Love comes from the sun
The rain helps it
It goes round and round
Then falls to the ground
It falls on people who are sad and makes them feel glad
Six-year-old Mia wrote her masterpiece and passed it to her mother. Her mother smiled and pinned her daughter’s chef d’oeuvre to the fridge.
Undoubtedly, love has lined the fabric of my mind from the moment that lyrical expression seared my fingertips. My first poem portrayed love as a feeling as integral to my world as the weather. I did not know what love was, but when adults spoke to me of it, they alluded that without exception it was good.
Good things, six-year-old me know, were to be sought. Somewhere in the turmoil of strops, the satin sweetness of a child’s meandering curiosity and the confusion of a trillion sights that would one day adhere into that wondrous entity – a personality – I realised that I had quietly become an adult. Adulthood, I understood, entailed the bittersweet realisation that love is too complicated to be simply good.
I stumbled upon love in a road paved with the beating hearts of those that I had cried with. I could step on these hearts, puncturing their sweet tissue with a heavy heel. Every stride threatened those that had opened themselves to me. Family; friends; pets; lovers; the dead and the living. And yet, by some irony, they speckled the trail upon which I needed to step to survive. How strange to need those whom we must hurt.
I learned that love did not fall from the sky as my young self had supposed. It came from inside of our chests. My heart, I knew, tiled others’ paths. My heart was not safe from their steps. I could hold her – the pink, greasy, undulating mass that devoted herself entirely to my being without protest – and pass her with care to those whose tread I hoped would be forgiving. I prayed that she would know the good kind of love.
But what of the times when she was taken by those who kneaded and blemished her? The shame of such an exchange haunted me. How to revive the earnestness of a heart that was once naked, trusting, hopeful, when it had been shunned?
I was introduced to the notion of self-love when I grew to engage with mindful practices. Whilst mindfulness meditations taught me how to experience life as it was, I was informed that such focus was insufficient for cultivating a mindful existence. There was a second, trickier step: self-compassion. Self-compassion embodies the acceptance of any feelings that arise, including those that we are inclined to suppress: jealously, shame, anger, bitterness. My emotional homework was to learn to accept these feelings to which I had always been averse. I should even grow to perceive them as lovable.
Unsurprisingly, loving the grisly bits transpired to be very challenging. I viewed the prevalence of my dignity and grace as being dependent on my armour of decidedness: I am strong. I considered my strength to have arisen from a spring of assuredness and drive. Any emotion that evaded this narrative was an unwanted spare part to be monitored and restrained. I was resolute in my pursuit of becoming the bionic woman, immune to insecurity and programmed to incline only towards the rational. I did not deny the excess human in me – virus to the smooth mechanical Mia – but I wished it callously away.
I was not as much of an adult as I had thought. Forcing yourself into aligning with your ideal of the strong is the opposite of love. I love you so I want you to be perfect is not a statement of love at all; it is cruelty. It is false to love only a distant entity that embodies those parts of yourself that conform to ‘perfection’.
The importance of self-love can be understood when we acknowledge that usually we are not the ideal versions of ourselves. Our deepest insecurities are confirmed to us by those who stamp upon the sores of our hearts. Often, these are the crevices that we have always feared are worth nothing more than to be hatefully trampled. Others’ responses to our less likeable traits confirm that our self-hatred is aptly inflicted. After we have been rejected for elements of the self that we fear weaken us, it is easy to turn upon ourselves with cruelty. Thus, the anxiety surrounding our vulnerability, bitterness and shame becomes traumatic emotional luggage.
Such shame is actively encouraged. For example, women are conditioned to embrace the ‘virtue’ of modesty. Fairytale princesses embody purity because they are ignorant to their own beauty and are willing to accept the nasty stepmother’s subjugation. It is their lack of regard for their virtues that makes them desirable. Admitting to our own propensities and talents is often undermined as arrogance: acknowledging our worth means parting with the allure of our soft, effeminate submissiveness. The potential humiliation of giving the impression that our self-worth overestimates our actual abilities is overwhelming. But knowing your strengths is not arrogance. Arrogance arises when we consider ourselves to be superior to others: arrogance is isolating. Conversely, confidence is very unifying. In as much as confidence elevates our own self-worth, we actively notice the strengths of those around us; we open ourselves to the exquisite poetry that animates those we love. Confidence is not a measure of talent, but a recognition of the beauty that inhabits the human ability to feel, to try, to explore. Confidence means understanding the traits that can permeate our souls with passions, daydreams and delights. It means being comfortable enough in ourselves that others are not our competitors but our comrades. It is a celebration of the romantic.
