Self Love

Self-love is benign self-compassion, not malignant self-centeredness, which unfortunately we call narcissism. Narcissism refers to a metaphor that describes a particular state of mind in which the world appears as a mirror of the self. It is used as an expression of unprincipled self-preoccupation. Even at that level of reading, as Thomas Moore says, “Narcissus falls in love with his image [and] discovers by his own experience that he is lovable.” We tolerate better, and in fact find warmness in, such self-love when we see it in children.

This positive view of the myth of Narcissus tells a story of transformation through self-love. The word narcissism derives from the classical Greek myth, in which the main character, a youth called Narcissus, falls in love with himself. The child, in fact, is so beautiful that not only he but everyone else is in love with him. In his self-absorption, he is unable to relate to anyone, never mind being able to love another. The closest he gets to anyone is to a nymph (ironically called Echo), who can only repeat what she hears. She becomes a mere voice reflecting him. Isolated and unengaged, he gazes at his own image in the water and yearns only for himself. As he reaches down to touch his reflection, he disappears into the abyss of the waters of the river Styx. Ultimately what remains in his place is a flower, a yellow-centered daffodil with white petals — The narcissus.

Although Western psychology generally interprets the myth as Narcissus drowning in his own pathology, in fact the story has less to do with being destroyed by one’s self-preoccupation than with the ultimate salvation inherent even within the most desperate of us. It is the story of transformation from one form of nature to another — a boy who becomes a flower. In such a transformation, the boy becomes a part of a larger whole.

In self-love, there is a potential for being part of the whole. In this sense, self-love engenders a feeling of union with the rest of nature. It is a mutual self-love, a form of communion among the creatures. This is a merciful self-love, healthy narcissism and, far from being pathological, it is very much needed as a basic ingredient for attachment to and love of others.

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