories of the persons to whom they are addressed. Loving is organic; to be able to love involves an internal understanding of one's relatedness, a felt connectedness to another person or to anything else external to the person experiencing the connection.
We value that which we consider to be significant in our own lives, for our own purposes. Alfred North Whitehead has described the valuing process in this way: "Significance is the relatedness of things. To say that significance is experience is to affirm that perceptual knowledge is nothing else than the relatedness of things."
The respected modern psychologist Harry Harlow's experiments with monkeys led him to the conclusion that "the original infant love is an egoistic love, not of himself or the body image of himself, but simply of organic sensations and satisfactions, initiated by the reflex act of nursing and maintained by the pleasures of food assimilation and the relief of organic tensions"
As to the ages-old, sentimentally celebrated topic of mother love, possibly there is an egoistic element here as well. Harlow found that, with monkeys, maternal love is initially indiscriminate: a mother will respond with equal intensity to her own or to a strange infant during the first week. The monkey mother develops feeling specific to her own infant only after she has interacted with it for a period of time. Harlow maintained further that research at the Child Research Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Mary land, confirmed that human mothers behave similarly.
Mothers reading this will possibly dispute this contention. (Feminists will quickly note that all of the scientists involved are men.) The myth--perhaps?--that all mothers instantly bond to their newborn with eternal altruistic devotion will persist. If, however, Harlow's observations are correct, if it is true that a mother's natural maternal instinct intensifies greatly only when there is a kind of reciprocation from her baby, the implication is clear. Aristotle's contention is confirmed that to "like" or to "love" is originally (maybe even fundamentally) an egoistic thought or emotion. In the expression my little darling, the my may be just as important as darling.
If the very foundation of the thought/emotion/ instinct we call love is a feeling generated by an awareness of relatedness--a recognized possibility for escape from one's primal loneliness--then love is fundamentally egoistic in nature. Of course, as we humans develop, this self concern has the potential to become more noble and altruistic--the kind of feelings and behaviors extolled by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and by Paul in the thirteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians. This development must then be considered a movement from the calculation of self-interest described by Aristotle toward an ever widening connectedness of one's inner being to the world outside the skin.
In the undifferentiated chaos of its earliest days, the baby's clamor for general comfort and the satisfaction of its organic needs both expresses an unrational yearning and demands a response--a connection or relatedness to something outside itself. The baby's earliest demands originate within; they are not a response to a "contingency" of the environment, as the modern behaviorist would insist. However, as the baby becomes able to reciprocate the attention it receives, it becomes very aware of the connection it has to the mother. The baby comes to "love" this outside object which satisfies its needs. Also, if Harlow's observe tions are correct, the baby's responses generate intensified feelings of relatedness in the mother toward the child, which may be an unwitting expression of her own self-love.
However these thoughts or emotions originate, moral living--civilization itself--requires that we relate to other people in loving ways, that we recognize the need of others to place a high value on themselves and the worlds they inhabit. The necessary antecedent to behaving lovingly toward others is to value one's self and to feel related to the worlds each of us inhabit.
Those of us who wish to promote peace and solidarity as a social condition must approach our task with the kind of humility that Rilke points to when he suggests "that to advise or help another . . . a whole constel ration of things must come right in order once to succeed" If we wish to prime the pump in order to encourage an outpouring of good will among people, we must focus first on private perceptions of well being. If, as I suggest, even the feelings called love between mothers and their children originate in egoistic self-concern, then surely all lesser expressions of mutual self-regard which relate people to one another must be similar in origin.
Frank E. Jeffers is a retired school administrator living in Bartonsville, Pennsylvania. He studied political science at the University of Chicago and has spent 25 years working in education.
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|Author:||Jeffers, Frank E.|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1996|
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