Love, Altruism and the Self

We are all one. It sounds almost cliche at this point. When the corona-virus hit, my parents were audibly shocked (our conversation was done over the phone) at my refusal to keep a stack of masks around. “Why do you insist on being so selfless,” they complained. My dad went on to give a speech about how airlines tell you to put the mask on yourself before putting it on someone else (I couldn’t help but think, “why does it matter what airlines tell you to do? Airlines tell you to take unnecessary flights, and we all know every trip you go on takes a couple precious days away from Earth’s very finite lifetime). My mom decides to send me a couple hundred masks anyways.

What I couldn’t explain then, and what I will try to explain here, is that my refusal to buy more masks than I need isn’t an act of selflessness, at least not in the sense I think they were implying. It isn’t that I decided I was not as important as everyone else. But neither is it some romantic, “we are all one” sort of radical equivalence. A dog is a dog. A cat is a cat. They do not melt away into each other, into some abstract value through which we can calculate an optimal spread of utility.

I am me. I am not anything else. But who and what I am is inextricably entangled with everything else. It is my being in the world, in relation to other things, that make up the person here typing. I am not everything, but I am everywhere. I act, the world responds, and in so doing, I am affected no matter where my action points. I print out a ticket to New York; in a year, a hurricane hits the south of California; all the way in Alberta tar sands, workers are losing their jobs as the economy shifts into renewable energy sources. In all this economic craze, I decide to take the bus more. There is no such a thing as a selfless act, not if we see that the self was never only here to begin with. This is what “we are all one” really means.

Human Atomic Shadow (With a Ladder), Hiroshima, Japan

We often like to pretend there is a magical place called Away. We flush the toilet, the poop goes Away. We launch Netflix, our assignments go Away. We do an action, and in an instant, the action goes Away. We are wrong. There is no Away. When the toilet flushes, someone, somewhere, must take on the coprophagous duties for us. The same goes for our actions. They are not events, a flash of activity and then nothing. They are objects. They persist, in space and in time. They linger on obstinately, for better or worse, and often in ways that are invisible or “distant.” We don’t draw the connection between the plane ticket and the hurricane and the workers and me, not until it’s too late anyways.

It is our persistence, our obstinance, and our refusal to accept it, that is horrifying to me. At the end of J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, our protagonist Elizabeth (a vegetarian, I should mention), offers a pithy summary:

“Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them [the meat-eaters] are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidence. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me…Yet I’m not dreaming. I look into your eyes, into Norma’s, into the children’s, and I see only kindness, human-kindness. Calm down…This is life.

J.M. Coetzee, The Lives of Animals

My parents tells me it is out of love that they send me those masks at the expense of those who need it. It is out of love that those flights which take them from business meeting to business meeting were made. It is out of love, all is out of love. And how can I argue against love? There is nothing wrong with love, not even the ostensibly “selfish” kind.

But the world is responding, and it demands us to take another look. The atomic bomb imprints the human against the wood in Hiroshima, and so too, I am imprinted repeatedly, infinitely, into all that there is. There is no selfless act, so there is no selfless love. At the end of the day, we can all love, but we must learn how to. As much as the love is real, so is the hurricane. Like Elizabeth, all I see is kindness, all I see is love. But all I feel is horror and sadness.

Everyone else comes to terms with it, you can’t you? Why can’t you?”

I wish I knew.

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