Poets and mystics have said, “Love is the answer.” That rings true, in a lofty, abstract sort of way. But when the world is going up in flames, metaphorically and literally, an abstract answer isn’t what we need. And still, love actually is the answer, a very real, down-to-earth answer. The trouble is, we can’t see it that way until we’re willing to recognize the real problem, and until we’re willing to solve it. Hang in there, and I’ll explain….
Everywhere we turn, we see things that are terribly wrong. Climate change wreaking havoc on our weather, our food and water supply, and the entire web of life we depend on. Disposable relationships, broken families, suicidal youth. Growing concentration of wealth, and growing economic insecurity for the rest. Public opinion becoming increasingly polarized, with no willingness for dialogue. Virtually no loyalty from employers toward employees, and virtually none in return. A widespread loss of trust, commitment, and morality.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer variety and magnitude of our problems. And it’s natural to feel powerless when seeing how stubbornly the world is still carrying on “business as usual,” even though honest observers have been warning us about the trends for decades. We’re not powerless, but we’re not looking deep enough.
The problems we’re seeing are obvious, but they’re all just symptoms of a deeper problem. The deeper problem that’s actually causing all these symptoms is self-interest. Self-interest is the cause of our insatiable exploitation of resources, our devastation of the environment, our runaway consumerism, our lust for endless growth, our disconnection from each other, and our cruelty and indifference to cruelty.
And self-interest is what’s stopping us from doing what it would take to turn things around. People are generally so attached to self-interest that they won’t deal with it squarely—that’s why humanity hasn’t succeeded in curing the many symptoms of self-interest. We won’t seriously tackle any of the problems it causes, because we don’t really want to. Changing what matters would be inconvenient, would hurt the corporate bottom line, would require personal sacrifice and discipline.
When the handwriting on the wall says, “Something has to change,” people look for something little to adjust, something well within their comfort zone, some small way to feel better about how they’re living: “I’ll separate my garbage and recycle my cans. I’ll carpool.” We’re not willing to endure enough inconvenience and difficulty to make a significant difference. And we’re also not willing to look deeply enough at the very thing that most needs to change—our attachment to our own self-interest.
This is a very personal matter, with very personal, everyday implications for each of us. It’s the selfishness of people like you and me, not corporations and politicians, that’s at the root of all the problems. Ask yourself, if you dare: “What am I living for? Where am I coming from?” If I’m living for myself, if I’m coming from self-interest, then that affects everything I do and say, and everyone around me. And that makes me a small but significant part of the world’s very big problems.
I know about self-orientation, because I’ve seen it in myself, and seen its effects. They’re ugly, and hurtful. When my attention was focused on myself, it hurt my judgment and warped my priorities. It separated me from other people, and blocked my ability to appreciate their emotional reality. And it hurt the people I love and care about the most. It hurt the trust between us, the openness we were able to enjoy together, and how connected we felt.
Self-orientation affects love relationships very directly, because it’s the opposite of love. It’s the opposite of caring for our loved ones’ well-being, their happiness, and their best interests. It’s for self, not for the beloved, when any of us are…
… self-protective: Shying away from the vulnerability of revealing difficult thoughts and feelings, or expressing sincere interest in the thoughts and feelings of another. Holding back from doing or saying something helpful because of uncertainty about how it will be received.
… stingy: Giving what’s easy instead of offering help in more challenging, personally “costly” ways.
…inconsiderate: Not taking other people and their feelings sufficiently into account. Acting on the basis of preference rather than considering and asking what’s best for everybody else who’s affected.
… prideful: Having so much on being “right” in discussions that we keep justifying our point, or outwardly concede while inwardly holding onto our position. Being defensive, and slow to admit a mistake and apologize when needed. Resisting asking for help even when we need it, preferring to try to be self-sufficient.
It’s easy to look at that list and say, don’t do that anymore! And of course, we should work on eliminating the problematic expressions of self-interest we find in ourselves. But the trouble is, we’ll never have a complete list of the problems that come from self-interest. The problems are endless. And self-interest is a shape-shifter: We can prune it back in one area and it sprouts up strong as ever, somewhere else. The behaviors are not the issue; it’s the orientation itself. It’s where the behaviors are coming from.
To be fair, everyone has a mixture of motivations, some selfish, some loving. That’s just a fact of life. It isn’t actually possible to completely eliminate self-orientation from our lives and relationships. But every bit of selfishness we hold onto has a negative effect, and the ultra-sensitive ecosystem of a love relationship can’t take too much of it.
Well, how much is too much? We all know that blatant egotism is bad news for love. When a bitchy, demanding woman gets a new beau, her friends feel sorry for the unwary guy. When an egotistical man starts a new romance, his former lovers know it can’t last long. But a “normal” amount of selfishness flies right under the radar. Are we actually getting away with it?
