Loving in a Love-Starved World

A few weeks ago, I bought a very small but deeply impactful book: “How to Love” by Thich Naht Hanh.  In case you haven’t heard of him, the author, Thich Nhat Hanh, is a wise Buddhist master, scholar, and teacher who has written dozens of books aimed at reducing suffering and bringing joy into people’s lives.  Of all his books, this one strikes me in particular because it is a very digestible, readable little tome that tells us, in small bites, the simple, basic truth of how to love and honor each other.

“How to Love” offers a small tidbit of wisdom and instruction on each of its 100 pages.  Thich Nhat Hanh interweaves into his teaching the importance of loving and honoring oneself, in order to have a greater capacity to love and honor another person, helping them to suffer less.  He goes back-and-forth between the importance of healing your suffering and helping others to heal.  I read his book with enthusiasm, because I have felt lately that our capacity to love and to heal each other has diminished, especially as our society becomes more and more technologically “advanced,” and we are increasingly stressed out, short on time, traumatized, and emotionally malnourished.  These circumstances set us up for living in a more narcissistic, self-serving manner and being so caught up in ourselves that we can’t take into account the needs of anyone else.  Nhat Hanh offers hope that we can each get enough emotional fuel within ourselves that we can begin to help others to regenerate.

“Each of us can learn the art of nourishing happiness and love.  Everything needs food to live, even love.  If we don’t know how to nourish our love, it withers.  When we feed and support our own happiness, we are nourishing our ability to love.  That’s why to love means to learn the art of nourishing our happiness. ”                        -Naht Hanh, “How to Love”

In my psychology practice, patients often tell me that they have discovered that someone they know or love is a narcissist. Often, they want to talk about this because he/she has hurt them, and they want to find a way of understanding what happened.  Typically, they have read descriptions of narcissism on the internet and are certain that this person “has it.”  In this situation, my aim is to eventually help my patient to understand that narcissism, while it looks like a problem of excessive ego, is actually a problem of diminished self-worth.  At their core, people who could be described as “narcissistic” are deeply insecure and emotionally starving.  In their own lives, their healthy narcissistic needs have not been met and for a complex set of reasons, they have developed a defensive coping style that protects their wounds but makes them seem ego-driven.   (Of course, like any other character trait, narcissism exists on a continuum and people vary in terms of degree and severity of narcissistic qualities.)  I’d like to argue here that our society is becoming increasingly narcissistic not because people are becoming more into themselves, but because they are increasingly emotionally starved.  And as people’s healthy narcissistic needs remain unmet, they get hungrier and hungrier.  And this leads to a world that Thich Nhat Hanh might warn us against:  a world where we are all too love-starved to be able to offer love to each other.

For many years now, I have felt that the only way to heal problems of excessive narcissistic hunger is with emotional generosity.  (I wrote about this in my 2014 blog, Relieving Relational Poverty.)  And this seems to be the same idea espoused by Thich Nhat Hanh.  Love, he tells us, has the profound ability to heal suffering.  He offers us straightforward directions, too, for how to use love to have better relationships.

Understanding someone’s suffering is the best gift you can give another person.  Understanding is love’s other name.  If you don’t understand, you can’t love.                -Nhat Hanh, “How to Love”

In a world where, for a variety of complicated sociological and political reasons, people are becoming more emotionally hungry as their healthy narcissistic needs are met less and less often, I invite you to read and practice the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh.  Don’t look at the selfish and harmful actions of others in your life as representing a narcissistic disorder; instead, try looking at them as manifestations of unacknowledged suffering. This is not to say that you have to stay in a close relationship with someone who is actively hurting you, but if you practice patience, understanding, and deep love, in addition to coming to know, accept, and heal your own suffering (on your own or with the help of a therapist), then there is the chance that your relationships can be transformed.

From time to time, sit close to the one you love, hold his or her hand and ask, “Darling, do I understand you enough?  Or am I making you suffer?  Please tell me so that I can learn to love you properly.  I don’t want to make you suffer, and if I do so because of my ignorance, please tell me so that I can love you better, so that you can be happy.”  If you say this in a voice that communicates your real openness to understand, the other person may cry.  That is a good sign, because it means the door of understanding is open and everything will be possible again.”                           -Nhat Hanh, “Peace is in Every Step”

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