Departments

Selfishness

Foolish love of self is still more mysterious than foolish love of others. Loving others is obviously adaptive. Self-love is neither necessary nor helpful to survival. Our species that must raise its young for a decade or more must set strong social bonds, but the conditions of individual survival are the same for human beings as for other animals. The snake, the squid, the scorpion, fight as hard to live as we do, but they do not love at all.

Does love serve a purpose? With questions of behavior such judgments should hesitate. In animals so complex and complexifying as we, the most that can be proved of a behavior is that it is not maladaptive. The capacity to love does not harm the survival of the race. Beyond that, the fact that the brain supports love may be no more significant than the fact that the brain supports solving crossword puzzles. Everything possible with love is possible without love, if not all at once. And insects exhibit forms of social cohesion as strong or stronger than ours without any need to love at all.

If love is mysterious, then why should one object be more mysterious than another? But the trajectory by which you could love yourself is a mystery of its own. How can the self present itself to itself as an object of love? The introspective mind can think about itself only as a sort of mirror image that corresponds to it at every point, yet is not it – the mirror of Narcissus. But selfishness is cognate to narcissism, not collateral: a self-image of sainthood may produce narcissism with selflessness.

Selfish people are not self-centered. They do not pride themselves on their selfishness – they do not even see it. Indeed their most repellent trait is that they resent the selfishness of others without seeing their own, even when it is a double to their own.

The poets are wrong. Foolish love is not blind – love is blind only as the eye is blind, with a blind spot. The beloved may be ugly or stupid or cruel, but the lover who overlooks all these things in one person does not fail to see them in others. Lovers of ugly people do not otherwise surround themselves with ugliness; of stupid people, do not otherwise seek out stupidity; of cruel people, do not otherwise invite cruelty. But their judgment is not intact. It is always disappointing to meet someone you know only through their lover’s description. In these cases, it is more than disappointing; it is shocking.

The impairment of the selfish is another blind spot, only self-directed. But this explanation is only another mystery. How does the blind spot happen? In following the parallels of selfishness and foolish love we avoid the easy and wrong explanations of each. Chemistry, charisma, propinquity, neediness, passive aggression, codependency – these cannot come between you and yourself. They cannot explain the blind spot. Conversely we learn how incurable selfishness is when we compare it to foolish love. You can no more convince someone of the absurdity of their self-regard than you can convince someone of the unworthiness of their beloved. No logic will dispel it, no shock will unseat it, and the more absurd, the more intervention will be resented.

This long analogy is the preparation for a brief and severe conclusion: there is no way to prevent selfishness and no way to cure it. Perhaps in refusing to tolerate selfish behavior, in avoiding selfish people, you may nudge some cases away from the brink. But the pit is bottomless and those who fall in cannot be rescued. Their very sin is its own contrapasso, its own poetic justice. They lie in darkness where they eat their own hearts. Leave them there. May it not be one you love.