Individualism is reductive. While being self-reliant in all things is an honorable goal, it’s also impossible because no human go can it alone in this life.
No matter how hard we try.
Doing so is seldom a matter of choice, more a symptom of an increasingly disconnected society that has lost the ability to forge deep, meaningful bonds. In the West, tech privilege means we’re constantly plugged into the internet but it doesn’t seem to have made us closer.
Or indeed better communicators.
Instead of using the internet for what it was designed for, i.e. bringing the world together, we’re using it to turn ourselves into brands. To many, the pursuit of fame and money matters far more than interacting with fellow humans.
However, our experience of being a human in the world isn’t the only one there is. What’s more, we are a social species and we’re undeniably at our best when we empower one another.
This empowerment comes in many forms. It starts with curiosity, leads to attention, and then turns into communication and even inspiration.
On a professional level, this is how collaboration happens; on a personal level, this is how love grows.
For five years, I wrestled major depressive disorder without outside input.
I couldn’t afford therapy co-pays and my household’s response is best described as resentful apathy. What’s more, I was far too incapacitated to reach out and ask for help. Unable to think, I became unable to write, which made my journalism career grind to a halt and left me unable to support myself.
It doesn’t matter that writing is all I could think about as it had always been my vocation. I couldn’t do it, the words that came out made no sense whatsoever together, like someone had vomited random chunks of the dictionary onto a page.
And yet, my late best friend Anthony insisted I keep trying.
Self-love notwithstanding, we all need a champion.
Like me, he knew writing was the one way I could save my own life and that being unable to practice my craft was killing me slowly. (Fun fact: He gifted me an annual Medium membership last July. He knew I’d feel duty-bound to use it because $50 is a lot of money to me).
I knuckled down, he died, I kept going.
Unpacking the many ways in which depression can destroy a life was a hard slog and continues to be, but it helped me break free from isolation.
Anthony and I had known each other my entire adult life. He trusted me to overcome this latest predicament the same way I had overcome all others.
I was doubtful but curious; he provided the initial spark.
Together, we ignited a fire.
Have you ever looked at another human and thought they were love incarnate?
Anthony was, and so is my beloved stepmom, both humans keenly attuned to the needs of others and generous with their presence, time, and attention.
I’m reminded of this whenever my friends in the Netherlands video-call their parents abroad. The love they share fills the room from across the miles and I feel it clearly even though I’m only a silent observer.
“You are love,” I think quietly to myself every single time as my heart swells with gratitude for their presence in my life.
Here’s the thing: If you cannot indeed love others before you love yourself, self-love isn’t an end in itself but the precursor to all others kinds of love.
Capitalism and individualism place a premium on self-love at the detriment of fellow feeling. This comes through in how we relate to one another. Many of us process feedback as if it were a personal aggression rather than well-meaning input because our egos are out of control.
We are selfish and grabby and high on self-importance while forgetting we are part of a world that includes other people. But if we don’t make an effort to get to know our fellow humans, how can we ever truly know ourselves? We need others to thrive. Children learn by imitation, don’t they?
But what if love was missing when we were growing up? Does it mean we can never know what it is? Is unloved a label that can be assigned to us at birth?
Does the absence of love at any stage of our life makes us outcasts and condemns us to loneliness and isolation?
Having been or being unloved does not prevent you from loving.
Take a simple example: Even a human who has been deprived of love will be able to build a bond with a pet because doing so is instinctive. And most of us like fluffy creatures.
Granted, a dog or a cat may be easier to trust and surrender your heart to than a human, especially if you’ve been hurt in the past. Think of pets as teachers who can help us relearn how to be a human in the world.
During the five years I was left to hold my own hand, my two cats delivered all the love I wasn’t getting from anywhere else, without judgment. Whether it was selfless is another matter; I have thumbs and they do not. My ability to open cans may have something to do with their ongoing appreciation of my person.
I grew up with an abusive mother who has never felt comfortable in her own skin so I didn’t know what a hug was until I was 17. It has since then become my favorite thing in the world, but only when it’s heartfelt, solid, and a genuine expression of appreciation and care.
But hugs take people and this is where self-love will always fall short; unless you have exceedingly long arms, you can’t hug yourself. Trust me, I tried. Then again, the perfunctory North American squish doesn’t do much for me because it can be as phony as the toothy grin, as if it were a performance.
A hug takes heart, so much heart.
In a culture obsessed with fame and profit, most of us hide behind a carefully curated exterior.
The goal isn’t so much to connect with others but to figure out how useful they can be to you. When interactions become purely transactional, love bails.
There’s no place for anyone else in our lives when we’re so wrapped up in ourselves. No wonder then that many turn to self-love as the answer to everything; it’s so much easier to focus only on yourself without taking anyone else into account.
Despite self-love, many of us still yearn for the presence of others, for mutual appreciation societies of two or more, for a sense of belonging.
The funny thing is that the minute you get out of your head and focus on others, those who are similarly wired tend to do the same because curiosity is a great enabler.
Love is a skill and we all have it; like many skills, it tends to be useless unless we hone it and share it.
Love is always a choice; you can hoard it for yourself or you can spread it around.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.