I wanna know what love is: Narcissism and the crisis of our age

For the past few weeks I’ve had this image in my head, of a guy standing on the middle of a bridge, rooted to the spot but looking forward, as if contemplating his next move but being quite unable to make it. The image came out of nowhere, unbidden, but hung around, and I wondered if it would morph into a poem or a short story. But nope — somehow it was attached to other thoughts, particularly stuff I was mulling around love and narcissism. The connection between the image and the thoughts wasn’t clear — until this morning.

In the meantime I had a conversation with a colleague who challenged me about those very things — love and narcissism, but also faith and hope. The takeaway was that my words about love were shallow; they didn’t ring true. Something was missing. In the moment, I was inclined to take the criticism on the chin. But on reflection I’ve realised that no, what was said resonated with the thoughts I’ve been mulling re narcissism. It also helped clarify the image of the dude on the bridge — who, I began to see, is stuck there because of agoraphobia; fear has made him immobile, impotent, frozen with anxiety. He can’t go forward, and he can’t go backwards. He’s stuck in the middle — as Bono would say, stuck in a moment and he can’t get out of it — alone and helpless. But more on him later.

I had more conversations later in the week. With church pastors and leaders, almost every one concerning the same thing: love and relationships. Broken ones, mainly. But broken in weird ways; broken because of fear, and suspicion, and anxiety. Broken because of restrictions and legalism. None of it made much sense, to be honest. These are spiritual leaders, after all, but the most important thing in their lives — love — is as munted as it is for the rest of us.

Something is wrong.

Even so, none of these thoughts and convos were hanging together, until I delved back into my study notes for a journal article I first read in 2000, one that set me on a path of trying to understand the dynamics of love and otherness and relational encounter, long before those ideas truly began to take shape in my PhD work and then at Laidlaw College, almost a decade later. The article is Alan J. Torrance’s 1985 piece in the Scottish Journal of Theology, The Self-Relation, Narcissism and the Gospel of Grace. The core idea of the article, and the one that I hung onto for years after reading it early in my undergrad years, is that there is an irreducible bipolarity in love (self and other). The most important implication of this is that love isn’t a feeling that one can generate alone — it requires an object. Love isn’t an emotion you generate from within yourself, and neither is it the relational connection, per se — love’s focus is the other, the object of love. Torrance goes further, initially to critique some theologians who, he argues, have advanced narcissistic views of the Self to prop up their own flawed theological frameworks, and says that it’s only in love that we begin to know ourselves; that self-reflection, and the striving for self-awareness, or self-consciousness, is a labyrinth that leads only to more and more searching and, ultimately, to futility. He says this: ‘Self-knowledge can only be realised and, I would argue, is realised, in the epistemic and relational context of love where, in being lost to the other (and where one’s relational objectivity is therefore at its most true), one comes to discern oneself through the eyes and mind of the other, in and through that very context of relationship for which one was created.’

In other words, he says, the Self is only complete (and can only be known) in the context of the objectivity of love. The process of surrendering to an other in love gives my Self an objectivity (makes it know-able) that self-reflection etc can not achieve. Why? Because self-reflection is like a dog chasing its tail, or a person trying to jump onto the head of their own shadow. The Self is always and inevitably one step beyond our reach, so that every time we make a move to understand it, the Self has already shifted; it’s the process of self-reflection that is the very thing keeping it beyond our understanding.

Which brings us to the futility of our age, and our age’s obsession with the self, and personal growth, and self-awareness, the idolatrous pursuit of our own divinity, and the fucking Enneagram, and Instagram selfies, and blah blah blah. I’m not pointing the finger outward here, because we all do it. Why? Because we’re obsessed by the Self in the absence — or the denial — of an other, or others actually, who we can genuinely love, who we can actually surrender to, whose otherness we can actually treasure. And I’m not only (and not even) talking about romantic love. When I talk about love I’m picturing relationships in every sphere: romance, friendship, family, professional, social. The truth is, we’re not loving well in any of them. And it’s not just because of narcissism. I think it’s because we have become so fearful of love that we actively seek to kill opportunities for it to flourish.

The core problem, I believe, is that we don’t know what love is.

