Love is giving. This is the primary thesis of Erich Fromm’s theory of love in his classic work, The Art of Loving. Contrary to the widespread misunderstanding that the act of giving is synonymous to “give up” or “sacrifice,” Fromm believes that giving is an expression of potency. It is exactly at the moment of giving you experience the highest form of joy fueled by a profound sense of vitality, empowerment, and humanity, or what I truly believe is the most desirable form of success in life. It is my belief that success, hence, is when you know that you are capable of giving and do give, realizing that you are in love at the very moment you give.
Consider the tough works all parents have to face raising a child — changing diapers, cleaning bottles, dealing with temper tantrums, etc. Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, found a paradox in his study: Most parents nevertheless regard the experience of bring up a child a chief source of their happiness in life despite the contradicting fact that it consists mostly repetitive jobs nobody enjoys doing. How could any sane human being find joy in such excess of unpleasantness? One plausible explanation, which goes beyond the realm of hedonism seeking a surplus of pleasure over distress, is that people find their life as an entirety more meaningful with their unconditional act of giving. To quote Fromm on his theory of love again:
The most important sphere of giving . . . lies in the specifically human realm . . . that he gives him of that which is alive in him; he gives him of his joy, of his interest, of his understanding, of his knowledge, of his humor, of his sadness—of all expressions and manifestations of that which is alive in him. In thus giving of his life, he enriches the other person, he enhances the others sense of aliveness by enhancing his own sense of aliveness.
Giving, furthermore, is not a singular one-directional act towards others. The giver — that is, you — is as deserving as those to whom you choose to give. “If you love yourself, you love everybody else as you do yourself,” the theologian and philosopher, Meister Eckhart, once wrote on the topic of self-love. It is thus my belief that you must learn how to love and give to yourself before you are capable of loving all alike.
And so this is it. The lack of a genuine, authentic love of yourself in your very own life is exactly what makes you feel defeated day after day. You knew half way through college that you enjoyed Computer Science more than any other engineering disciplines and yet you chose to struggle your way through Electrical Engineering. You knew that you were in love with art and design more than anything else and yet you easily ruled out the possibility of a career in the creative industry even after completing a full year of study in a design school. Why? You believed that it was too much, too late to make changes, and choose to follow the “norm,” an existing path “proven” to work according to the belief of your friends and family, only to be easily crushed when you failed to excel. This is sad. Your becoming has been nonexistent — you have been forcing yourself to become someone, something else that you are not your whole life, and you bashed yourself hard when you were unable to succeed in doing so.
“Pay attention” and “observing the play of inner states” are Montaigne’s answer to the question of how to live; he quoted Pliny the Elder in Essays: “Each man is a good education to himself, provided he has the capacity to spy on himself from close up.”† Consider again the person you have known as you who longs for your attention: He desperately needs a chance from you to nurture his becoming without constantly being compared to the norms of others. Applause for his efforts — a degree in engineering, a design portfolio recognized by peers and professionals, and a job at a leading digital agency — and stop downplaying his characters for his setbacks in the past and what he lacks today. Together you have come to the world as one and together you will depart from it one day. Until the day comes, he needs your giving to thrive.
† Bakewell, Sarah (2011). How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. Other Press.