At the cusp of adulthood, in the summer of 1990, I became aware that I had two modes of esteem and identification, which I labeled “what I love” and “what I approve of”.
I decided at that point in my life to embrace and identify with what I approved of and to distance myself from what I loved.
This choice might seems strange by today’s standards, but I will argue that this was a necessary and wise decision.
In the autumn of 1990, my friend Rob handed me a slip of paper upon which he’d typed a Rilke quote “A merging of two people is an impossibility; and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see each other whole against the sky.” I feel sure that this passage completed and sealed my choice.
I believe that taking this path allowed me 1) to cultivate a self-respectful (approved of) selfhood, and 2)to gain the distance needed to love someone else precisely for her otherness. “What is love but understanding and rejoicing at the fact that another lives, feels and acts in a way different from and opposite to ours?”
A capacity to love that which one finds compelling, admirable, but profoundly alien is a key virtue supporting living toward transcendence.
A capacity to form self-respectful collaborations with likeminded souls is also a key virtue in transcendent becoming — growing beyond one’s limits.
And, the wisdom of discerning selfhood and otherhood, and forming appropriate relations with each is necessary to avoid hating what you love and loving what you hate.
Today I am speculating on what might have happened, had I had made the opposite choice.
What if I had chosen to identify with “what I love”, and distanced myself from “what I approve of”.
Earlier, I mentioned that my decision probably looks pretty odd from the standpoint of 2021. Isn’t approval a cold, rationalistic standard? Shouldn’t we love ourselves, rather than just approve of ourselves?
But consider the consequences: If one identifies with what one loves (and what one loves most is one’s transcendent complement, what one is not) one tries to become precisely what is least possible to be. Failure is inevitable, and when it happens, there is a real risk that one will envy and resent those who succeeded — again, precisely those who are most transcendently complementary, those whom one could best love across distance as other.
And when one invests all of one’s time and energy pursuing an impossible ideal, this diverts time and energy away from the development of one’s own real potential. One’s real possibilities are neglected, and the self is left in an undeveloped state incapable of inspiring self-respect. As a substitute one authors a persona or adopts an identity and uses that as a substitute for selfhood. But this is a thin deception. The assertion of one’s persona or identity is a head-splitting whistling in the dark that barely masks the even louder shame and self-loathing looping beneath. Everything that threatens the illusion is viscerally painful and excites hostility.
Unfortunately, this speculation is not purely speculative — but, in fact, informed by observations of people I know and have known, and many others I’ve listened to from a distance.
And I am worried, because I suspect that this peculiarly selfless, but also otherless, state of mind might in fact be psychologically common, or even predominant in the last two generations. The strange, hyper-intense, symbolic politics of our age might be the projection of this inner hell onto the outer world.