“When two people are really happy about one another, one can generally assume they are mistaken.” -- Goethe
“Today, Mrs. Beck is going to teach you all about love,” I preface as an introduction to Romeo and Juliet. Boys in deep slumber resurrect in their chairs and girls stop looking at their phones. As they all start suspiciously smiling at each other, I think: this is it-- I finally found the secret to engagement. I pray to God an administrator doesn’t evaluate me because for one he won’t understand, and two, real life material doesn’t show up on standardized tests; therefore, this would be seen as a waste of time. However, before skills tests, for thousands of years people told these stories as a way of morally and intellectually instructing our youth. Even Jesus, I hear, told a few of them, and they were really effective.
I did get evaluated with one of those dreaded, unexpected “walk throughs,” where someone comes in with an i-pad and finds the most clueless student in a class of 30 to ask “What are you working on?” I’m convinced the state pushes this tactic to justify underpaying teachers.
And I did get a walk through, but he was a nice person and this was before the STAAR test, so evaluations were more humane. “I don’t know what you were talking about, but those students were mesmerized,” he later said to my surprise. (They are never mesmerized when preparing for skill assessments.)
He walked in about the time I was telling them a mythological story explaining why our relationships never work out. It came from the playwright Aristophanes who explained that we humans were once perfect meldings of two people, perfectly paired and completed by our ideal partner. But in our perfect state of bliss, the meldings (the two people stitched together) neglected to worship the gods. There was no suffering and, therefore, no perceived need of a god. So, as a consequence, Zeus split and scrambled and scattered them across the universe, so that even today, we would never find each other again. Yet, still, the emptiness and desire for our other half, our soulmate, our Sleepless in Seattle, remains so strong that we’d mistakenly become infatuated with the very people we hope to complete us, in other words, whoever best mirrors our own ego.
I wish I could say I got this because I know everything about mythology, but I don’t. I will say that everything I know I have read from books. I actually got this from Elizabeth Gilbert who is a master at infatuation. Gilbert is known for Eat, Pray, Love where she finds herself and a new man at the end of her travels. She followed the book with Committed, a book more academic than romantic as she tries to make peace with having to marry the guy she meets and the end of Eat, Pray, Love. Of course, I was disappointed when Gilbert later left her Don Juan for her best girl-friend, but only because I had actually read Committed and felt invested in the other “committed” relationship. Her girlfriend, sadly, was dying from cancer and has since passed. A year later, I heard she had fallen in love again, but I digress.
Gilbert made me understand something I wish I had known in my youth, and when I say youth, I mean 10. Until Gilbert, I had no way of understanding the most classic misunderstanding of all time: infatuation--otherwise known as narcissistic love.
As we find out in Romeo and Juliet where they become smitten overnight and then commit suicide in about a span of four days, it isn’t at all innocent or for that matter rational (nor did Shakespeare mean for it be a love story). Elizabeth Gilbert points to brain scans of people so called “falling in love” compared to those addicted to cocaine, both resonating with the same activity. You become “addicted to love,” “hooked on a feeling,” or just plain pathetic “I can’t live, if living is without you.” But is it really the other person you can’t live without or is it just yourself?
Gilbert points to Freud’s definition: “Infatuation is the over evaluation of the object,” which is not only over evaluating but pure projection. When infatuated, you see what Narcissus sees when he falls in love with his own reflection. You try this person on for size, looking in the mirror, liking the way you look with him, but more importantly, liking the way you feel (it really isn’t about the other person). The ego implodes with delight, but then turns into a crackhead, constantly needing another hit, looking for more supply, and then going into withdrawals when the object has other plans or seems to be enjoying life without you.
This discovery made me more interested in learning more about the ego. In my recent study of the ego, I’ve discovered something which explains why people are rude, or overly critical, or just plain mean. The ego can’t feel empathy because that would negate the ego. And what’s worse, the ego is a shallow little entity who pathetically needs to feel superior in order to feel complete. In relevant terms, angry little internet trolls are born, prowling around like lions, seeking prey they may devour. (Ekhart Tolle explains taking pride in accomplishments vs ego).
Love does not manifest out of ego because it’s too self-seeking and shallow. I’ve noticed lately a particularly disturbing pattern with men and some women who are largely identified with their egos: they obsess over the physical and material world because that’s all that exists with the ego. For example, another person's weight becomes very important for people with strong egos and they take it as a personal affront if you don’t look or even dress the way they want you too-- this is Narcissus looking into a shallow pool. When the ego is awakened, you can see it come over its owner's face, disgusted, transfixed on its object, yet completely unaware of the dirty look she is giving you. Then, later, she may demand to know what’s wrong with you as if you’re the one with the personality disorder.