We assume self-interest in any area of life is perfectly fine when it appears to be (or can be rationalized as) a “win-win” situation. For example, a business partnership in which the partners agree to cooperate for their collective success, or a couple with a pleasant sexual relationship. Who suspects anything wrong with that? Self-interest isn’t an obvious problem as long as everyone seems to be getting what they want.
But even when it’s mutual, the “normal” amount of self-interest is a problem waiting to happen. What if a difficult situation arises and the business partners have very different ideas how to resolve it? What if one of the romantic partners meets someone they find more attractive?
And more to the point, what about the ordinary amount of difficulty we all face in an ordinary day? How will we navigate it? When we’re up against the challenges of daily living, how do we react? Can we stay outward and connected under stress? Do we have the space to attend to our loved ones’ needs? Or do we default to a well-rehearsed selfish perspective, leaving our intimates without our love and support? When we habitually come from self-interest, we can’t be trusted by other people who depend on us.
Unfortunately, pursuing self-interest is as easy as rolling a log downhill. We naturally move toward our own comfort, convenience, and benefit, and virtually no one sees anything wrong with doing that. In fact, in the world today virtually everything runs on the principle of self-interest, even our relationships—almost everyone thinks of love as something to get and have, an acquisition for me. Romance movies and novels are all about it! But love isn’t about getting; love is about giving.
I know what real love is because I’ve received it. My friend David Truman was the most loving person I’ve ever met. He showed me what love truly is, and he also helped me understand the inner conflict I and every human being feels about love: We want it, and we’re afraid of it—afraid of being obligated, restricting our options, losing our freedom, being taken advantage of. We want to give it, and we balk at the cost—putting the beloved’s interests above our own, and doing what’s needed in the moment, instead of whatever we prefer or had planned.
David’s love was remarkable, because he had successfully resolved that conflict in himself. How did he do it? The way it’s always been done, by the rare souls who were willing: by squarely facing the endless problems caused by living for self, and choosing to live for love instead.
He not only demonstrated love in the way he lived. He also spoke and wrote extensively about love. Here is one of my favorite passages from his writings:
“Love is something that you do for the benefit of others. A loving person is truly concerned about the welfare of others and not—specifically not—about their own benefit. A lover works for the best interests of others consistently and lets the self-interest accrue as it may.
It’s very important just to realize what a lover really does, and how love works. You almost invariably find that virtually everything that is really loving tends to conflict with the program of self-interest in some way. This is why a lot of people don’t get too far with it. It doesn’t take them long to figure out that the whole thing doesn’t work for self-interest worth a damn in any immediate reasonable time frame that you could conceive of or look at.
Let’s say you’re in a relationship and love demands of you a certain sacrifice: You have to do something that looks like it’s going to work against your benefit, get you in trouble, or create a problem for you or an inconvenience to you of some kind. At that instant in time, if you simply go with your natural reflex toward self-interest, you would simply stop doing or refuse to do that thing that presents an apparent inconvenience, an apparent loss, an apparent disadvantage of some kind to self. You cannot follow the premise of self-interest very far and avoid eventually betraying people on that very same basis.
When it comes to the moment-by-moment decisions that a lover has to make, a lover couldn’t possibly be a lover if they were working on that basis of self-interest. They would simply be a selfish person making selfish decisions for selfish reasons. And they would have to evaluate every decision separately on that basis. It never ends.
Love is what you do when you have little or no chance to get something from doing it. Love is what you do when you are graceful when you do not get your way. Love is what you do when you are compassionate with people who make trouble for you. That is what love is.”
Obviously, to be a lover is not as easy as rolling a log downhill. Truly loving action is a conscious choice. So is selfishness, but too often we choose selfishly without even thinking about it. It’s almost second nature. But although self-interest may seem like second nature to us, love is truly our “first nature.” It’s our first nature speaking up when we feel our disapproval of other people’s self-centeredness. It’s our first nature speaking up whenever our conscience complains about our own selfish choices. So, in every moment of choice, we’re well-equipped to choose love instead of self-interest.
Choosing to love beyond self-interest doesn’t mean that we let people walk all over us, take advantage of us, or manipulate us. It’s not loving to cater to selfishness in others! When we do, it’s not really for them and their best interests, it’s for ourselves. We do it because we want to avoid conflict, to stay in their “good graces,” to keep getting what we want from them. Love responds to true needs and unselfish desires, and must draw the line at selfish demands that just hurt everyone. We may have to face their displeasure when we do that; it’s just one of the many sacrifices love demands of the lover. And truth be told, when we have to take a hit for love’s sake, so much the better. Wouldn’t we want our lovers to be willing to make a sacrifice for our well-being?
Let’s call a spade a spade: Love actually is the answer. But now, will we accept the actual answer, and put it into action? If your answer is yes, you’re not powerless, because you’re doing something that really matters. You’re a small but significant part of creating the only change that can truly heal this world and all its problems.
Your friends at LoveTrust