Sunday, October 16, 2011

"No Man is an Island"

“The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”

Happy Sunday LOVEanese! It's once again a beautiful day, and time to talk about love. Thank you for all the views so far, and for keeping the discussions going. Let me ask you: what is love? What is the nature of love exactly? Up until now, I've covered a few theories of love (this one, and this one), but there's an existential element missing from all of them. What I want to do in this post is connect a lot of different points together specifically focusing on one of my favorite individuals: Thomas Merton. But I don't want it just to be a spotlight on some of the things he said and wrote about. On the contrary, it's a bit more about the essence of real love, and how this love is often exploited.

Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk who was born in France in 1915, educated at Columbia University (B.A. - English, 1938), and spent much of his life at the Abbey of Gethsemani located in a place very familiar to me: Kentucky. Although he was a monk, he wasn't merely a hermit. He was a very prolific writer, poet, and social/peace activist who evolved into somewhat of a mystic. Although he was Catholic, he was also highly interested in/influenced by Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Sufism, calling for increased dialogue between Western and Eastern religions.

There is so much I could say about him. You can read more about his life here and here as they will do more justice than what I can do. I came across his work in 2008 when a good friend of mine introduced me to his book No Man is an Island, quoting 14th century writer/poet/priest John Donne. Donne said: 

"All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated...No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main...any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee" - John Donne (1572-1631) in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII

We are all connected. And Merton wrote the book examining how individuals connect on both a personal and spiritual level. You can read chapter one from Merton's book as much as Google will let you here. Taken from the back cover of the book, "No Man is an Island is a collection of sixteen essays in which Merton plumbs aspects of human spirituality." Although the book is geared towards those seeking religious or spiritual inspiration, there are so many positive themes that can be incorporated into life whether you are religious or not. The most important chapter in the book is chapter one: "Love Can be Kept Only by Being Given Away." This chapter has had an incredible impact on the way I understand love, and has really come to help create the foundation of my outlook regarding life, love, and human relationships.

"The true answer...tells us that we must love ourselves in order to be able to love others, that we must find ourselves by giving ourselves to them" (P. xix). These are words he wrote in the introduction that would reverberate throughout the whole work, but especially chapter one. In chapter one, Merton outlines what is true love. True love comes first from self-love (This isn't to say narcissism or arrogance, however). You must love yourself, for who you are because if you do not love yourself and try to love another, you will ultimately expect the other person to fulfill you. A helpful analogy is when you are on an airplane, the flight attendants instruct you to place the oxygen mask on yourself before placing it on a child or another that needs help. We must do the same with love. We have to love ourselves before giving it to someone else. This is what Merton would call selfish love. You, however, must fulfill yourself. This is what he calls unselfish love, and is the foundation for two people to be happy together, as well as to reach true personal happiness.

There is a very famous quote from the movie Jerry Maguire: "You complete me." That's bullshit! You can never expect or hope for someone to complete you. As a friend said below in the comments, "only if you have can you give. If you don't have, you can't give." "Have" referring to self-love, personal completion, and the kind of security and confidence that accompany it. For Merton too, you MUST complete yourself, because otherwise you are taking love from someone for your own gain, something which is incredibly selfish and destructive. You can't rescue someone. You can't save someone. In fact, it's arrogant, selfish, and self-destructive as well to think so. "Love must be given, not merely taken. Unselfish love that is poured out upon a selfish object does not bring perfect happiness: not because love requires a return or reward for loving, but because it rests in the happiness of the beloved. And if the one loved receives love selfishly, the lover is not satisfied" (Pp. 3-4).

However, if two people love themselves completely, they can share that love with each other, forming true, unselfish love. This does exist, and it begins with you. You have to love yourself, for otherwise, how do you ever expect anyone else to love you? Love does not exist in 50-50 intervals either. Love cannot be given only 50% of its entirety. Real love means that you give yourself 100% to someone else, and they give 100% as well.