Cue Foreigner:

I gotta take a little time / A little time to think things over / I better read between the lines / In case I need it when I’m older

And so on to the chorus:

I wanna know what love is / I want you to show me etc etc

What is love? It’s the thing that occurs when I treasure the otherness of the person I see before me. How do we evaluate it? Not by weighing ‘how much’ I love, or ‘how strong’ is the relationship, but by asking … Has love given the other freedom? Has love made the other curious? Has love allowed the other to dream? Has love quickened the other’s hope? Has love helped the other make sense of who they are, or enabled the other to tell their story? And so on.

I don’t fix a broken relationship by working on my Self or attending to the ‘relationship’ — I pay attention to the other; I surrender to the other; I treasure the otherness of the other; I enjoy the other. That’s where love directs my gaze — not to my Self, and not to the process or to the act of relating, but to the other who stands before me. (Those words always remind me of Notting Hill: ‘I’m also just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her’ … Julia Roberts, heart flutter moment).

The scary thing about love is that it involves real people, actual people, with particular names and faces and stories and idiosyncrasies. Love isn’t a feeling or an idea — it’s ALL ABOUT THE OTHER. And because it’s about the other, each love relationship is different — because the other is different in each case. This is why we try and refashion love, and make it anything other than what it actually is — because at the other end of the encounter is an actual other. An actual person. But relationships of love cause the other — and the Self — to flourish. That’s what love does. And when the other flourishes because of your treasuring of the other, that’s probably going to look pretty fucking weird to anyone standing on the outside (yeah, like the older, cynical brother in the story of the Prodigal Son — that kind of outside).

If we love well, our partners in business or friendship or sporting club or creative ventures and, yes, in romance, should flourish as a result of the very love that’s meant to exist in all those encounters. A professional business partnership, for example, in which love is the governing principle — in entirely appropriate ways — is meant to LOOK LIKE A LOVE RELATIONSHIP. For fuck’s sake, grow up people. A relationship of love that achieves good things in both partners because of mutuality, enjoyment, treasuring, and surrender, is a good thing — and it should be the goal, not an aberration. It should be the thing we celebrate, not the thing we’re most ashamed of.

You know, I hear more stories about love being quashed by fearful people than I do about love being encouraged. I hear more stories about narcissism masquerading as love than I do about love of the other in relational encounter. I hear more about self-help and self-improvement and personal growth than I do about surrendering to the other. I hear people asking me about how to fix broken relationships, but I rarely hear people telling me about the ‘other’ in their life, in a way that truly treasures the other. We are all looking in the wrong places, looking in the wrong direction, building idols to ourselves and our capacity to ‘love’ rather than just loving the other.

And when people do begin to give themselves the freedom to encounter one another, the narcissism is so ingrained that they often don’t actually see the other in order to treasure them — in those instances the other is merely a reflective surface, in which the ‘lover’ is able to gaze back upon themselves. It’s not otherness that is treasured, in those relationships, it’s the other’s capacity to mirror back to me how I want to be seen by the world.

Is it any wonder the self-improvement industry is so massive, when we are not free to love to our full capacity.

So, back to the man on the bridge. The ‘other’ waits for him, on the other side. His ‘self’ lies behind him, in the direction from which he’s come. The bridge is the ‘relationship’, or the encounter, or the connection. But he’s frozen, unable to either retreat or move forward, immobile from fear and shame and the accusations of others. But love lies ahead. The rewards are immeasurable. The ‘other’ is limitless. There is only joy on the other side — so much joy that to remain immobile makes absolutely no sense at all. Why can he not just keep walking, and surrender to the other on the far side of the bridge?

That’s narcissism. And the anxiety of our age. Our immobility. Our self love.

So, no, I won’t retreat. I’m here for the fight, because love is worth it. Am I gonna fuck up in the process? Probably, because I’m as bound up in fear and shame as the next man. But I’ve had this fire in my belly for the best part of 20 years, ever since I read Torrance, and in the intervening years I’ve known something of the joy that awaits on the other side of the bridge. Which is why I’m gonna pray that I don’t stay immobile in the centre, but that I keep my eyes on the ‘other’ and take the next step … and the next … and the next.

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