Of Human Bondage is widely recognized as William Somerset Maugham’s greatest novel and, indeed, stands as among my favorite works of twentieth-century fiction. It is said to represent a highly autobiographical work in which WSM transposes his real life affliction of stuttering onto his protagonist, Philip Carey, who, in lieu of suffering from a stammer, is born with a club foot, which causes him profound feelings of alienation and resentment towards those around him and the world in which he finds himself. The novel explores the many personal tragedies that Carey is forced to endure on account of his deformity, most notably, an obsessive and unrequited love he develops for a rather unremarkable woman who returns his one thousand acts of unselfish kindness with as many cruelties and treacheries. Carey appears to suffer from an emotional affliction WSM described in separate work, entitled A Writer’s Notebook, in which he writes, “The love that lasts the longest is the love that is never returned.” An interesting insight, no doubt, but in my mind WSM’s most profound and didactic quote comes from Of Human Bondage in which he states, in a mere six words, “I rather love than be loved.” On its face this quote may appear rather trite but, to me, it represents the highest ideal that humans can aspire to in all of their relationships: familial, platonic, and, indeed, even romantic.
The Islamic tradition teaches that God represents the consummate Selfless Lover. It is said that His love for his creation has no adequate analogue in the terrestrial world. In a famous tradition, the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, sought to express an analogy about God’s protective love as one comparable to a mother’s innate desire to save her child from a burning fire, only to say that it even it would not suffice. In a separate tradition, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) famously said, “Do good deeds properly, sincerely and moderately, and rejoice, for no one’s good deeds will put him in Paradise. His Companions asked: ‘Not even you, Oh Messenger of God?’ He replied: “Not even me, unless God bestowed His Grace and Mercy upon me.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 8, No. 474). Although Islam seeks to achieve a practical balance between observing divine law and maintaining faith in God, this tradition, along with many others, are clear that a believer’s faith in God’s Grace and Mercy, not one’s good works, will enable one to achieve salvation in the celestial world. The Prophet taught his followers that “God’s Mercy transcends His Justice” and that “a servant who comes walking to God will find that God will come running to him.” I want to consider whether this form of selfless love has a place in the terrestrial sphere, among human beings, particularly in the context of romantic love.
In most romantic relationships, there is an expectation of egalitarianism and reciprocity; that is, an equal-parts division of love and loyalty. If one party is not “putting in enough effort,” it is seen as an expression of disinterestedness, which often leads to a dissolution of the relationship. “She didn’t love me as I loved her,” we are told. However, it seems to me that an expectation of this sort will invariably lead to disappointment, since it is premised upon a selfish love.
Consider one variety of romantic interaction common in urban settings. Men “wine and dine” women with the expectation that their lavish displays of material affection will eventuate in, either mutual love, or far more often, sexual gratification. Such a dynamic represents the least selfless kind of love, in my mind, as it simply amounts to a self-centered desire to quench one’s emotional and animal urges. Even if such love has a sincere mutual element to it, its essence is defined by a preoccupation with oneself: achieving a certain status, garnering respect, ensuring one’s emotional and financial stability, and attaining a fairy tale romance that will be the object of universal envy. Indeed, always the cynic, WSM wrote in the Razor’s Edge (I believe), “marriage is still the best profession for women.” Although imperfect in its description, I will denote this form of love as “selfish love.”
Many would insist that selfish love is one that is demanded by biology; that man has been fashioned in such a way that mutual love (and sexual gratification) are indispensable components of romantic relationships. Indeed, I see considerable merit in such a view, but would maintain that it does not follow that selfish love is the only form of love that may be expressed in the context of romantic pursuits. No doubt, the ideal of selfless love is most difficult to deploy in the realm of romantic relationships, in which mutuality of feeling is unarguably a necessary pre-condition to any permanent union. But even in this sphere, if one’s starting point is to love without inhibition, rather than an expectation of sexual favor or even emotional commitment, selfless love can play an extremely useful role in enabling individuals to discern their true feelings for one another, and, ultimately, achieve the consummate state of romantic love.
I can only speak authoritatively about the time in which I live and know. As I see it, today’s relationships, especially those in the nascent stages of “dating and courtship,” are often characterized by constant game-playing in which both parties are reluctant to unveil their true feelings out of fear that it would unduly empower the object of their affections. One can imagine a man or a woman receiving a “text-message” and immediately confiding in their friends: “how do I respond!?”; “what do I say!?”. Perhaps a starting point would be to respond honestly, from one’s heart, without the need to devise elaborate artifice to confuse and enigmatize an otherwise uncomplicated relationship. In the context of such gamesmanship, great effort is spent presenting oneself as independent, confident, and self-assured, when in fact the trickery employed speaks more to the game-player’s profound insecurities, fear of abandonment, and strong emotional dependency, assuming they are sincere in their desire to achieve a romantic union. Some enjoy game-playing for its own sake, after all.
