“Young man, why are you eating that fish?”
“Because I love fish,” the young man answers.
“Oh, you love the fish. That’s why you took it out of the water and killed it and boiled it. Don’t tell me you love the fish. You love yourself, and because the fish tastes good to you, therefore you took it out of the water and killed it and boiled it.”
I heard this story from Rabbi Abraham Twerski on this video:
“So much of what is love, is fish love.”
When I wasn’t dating, for about two years, I struggled with seeing this quality in every potential romantic partner. Sometimes, I’d go on a date with someone, and maybe they’d tell me how pretty I was — but that comment really said nothing about me. Whenever someone tells me I’m beautiful, they’re telling me they love themselves. They’re telling me that they want to be around people and things that give them pleasure, and that my physical appearance gives them pleasure. But, they’re not telling me that they care about me. They’re not telling me that my lived experience is important, or that how I feel matters to them.
I struggled with this for the longest time. I didn’t want to be beautiful — but then, what did I want? To be ugly? Did I want to date someone who found my physically repulsive?
I’m sure to some degree, this was exacerbated by my sexual assault. I have seen just how far someone’s self love can go. I’ve been fished, fried up and nearly eaten because someone thought they could get pleasure from me, and didn’t stop to consider my feelings on the matter.
And you know, it’s not always about physical beauty even. I receive some degree of amorous cyberstalking/harassment from people who read my blog, people who don’t even know what I look like. But, they always have one thing in common; they think that their feelings define a connection between us. They are so focused on how they feel about me that they never consider how I feel about them. They don’t stop to think how creepy I will find their messages, how how unnerved I will be by their constant attention.
People who stalk me are always dismissive, or often even angry, about my feelings. My feelings are an obstacle to their satisfaction.
Love without care for the other person’s lived experience is not love, it is self love. Finding someone extremely pleasurable is not love, it is self love. Finding someone beautiful is not love, it is self love.
And, you know, actually self love isn’t bad. In fact, I’d argue it’s both good and necessary to ultimately becoming a truly generous person. It’s just… it’s not generous, like we pretend it is. If someone loves themselves by finding you beautiful, this isn’t a problem. However, if you believe you can be nourished by this kind of love, you will be disappointed. We idealize this kind of fish love in the movies, in romance novels, whatever — and, I demonized it for a long time. But, in reality, it’s neither here nor there.
Someone can love themselves and also love you, however if they only love themselves, then they don’t love you. If someone thinks you are beautiful, but doesn’t care about your feelings or your reality, they will probably hurt you badly. And, this is significant, because culture presents the message that fish love is love. Culture presents, effectively, a version of love that is another person finding you transcendentally beautiful and this is so… wrong. If you spend your life looking for love by trying to find someone who thinks you’re crazy beautiful, you won’t find love. If you spend your life trying to find someone you think is beautiful, you won’t find love. You’ll only find fish love.
When it came to dating, I began to feel a bit like Leeloo from the 5th element (a being sent to save earth) when she reads about war for the first time. When she sees how horrible and violent humans are to each other, it’s like she completely gives up her will to go on. Is humanity even worth saving?
Is humanity worth dating? All everyone seems to be looking for is to make themselves feel good, and to find a person to make them feel less alone. What everyone wanted from me just seemed so self centered and fear based. It seemed so closed, so about not experiencing life. And, you know, I could even have dealt with it if fine if we were culturally honest about it, but everyone dressed it up as this mystical, romantic thing, as if the desire not to be alone on a Friday night was a spectacular trait of transcendental beauty.
But to me, it seemed similar to someone wanting to eat a tasty meal or drive a fancy car. It seemed deeply rooted in personal pleasure, and entirely mundane, rational, and consistent with our other capitalist pleasures.
There was nothing transcendental about the love I saw. And, I began to grow very cynical. Does love — real love, generous love — even exist, or is there only self love? Fish love?
I think hospice helped me get out of that.
It’s a strange thing, to want to sit with the dying — and, as always, often a very selfish thing. I can’t speak to other’s motivations, but I know my own motivations were selfish. I volunteered for hospice because I wanted to feel like a good person, because I wanted to understand more about death, and because I wanted to do something meaningful with my life. It’s selfish in a way that people in our culture generally aren’t selfish, but it was selfish nonetheless.
And, in some of my fellow hospice workers, I did often see a similar selfishness to my own — but, I began to see something else too. The people who had been doing it for a long time, for years, began to bring another quality of love to the surface. A non-self love.
I remember one of the women I volunteered with told us a story. She was regularly sitting with a dying woman, a tiny, grumpy ex-junkie of a dying woman, who rarely wanted company. But, this tiny junkie let the volunteer come to visit her sometimes and they developed a relationship. Near the end of the tiny junkie’s life, the volunteer told the junkie that she loved her, and when that happened, something shifted for the tiny, dying junkie. Having received love, she suddenly found herself in a place to give it. She opened up to her family, told all the people who she’d been too grumpy to see that she loved them, and made peace with all her beloved.
A few days later, the tiny junkie died. But, that whole expression of love was so hopeful for me. The volunteer didn’t have much to gain from loving this tiny grumpy woman, she had nothing to gain from expressing her love, but for some reason she did anyway. It was a gift — a real generous gift, of the type perhaps I didn’t really believe existed.
Rabbi Twerski from the video says the key to real love is giving, and that you don’t give to those you love but rather end up loving those you give to. And, that phrasing doesn’t quite sit right with me, but it’s closer than anything I can come up with. There exists a real generosity in people that is accessed through giving.
But… it’s rare, and it often comes from older people. I think the capacity for kindness often increases with age, but we act as if love is for the young. As if love is about maximizing your own personal pleasure, or making your life more convenient. Then, we marvel at its majesty — but who wouldn’t want the benefits of “love?” Who wouldn’t want a pleasure filled, convenient life?
Our current model of love reduces it to something like a self driving car with massage-seats. Wow, this makes me feel so good! It saves me so much time! It’s magic! I am at a genuine loss to why we mysticize it so much. AND I am at a genuine loss to why we tend to dismiss all these old Rabbi-types who seem to be pointing to something far more wonderful.
This mindless seeking of creature comforts, it’s just so… empty.