Moreover, how many people (you included?) stay in relationships just because you are content or because it's "better than being alone?" Merton writes, "To love another is to will what is really good for him. Such love must be based on truth. A love that...loves blindly merely for the sake of loving, is hatred, rather than love. To love blindly is to love selfishly, because the goal of such love is not the real advantage of the beloved, but only the exercise of love in our own souls" (P. 5).

Merton goes on to talk more about other forms of love and connectivity, and given his religious status, does not merely keep religious undertones in the background; he actively incorporates them. However, his work is not the only one that speaks of unselfish love. Contextualized to Lebanon, there is a very famous Lebanese mystic-poet who also writes about it. Any guesses?

I'm talking, of course, about Khalil Gibran, one of the most famous (if not the most famous) Lebanese writers. One of his most well-known and influential works is The Prophet (you can read it here). Although he and Thomas Merton are from two completely different places, they share an incredible amount of commonalities. They were both Christian poets, both died before the age of 55 (Gibran, 1948; Merton, 1953), both are considered mystics, and they were both born abroad and settled in America (specifically New York). In the chapter on love in The Prophet, Gibran writes the following:

"Love gives naught but itself, and takes naught but from itself. Love possesses not, nor would it be possessed; For love is sufficient unto love...Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself."

Merton unintentionally and in a different context echoed Gibran's words, and even though they share a similar religious undertone,they both talk about love in terms of how to love means giving 100% to someone, and getting 100% back from them. It is not a give-or-take my 50% and yours. This isn't compromise; this is love. Why give anything less?

Unfortunately, most humans do not inherently reflect Merton's and Gibran's thoughts. On the contrary, humans are often guided by social exchange. Social Exchange Theory dictates that humans are constantly giving and receiving with the purposes of, well... giving and receiving. Known mostly through the work of Peter Blau (1964), George Homans (1958), and Richard M. Emerson (1962, 1976), this theory basically contradicts everything Merton and Gibran say because according to it, everything we do/invest in has implications that we are attempting to maximize our return. Thus, according to Social Exchange Theory, we love someone because in return they love us back which gives us positive feelings, security, comfort, companionship, etc. We often think in terms of "what do they have to offer me? Money? Beauty? Security? This is rampant in Lebanon/the Arab world, but everywhere as well.

I am bringing this up to contrast against the more romantic writings of Merton and Gibran. But also because many of us think like this. Don't think in terms of what will I get, but rather, think what can I give. "Charity makes me seek far more than satisfaction of my own desires..." (Merton, P. 7), and "A happiness that is sought for ourselves alone can never be found..." (Merton, P. 3). For Merton, true love and true happiness can only be found through unselfish, selfless love that is given wholly and completely to another, and not for the sake of getting something in return.

I know that the first thing people will comment on is when you do love yourself, and you give yourself completely, but they do not give it back. Merton comments on reciprocation as well: "...The paradox [is that] unselfish love cannot rest perfectly except in a love that is perfectly reciprocated: because it knows that the only true peace is found in selfless love" (P. 4). So, what of unrequited love? And what of abused love? These are not perfect love. Someone taking advantage of your love is not sharing their love with you, but only taking. And someone you love, but does not love you back is also taking your love, but not reciprocating it. And for Merton, that person is not worthy of your love because it would never lead to happiness. Unless they share with you completely their own unselfish love that they gain through self-love and self-fulfillment, it will never lead to real happiness and love.

Thomas Merton, like Gibran, is such a deep writer, so the best thing to do is read them yourself. But incorporating the idea that the only way you can ever love someone else is to first love yourself is paramount to creating better, happier, healthier, and more fulfilling relationships. Merton's writing is extremely empowering because it focuses on you. What YOU can do. The first step is love yourself. Be comfortable with yourself. Be happy with yourself.

Spread the (unselfish) love,
-Ogie (this one's for you P.)


Gibran, Khalil. 1973 [1923]. The Prophet. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Merton, Thomas. 1983 [1955]. No Man is an Island. Harcourt, Inc.

