“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” — Jonathan Gottschall
I once read that Steinbeck wrote that everything a person does, they do for love. The quote struck me like lightning, made it into my journals, but I’ve never been able to find its source. Paraphrasing an unsubstantiated Steinbeck quote seems more literary than quoting Marianne Williamson who writes, “see all human behavior as one of two things: either love, or the call for love.” Nobel winning male author. New age female self-help guru. Take your pick, whatever your proclivities dictate.
Love is a story we tell ourselves, and there are limitless ways to love and be loved. There are also limitless ways for us to shape our love stories. We’re not only addicted to stories, we are addicted to love, from the sacred to the profane. Lacking skill and courage, we usually seek love in faltering ways, simply doing the best we can with who we are and what we have. But the best love story is usually feebly fashioned during our lives, if at all.
Underneath the imaginative convolutions that I’ve listened to over the years, this simple truth has struck me, the one echoed by Steinbeck and Williamson: everything we do, we do for love. This is why I went independent years ago — while the mainstream phone service that I found myself working for focused on a character description, what kind of sex the character enjoyed, and learning as much nastiness as quickly as possible to turn a quick buck, I heard other stories coming through the receiver. When I listened, I heard that even in our so-called darkest yearnings, most of us are calling out for love, whether we recognize it or not.
I’ve heard volumes of loneliness from men surrounded by family, colleagues, and friends. The stories are usually similar: the feeling of being unlovable projected onto a fantasy object. The fantasy, i.e., the story, keeps facing self-loathing at bay, and the ego successfully shifts the focus from its feelings of lack, to a projection on what the object is assumed to provide. I believe this shift, or diversion, drives much of celebrity culture, capitalist consumerism, and modernity’s civilization of spectacle. This behavior has nothing to do with the realities of one’s outer life. It’s the universal human condition of finding one’s self unlovable, no matter one’s accomplishments, one’s status, one’s looks, one’s good deeds, or merits.
The Semitic religious traditions refer to this pathology as “the fall,” while Indian mythology and Buddhism call it Maya, the illusion that keeps us trapped in ego’s delusion. Without inner work, self-loathing seems to me universal and nearly inescapable. In itself, myth isn’t the answer, but it provides us clues to get us going in the right direction, to get us back to a state of grace, or love.
I’ll wear my armchair psychologist hat for a minute and assert that, biology aside, that when left unmitigated, this pathology leads to a wholly successful narcissism, the ability to compulsively, habitually, and unconsciously exploit others for one’s own benefit, a behavior reflecting a deep disassociation from one’s true self. “Lack of empathy” defines the narcissistic personality and sociopathy, in a kind of intense self-loathing, turned outward.
See every behavior as love or a call to love, no matter how deeply buried that call. This is how it looks to me, and it has become more glaring during my years of work. More recently, the journey into myself and my writing, with few distractions, a conscious practice of greater awareness, and swaths of contemplation have further convinced me of this reality, and of the need to live fully in life’s most important love story.
I believe that the greatest love stories aren’t the ones written out there, but the one written within ourselves. I’ve finally started living the truth, “I myself am the most deserving of my love and affection.” It’s a story unfolding in an unfamiliar landscape, a land that I’ve taken the long roads to enter, and an environment that I am easily and surprisingly getting used to.
A story will nicely illustrate. I adopted a cat from the no kill shelter, several lifetimes ago. He was older and had been dumped. Someone found him wandering around, homeless. A big white and grey boy, about 16 pounds, who needed all of his teeth removed. Older. Abandoned. Health issues. But I adopted him anyway. I soon lovingly referred to him as “The King of Everything,” and he accepted that role and his place in our little universe quite easily. One day, he was not too happy with the food in his dish (some of the best organic feline chow for sale), and let me know about it. “You seem to forget,” I told him, “that you were once just an abandoned old cat with little hope of a roof and food.”
He ignored me. He was worthy of all the love and affection of the universe, he was convinced, no question about it.
Takeaway: the learning curve for self-love need not be years long, according to cat wisdom.
This Valentine’s Day, I am writing the greatest love story every written. I’m deeply and wholly — or holy — loving myself, with all the care and affection that my heart can hold. No permission needed. Trusting myself. Enjoying the moment on its own terms. Refusing unnecessary baggage and anxiety. This seems to be the best story that stillness and awareness can write in our understanding — religion sometimes calls it the Kingdom of Heaven, sometimes enlightenment.
I embrace this love story, because I know that the more one lives this primary story, the more love stories proliferate from this sacrosanct nucleus. Spiritually. Creatively. Personally. Professionally. Not necessarily in that order. The first love story gives birth to another, then another, then another. Then suddenly the idea that there’s only love becomes real and palpable. Not because it’s been found “out there,” but because the primary love story has been brought to life, lived, made real.
This particular story about loving one’s self has been told for millennium, but we still rarely get it. Besides, as we evolve, we need new ways to reference the mystery of ourselves. We are addicted stories, and addicted to love, but we’re still not sure how to dissolve those barriers that we’ve built against it, walls that won’t be eroded with a Hallmark card, dinner and champagne, or a series of toe curling orgasms. Only through a radical return to our primary, most important story do those walls yield: the return to ourselves, and our most important love, the love from which all love finds its ground to grow.
My version of life’s oldest and least understood story, offered for Valentine’s Day.