It is an irony that if one is forthcoming about their feelings, they are thought to be “eager and desperate.” Such a characterization may fairly describe a selfish lover, but a truly selfless lover would express his feelings without fear of rejection because he has removed the “self” from love; that is, he is not demanding emotional commitment or sexual gratification, but rather expressing a feeling that springs unconsciously from his very being, about which Dostoevsky wrote, “love is not a matter that depends upon the will.” A selfless lover who has attained a sufficient degree of self-assuredness may also find that his dignity would remain undisturbed if his (or her) feelings went unanswered, since his end is not to necessarily be loved, but rather to love. The difference is crucial. Certainly if the selfless lover finds that his feelings are returned in kind, his response would be one of ecstatic joy, but the desire for mutuality-of-feeling is not his starting point.
In some instances, selfless love may play a very practical role in enabling one to achieve one’s desired end. The beneficiary of selfless love may be so moved by the lover’s honest display of affection and independence of mind that they may come to regard such unselfish love as an extremely attractive, rare, and endearing trait. Moreover, this form of love stands in obvious contrast to someone who ostensibly presents themselves as “dark and mysterious” for its own sake. Such an individual often feigns detachment and disinterestedness when in fact their very core is riddled with self-doubt and insecurity. Such fakery is not only commonplace but rather transparent as well.
No doubt, many would regard the concept of selfless love as an exceedingly idealistic and naive view of the human condition. However, my belief is that someone possessed of sufficient poise and self-assuredness can indeed achieve this high-minded emotional state, and that it represents a morally superior alternative to selfish love. The first step towards achieving such an ideal is awareness, it seems to me. Various schools of Islamic and Buddhist spirituality subscribe to notions of “fana” and “nirvana” in which losing awareness of oneself is seen as a precursor to true enlightenment. Certainly such concepts should not be taken to literal extremes, but a general cognizance of the virtue in suppressing one’s selfish desires, and simply loving others purely and selflessly, is one that all humans can benefit from.
It goes without saying that romantic relationships are not the only realm in which selfless love can play a vital role. Indeed, selfless love is far less complicated in the context of familial or platonic relationships. It is said that a mother or father’s love for one’s child is the closest form of selfless love that humans can attain and that, in contrast to romantic relationships, such selfless affection flows unconsciously and unconditionally–hence the expression “unconditional love.” That is, there no pre-condition to loving the child as love is given freely and without restraint; in contrast, the essence of romantic relationships is generally an expectation of mutual love. Moreover, even beyond a parent-child relationship, when a person acts with pure benefaction toward another human being and has no expectation of being conferred a reciprocal benefit, such an individual will not feel slighted if their act of kindness goes unanswered. Conversely, when one expects a “quid pro quo” and they find that a like-for-like charity fails to materialize, it often engenders feelings of resentment and a perception of ingratitude. The former constitutes selfless love, and the latter selfish love; it is the second which is a malady, or rather an inadequate expression of love, which one must strive to make whole.
Family relationships, both at the immediate and extended level, are often characterized by in-fighting and politics which can sow deep division even in a relationship that is fused by the unbreakable bond of blood. It is in this context that selfless love can arguably play its most salutary role. If one finds that they have been wronged by a family member or that their acts of kindness have gone unappreciated, a selfless lover will have the emotional discipline to overlook such moral shortcomings and embrace the transgressor with unconditional love and acceptance. It is not uncommon for humans to become defensive to the point where they become incapable of recognizing their own faults. But if one party consciously endeavors to transcend this shortcoming, it can often facilitate a love, fidelity, and reconciliation that would be otherwise impossible to achieve.
Selfish love likely represents the norm in human relationships. But a position espoused by the majority, standing alone, does not make it true or superior to its alternatives. A love that is unchecked in selfishness can be self-destructive; if one is continually preoccupied with “finding love” and striving to find a man or woman who will swoon over their beauty, intelligence, riches, or even good character, and such efforts do not bear fruit, it can lead to feelings of worthlessness and despair. The consummation of love, it seems to me, is an organic process, one that cannot be forced into submission. Often the more intentional and selfish one’s efforts become in finding love, the more elusive it will prove to be. Perhaps allowing oneself to love unconditionally can serve as an antidote to this unfortunate predicament.