Everyone falls in and out narcissistic love, but what if you’re in a long-term relationship with a narcissist? As I’ve been researching this, I discovered over 60 blogs dedicated to Narcissistic abuse. I actually stumbled across this by researching autoimmune disorders and the research kept coming back to emotional abuse or “toxic stress,” which is the say, narcissistic abuse. (When the Body says No, Gabor Mate M.D. writes about the effects of emotional abuse and trauma and its connection to disease). I also learned that there are different kinds of narcissists. And the tricky one isn’t overt, it’s a covert narcissist. This abuse isn’t aggressive but rather passive aggressive, so the abuse from this kind of nut is more subtle but could lead to Complex Post Traumatic Stress. This typically happens to girls who seem to have the “perfect mother,” but the mother’s superiority and sense of importance is dependent upon being her child’s inner critic. Virginia Woolf called it the Angel in the House, and claimed “Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of the woman writer.” And I would say that’s true for any artist who feels fearful about pursuing something creative.
So this means that Narcissistic love doesn’t just apply to lovers but can also be abused by a parent or friend. The problem, really, is being on the receiving end, and losing yourself to other people’s crazy illusions. To fail over and over at completing the “Other” only to be discarded altogether when you can’t possibly measure up, is a form of emotional abuse. Try something, think about a person who likes to make you feel bad about yourself, someone who says they love you but is obsessed with critizing and shaming you, and look at videos on narcissistic abuse, Something in your gut will tell you that you can’t trust this person’s intentions, but it is so subtle that at first blush it is confusing. However, the revelation will be empowering when you finally realize that not being enough is not your problem. If you are not sure, test the “love” with
1 Corinthians 13:4-8
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Notice the Bible doesn’t say: “Love is controlling. Love is manipulating. Love is critical and rejoices in deceit and shame. Love will eventually sabotage and turn others away from you.”
If you love someone according to divine principles and someone returns your love, with uh, I don’t know, Satan’s love tactics?-- would you not call that abuse? If you’re smart you’d be like “back off Judas!”
Since you can’t change the narcissist (they are usually perfect and never wrong), the answer is to continue to work on yourself-- your inner and spiritual world-- and practice what the Greeks taught: Know thyself.
Knowing thyself is the road to self-actualization which is a good thing as it sits heroically on top of Maslow’s pyramid. However, the narcissist sees self-actualization as a threat (or ironically sees the self-actualized person as narcissistic) because deep down narcissists are insecure, and as a projection, they think you should be too. (More on this topic in my next blog: “The Road to Self-Actualization is Paved with the Right Intentions”.)
The other advantage of being educated is you can then pycho-analyze the person’s ego by simply bringing attention to it. “Is that you or your ego talking?”-- maybe ask to speak to the real such and such and insist on only talking soul to soul. This will drive narcissists bat-shit crazy, but it will also give them pause. After the initial shock, they may actually become present when talking to you.
But back to love or whatever you want to call it at this point. Since we are merely dealing with narcissistic love, this romance must be on display, I explain, while reading Importance of Being Earnest.
When Jack tells Gwendolen that he has admired her more than any other girl, she replies, “Yes, I am well aware of the fact. And I often wish that in public, at any rate, you had been more demonstrative.”
“Why does he have to ask you to prom?-- aren't you two already going out?” I usually side with the girls, except for this one thing: I feel sorry for guys having to ask their already girlfriend to prom with the same ingenuity as an Eagle Scout’s project.
“Why should it matter?” I ask the girls even as I see the hostility arise in their eyes. Once I heard a student tell another student, ”Mrs. Beck just doesn’t believe in love!” They looked at my marrying their junior English teacher as my saving grace, but my cynicism never changed. “How did he propose?” they asked excitedly. I shrugged, “Well, we had already talked about it--”
Ironically, I get accused of being insensitive when I am highly sensitive. For example, I try to comfort my daughter through her coronavirus-stricken, senior year by saying prom and graduation and all that jazz are really overrated anyway. Just like your wedding will be.
The truth is something I heard from Anothony Hopkins when he said in an interview, “For many years I thought life was the rehearsal for the big event, and somebody in Los Angeles said, ‘Tony this is the big event-- life is in session!’” Even now, life is in session.
Because there is nothing-- no person, no event, no dream come true that will make you feel any more happiness, peace, or love as you are able to feel in this moment. Nothing external will complete you.The famous late 90’s movie line: “You complete me,” even when I was younger, made me throw up a little in my mouth.
I prefer C.S. Lewis’s words while grieving the death of his wife: “We both knew this. I had my miseries, not hers; she had hers, not mine. The end of hers would be the coming-of-age of mine.”
This whole question of love or infatuation came together for me when I was sitting around, feeling sorry for myself for some reason or another, watching Oprah. Even then, I didn’t watch a lot of television, but I happened to catch an episode where this couple was telling their story about surviving a plane crash. The wife had 80% of her body burned. She was so disfigured her children couldn’t bear to look at their mummified mother who didn’t look like mom anymore.
When the critical question of her being better off not saved, her husband and family pushed to keep her living. Her husband wanted her even though she didn’t resemble the woman he fell in love with (and she was quite beautiful) and knowing that much of the weight of their domestic life with their four children would be on him. But through the survivors’ suffering their illusions were blotted out by something deeper, something I knew I wanted for myself. I could almost envy her for the way her husband looked at her. He looked at her with pride and one could tell, he was in love with her soul. “That,” I tell my students, “is love.”