“To say ‘I love you’ one must first be able to say the ‘I’.”
– Ayn Rand
To really be able to say “I Love you” and mean it, a person first has to not only be able to say the I, but have an I with which to say it—an I, an organized, integrated I, or solid self (a solid and integrated sense of one’s self and one’s limits, possibilities, standards, tolerances, moral compass, et cetera) that revolves itself around a set of sound life principles and ideals. This has to be in place before one can say and mean “I love you” with any stability, constancy, and soul force. Without a solid I, without enough solid self, the “love” we claim to have for another is meaningless—it’s just emotional, feelings; emotionally reactive discharge. It really means nothing; it’s just a reaction. And the person saying it is just a falling leaf, a plaything of circumstance, a wild and wacky reflex of the world. In other words, basically just an ode to Skinnerism and behaviorism—a zero and an empty box—nothing important or essential or solid going on between the ears.
The way to begin building a solid I is to begin a real relationship with one’s mortality.
“It is only in the face of death that a person’s self is born.”
– St. Augustine.
But which self? Our true self? Or our false self?
We each have two selfs in life, or we’re supposed to—we’re supposed to get a second self.
The first self we each have (to a greater or lesser extent) is born in the face of our fear of life and death and everything that is overwhelming and that threatens to be too much for us—thus this self is a self that tends to be dishonest, lacking humility, is into talking big and talking tough, but still ultimately runs, hides, avoids, spins out, is uncourageous, cowardly, in it for only itself. This is our false self, what is often referred to as the “ego,” and its maintenance and creation consumes for most of us the better part of the first half of our lives—if not much longer for some (many?) of us.
Our second self—our real or true self—the one that can actually love another human being—is the one that begins being born and taking shape and root the moment we stop running away from life and death and instead begin facing our fears—including most of all our own mortality. It is what can be referred to as our “soul” or “authentic self”—it is what is best in us, and what in us that transcends the ego.
This self is born in the ongoing honest confrontation with death, with our own and other’s mortality. That honest confrontation—facing our own and others’ mortality—and acceptance of our own cosmic smallness is what changes everything for us.
It makes us (helps make us) into more genuinely honest and truly decent human beings; it allows us to let go of so much of the cursed pettiness and to be more fully ourselves because it allows us (forces us) to finally face (confront) ourselves and come clean about ourselves. No longer do we wander through life looking to others and asking of them “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, tell me that I’m the fairest of them all.” No longer do we try to procure our sense of self by deceiving others with ourselves and trying to get them to speak well of us—no longer do we go for indirect or roundabout self-acceptance, no longer are we like those lost souls in Sartre’s play “No Exit“—instead turn our gaze on ourself and see ourself honestly, with no buffers and softeners—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
In Covey’s wonderful book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”—the confrontation with our own mortality is known as “Beginning with the End in Mind.” One of the exercises he recommends is writing our own obituary. I think that’s too facile—most of us have layer upon layer of neuroses and self-deception built up and practiced, and so we need to develop an ongoing relationship with our own mortality. But writing out our own obituary or imagining our own funeral and what others might say about us is a good place to start.
Because “beginning with the end in mind” allows us to start prioritizing our lives in a wiser way, to put first things first, to even draft a sort of personal mission statement (think Jerry Maguire, but on a more personal and not professional level)
“The confrontation with death—and reprieve from it—makes everything look so precious, so sacred, so beautiful and I feel more strongly than ever the impulse to love it, to embrace it, and to let myself be overwhelmed by it. . . . Death, and its ever-present possibility makes love, passionate love, more possible. I wonder if we could love passionately, if ecstasy would be possible at all, if we knew we’d never die.” – Abraham Maslow, written from his hospital bed while recuperating from a heart attack
From the motion picture “The Kingdom”—
FBI Director James Grace: “You know, Westmoreland made all of us officers write our own obituaries during Tet, when we thought The Cong were gonna end it all right there. And, once we clued into the fact that life is finite, the thought of losing it didn’t scare us anymore. The end comes no matter what, the only thing that matters is how do you want go out: on your feet or on your knees?”
Beginning with the end in mind allows us to start discerning and prioritizing what’s really going to be important to us ultimately in the end, and then to start making those things a priority in our life now, while there’s still time—that’s the essence of putting first things first, of picking our battles, of what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Because if we do so, we will likely be living a life with much less to regret at the end—and one where we wont have to play a lot of mind games with ourselves now and deceive ourselves now about not feeling regret when we actually are and ought to be feeling a lot of regret.
“Pendulum” – a private poem of my own, written about 15 yrs ago
To the end of your life
And dangle there
For a moment
And carry back with you
All your hopes and fears
And apply them now
To your existence
For soon enough
Will coalesce into fact
And the way that you have lived
Is the way that you will die.