‘Self-love’ is commonly affiliated with the arrogance that renders seeing the self as ‘special’, a phrase which is assumed to require a comparatively un-special population with which to compare. But noticing your gifts does not – and should not – mean disregarding the unique and precious cargo that lines the souls of others. Specialness is not exclusive; its very nature depicts an originality that mutates to form a different silhouette for every being. Identifying your specialness does not mean negating that of others; it simply entails discovering what form your particularity embodies in the moment. Allow yourself to be electrified by your breed of special. As it accompanies you on your journey, it reshapes to adjust to your experiences. You may fall in love with yourself over and over in a lifetime. You are the greatest love story ever told.
Romantic love is the more ferocious strain of self-celebration; let us now explore its calmer obverse. Befriending yourself is the more meditative love that we can all cultivate. It is required because the romantic – as anyone who has ever been in love will doubtless know – can be as violent as it is sublime. The electricity of our romance can be tenderly dissipated into amity. This is to quell the excess of romantic passion that is at risk of being redirected to self-criticism. And this redirection is inevitable; our emotional gravity beckons for our greatest highs so that they dissolve into tragic comedowns. Doing something courageous can incite a tyranny of self-celebration: perhaps you stood up to the school bully or told a scumbag ex where to go. I am brave, you will tell yourself. I am valuable because I have become the person that I admire. And whilst your mind is aflame with awe, this excitement can be curbed into despair if one day you fail to live up to your own standards of worth. Friendship is the gift that we must ask lovingly of ourselves to supplement this most tempting of tempests. It is the foundational calm that gently kisses us goodnight after a long day. It does not ignore our less likeable traits; it tends to them as wounds and lets them bleed without apology. It fondly traces the pattern of our laments. It teaches us to love ourselves as we love our friends, and then shows us with patience to love our enemies the same.
I cannot claim to have mastered self-compassion, but I have been fortunate enough to have stumbled upon some powerful advice: avoid adhering to a strict idea of identity. For example, one might find solace in having pride in one’s ‘strength’; after all, only a strong person could experience what you have and maintain emotional resilience throughout. But attaching ourselves to labels such as ‘strong’ may lead us to feel that we have betrayed our very essence if one day we feel utterly overwhelmed. The same goes for labelling ourselves as ‘friendly’, ‘independent’, ‘optimistic’. It is not possible to abide by these character standards at every moment. The idea of accepting our present selves – warts and all – can be painful because it means relinquishing our idea of an engrained, ideal self. But truly accepting yourself means paying attention to all sensations, thoughts and feelings with a soft surrender to impermanence. The internal clarity that develops when we practice self-compassion is a healthy step towards gaining a more astute intuition about who will tread more softly upon our own hearts, and whose hearts we might be inadvertently trampling.
Nietzsche has something to say on the matter. He introduces ‘amor fati’ – a love of one’s fate – as a means of embracing tragedy. We are conditioned to embrace the wondrous, the witty, the loving: and so we should. But we can also gift ourselves our shadows as we warm them with song:
I dreamt of love one quiet day
I dreamt it but I let it stay
And when it hailed me from sleep
I felt it linger; felt it seep
I thought that it would wonder far
And yet it settled in my scars
I asked ‘Why them? The broken parts?
It sang ‘My love, our pain is art’
- Amor fati, love of fate
(a poem I wrote upon the realisation that love does not in fact come from the sun)
The romantic and the gentle reside within us. I hope that we can learn to treasure the wonder in the souls of others, whilst nourishing the splendour of our own.
If you simply cannot get enough of amor fati, here is some light-hearted related content that I recorded with a friend (excuse the coronavirus reference at the beginning, it was recorded a couple of months ago before it ravaged us):
Illustration by Saoirse Akhtar-Farren