The Abuse of Self

I.

There’s surely no doubt that the human being has a long, sad history of violence. Whether we are discussing nature vs. nurture, or the psychology of the psychopath, or the foregone consequences of greed, or the dangers of ego, or the attraction of revenge, the result is always the same: the historical record exposes this one species, Homo sapiens, as being dramatically separated from the rest of the animal kingdom, whose acts of violence and carnage issue forth not from a desire for personal gain or pleasure but rather for survival and sustenance. When a cheetah takes down a gazelle, no one refers to the cheetah’s “questionable upbringing,” nor subjects the cheetah to mental tests, nor accuses him of having a personal agenda against the gazelle, one involving some sort of Machiavellian scheme or a fascist consolidation of power. Some animals attack others for the protection of their offspring or their mates, but there is no greed or ego at work here, only the instinct to shield and shelter those who require it.

In this, the human stands alone. A man will kill his neighbor over something as trivial as a misperceived slight. A young woman will kill or abandon her child if being a mother is too inconvenient. One nation will wipe out another over who gets to control a certain river or port. Humans will even kill each other over spare change in dark alleys, just for the chance at some booze. And if you look hard enough, you’ll find cases of homicide committed simply because the murderer was bored. In short, humans kill indiscriminately and at whim, often with little or no provocation.

(In light of this, it can be quite difficult for the philosopher to side with Locke over Hobbes. Indeed, there is very little in the two preceding paragraphs that doesn’t scream at the reader as being blatantly Hobbesian. Nevertheless, though it often requires more determination than I have, I continue to agree with Locke, who said humans, while no doubt capable of gross atrocities, are nonetheless inherently good, not bad.)

The psychology of human violence has been exhaustively explored elsewhere by much better thinkers and writers than me. Yet within that exploration lies a facet to this violence that often gets overlooked, or, at best, footnoted. It is this particular facet I wish to spotlight here.

If a human being stabs another human being, the perpetrator is taken to court and may or may not be put in jail, but if a human being—a depressed fourteen-year-old girl, say—uses that same stabbing instrument to exact cuts on her leg, she’s not taken to court but rather to the doctor, or perhaps a psych ward, and is thereafter medicated and encouraged to find God or something. The point is that human violence, when aimed outward, is a criminal act, but human violence aimed inward, at self, is not.

I’m not concerned with the legalities as much as I am the casual acceptance in our society that abusing oneself isn’t just as distressing as abusing others. Consider this: a mother who locks her child in a closet and starves him for days is called “a monster.” A woman who locks herself in a psychological closet of despair and desolation and starves herself for days is called “troubled.” One would think that abuse toward a human being should always be considered appalling, even if the maltreated human being is yourself.

The puzzling double standards notwithstanding, it also occurs to me that the psychological responses to self-abuse from the academic sector tend to coddle and pamper the patient, as though what they are doing to themselves is perfectly understandable under the circumstances and is therefore, to some degree, considered “okay.” Patients are urged to find ways to “forgive themselves” and “love themselves” while their doctors hold their hand and carefully move them toward a place where perhaps they won’t hurt themselves again. But if one of those patients were to take the knife she used to wound herself and shove it into her doctor’s chest, the coddling ends and the authorities swarm in to whisk her away, prompting this to writer wonder why it’s more acceptable to slice your own flesh than the flesh of another.

II.

None of this is to suggest that I don’t know the gravity of self-abuse, the pull toward self-harm. Oh, I know it all too well. If I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t be writing this essay. The tendency to cause myself harm, whether as a punishment for the many wrongs I’ve done, or for what I perceive to be my “flaws,” has been great in my life, particularly more so as I get older. One would think that with maturity should come wisdom, and with wisdom should come a greater understanding of one’s imperfections. Acceptance of self, therefore, should increase with age, or so logic would tell us. But we humans are rarely logical, despite how much we might like to pretend otherwise. And so, the older I get, the more time I have to spend with myself, and this leads not to more acceptance but less. Why that is, I can’t say, and I don’t necessarily want to think about it right now. All I can say is that while I do think self-abuse is wrong, just as wrong as abusing someone else, I myself must confess that I still wrestle with it in my own life, and I’m still trying to find ways to like or at least coexist with the imperfect lump of derelict nothing I always think of myself as.

(See, that last sentence was an example of self-abuse.)

For instance, often in my life I’ll be presented with a situation or opportunity which, if accepted, will bring me great joy and peace. Yet before so accepting, I’ll stand at the threshold and convince myself that I do not deserve said joy or peace, at which point I may pass on the opportunity or walk away from the situation, thereby denying myself and circumventing my aching desire for the very joy and peace I just eschewed. The reader can probably identify with that sentiment, as I suspect they too have encountered this strange paradox at work within their own lives. As such, the reader may be nodding his or her head, thinking, “Yes, I completely relate. It’s very understandable.” Maybe it is. But consider this: if my wife was presented with a situation or opportunity that would bring her great joy and peace and I stood at her side, whispering in her ear that she doesn’t deserve joy or peace, thereby dissuading her from accepting whatever the opportunity was, the reader would cry “Foul!” and accuse me of being psychologically abusive toward my wife. And the reader would be correct. It would indeed be a terrible thing to persuade my wife that because of her imperfections and/or weaknesses she doesn’t deserve to be happy. Anyone who would do that is, in my view, a fucking bastard.

But no one cried “Foul!” when I did it to myself.

III.

The irony of self-abuse is that it’s really just an inverted form of bilious self-love. Narcissism, if you prefer. To hate yourself so much that you’re driven to cause your body or mind harm is to be focused so heavily on yourself that you’ve actually become inexcusably self-centered. Whether you are a narcissist who looks in the mirror and obsesses over what you see, or a self-abuser who looks in the mirror and obsesses over all the things you hate about what you see, the result is still the same: you’re too focused on yourself to be any good for anyone else. Perhaps you’d do better to turn your attention away from all the things you hate about yourself, all those “flaws” you daily perceive, and focus on the welfare of someone else for a while. Maybe in doing so you’d find a measure of mental health hitherto unattainable to you. Maybe in concentrating on someone else you would shake yourself out of this inverted self-love and remember that all humans—you, me, and everyone else—will always fall short of perfection, which is perfectly okay.

And yet the paradox here is that you could never truly care about anyone else if you don’t first like yourself. I’m not saying you have to love yourself. Learning to do that is hard and may take an entire lifetime. But if you’re immersed in self-hatred, how could you possibly have love to offer?

I think that the moral health of a society is measured not necessarily by the abuse or lack thereof humans dispense to one another but rather by the abuse they impose upon themselves. Why should anyone hesitate to harm their neighbor if they don’t first feel the shame in harming themselves? If you can’t love yourself, or at least treat yourself with a modicum of respect, then your actions with other people are doomed from the beginning anyway and we might as well have anarchy.


Taken from my book, Collected Essays.

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