P.S. Here's a great quote that reflects these principles so well: "It's all about falling in love with yourself and sharing that love with someone who appreciates you, rather than looking for love to compensate for a self-love deficit."
 --Eartha Kitt

P.P.S. I also suggest checking this link to Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh who describes similar things. For example, he wrote: "Often, we get crushes on others not because we truly love and understand them, but to distract ourselves from our suffering. When we learn to love and understand ourselves and have true compassion for ourselves, then we can truly love and understand another person."


  1. Ogie,

    This is by far, one of the best blog posts that you have written! I love all of them and it keeps getting better :) This is definitely the best blog post about love that I have read... I am glad to have met you and conversed with you. Inspiration comes in so many forms...Thank you for the ongoing ongoing positive energy...

    ...It's funky and beats in orange and green!

    Hugs :)


  2. Definitely gonna share this. So many people get defensive when I tell them that before they can love another, they must love themselves first. Altho, I'm not quite sure as to why that statement makes people get defense in the first place?

  3. P. Thank you so much! I'm so happy that Thomas Merton's words reverberated with you so much. I really appreciate your support and kind words :)

    Anon: I'm glad I could give you a bit more argumentative ammunition of sorts! I think it makes people defensive for two reasons: 1. you're implying they don't love them-self, and that could mean that you think they have issues or something, and 2. they might just disagree.

  4. Great post :) I absolutely loved it. Keep up the good work!! :)

  5. Thanks Lama :) I really appreciate it. I'm not surprised you like this, it's right up your alley!

  6. Awesome post man! Exactly what we talked yesterday! I wanna add a sentence to the post that makes it easier and more natural to understand: only if u have u can give, if you dont have you can't give. It is obvious! But when it comes to love we dont see it that clearly!

    I loved the contraposition of the social exchange theory, and it is quite common in society nowadays, ppl expects the others to whatever, because you are frends, couple, family or anything.... This path leads nowhere... It wont make u or the others happy, it will falsely fill ur emptiness now and then but after a while u will be empty again. The only one that can trully fulfill your need for love is yourself, and puting this burden in someone elses shoulders is utterly selfish :)

    On the other hand, dunno if you posted about it, but i think that this idea of self love has to be thought in deeper ways, what is love for oneself? What does it mean exactly? As a start, as for the love to others, you have to accept yourself completely, all your aspects, all your 4 selfs (body, mind, emotions and soul), and when you do you will start loving you, but still more needs to be done, specially in your perception of yourself, as u know yourself for quite some time now, so its not so easy to change many misconceptions you have of yourself!

    Oh, one question... And its because i saw it in the comments, you think that if you truly love someone, you can miss that person? ;)

    Great post man! Thank you!

  7. Phantom: Thank you so much amigo! I really loved your addition. I think it's a concise and accurate summery :)

    Absolutely though, and that's exactly the point. While it may go against convention, the fact is, most people aren't taught to be reliant on themselves for emotional fulfillment. Of course, that's not to say that we don't need anyone else. We do! But I would question why are you really with that person. I think all too often it's a selfish reason, even if it's guised in the trappings of "love," "comfort," happiness," or "security."

    You are right too. What exactly is self-love? It's more than just merely confidence. It's really having the security to say that you like who you are, you aren't ashamed of your past, you have the strength to deal with what the world throws at you, and you are happy being yourself. As you said, you accept yourself for all of your strengths, mistakes, flaws, faults, and unique aspects. It's also being honest with yourself--you can't lie or run away from the things that haunt you. Then again, in today's world, it's so hard to really feel that way about yourself. In many ways, consumerism thrives off of insecurity. So, why would mainstream society want people to be happy with who they are? Loving yourself, in itself, becomes an act of resistance.

    Miss them? As in physically?? I definitely think so. Do you not? I miss people I love haha. I don't quite understand your question.

    Thank you so much again for reading! Looking forward to your follow-up comments :)