Selfing Others Right in the Face

To “love your neighbor as yourself” is not a restating of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, and I thank Christ for the fact, because the Golden Rule — taken as the singular guiding principle of morality — is frightening as all hell.

For a sizable portion of the population, following the Golden Rule involves leaving others alone to drink Jaegermeister and play World of Warcraft. It could consist of treating others with rainbow-puking positivity, in a syrupy effort to provide eternal emotional affirmation. It could very well mean treating others as an object of lust, or even of violence: The masochist following the Golden Rule is scary thought indeed.

We are a perverse race of mammals. There is no guarantee that the way we would like ourselves to be treated has any bearing on whether that way is objectively good.

Now the call to “love our neighbor as ourself” is fundamentally different. Every man has one, and only one, experience of self: Himself. We — creatures of singular consciousness — know only our own thoughts, reactions, yearnings, longing for love, prayers for mercy, experiences of truth, goodness, beauty, etc. We are sure of the depth and richness and fullness of only our own existence. Sure, we can decide that others are having a remotely similar experience of self, but this can only be a decision of faith. We can neither know, nor prove that we are not the only self in existence, for we cannot experience another as a self, but only as an other, as an object outside of ourselves.

This is man’s greatest sublimity and highest absurdity, that despite having assurance of only his self existing, he treats his neighbor as a self. I believe it a thing rarely done, perhaps once in a thousand different interactions, for it is infinitely easier — and far more comfortable — to treat others, well, as others. This is, after all, how they are presented to us. We view this object, this rock, that animal, this baby, that human person. There is a shallow pool in the heart of man that contains only himself, and designates all else others.

In fact, it is often the case that the more someone is revealed as a self, the greater the temptation is to view them as merely an other.

Pornography is probably the greatest example of this impulse. The naked person is exposed, more fully revealed in their body, and thus more fully recognizable as a self. But it’s a terrifying thought that the person pixelated into an infinitely repeated pageantry of lust contains within himself the same doubts and fears of human existence, the same interior life occupied by a longing for love, and that same uniquely human capacity to wake up in the morning with a desire to do good that we have — in other words, that he is a self. Believing this would certainly render mindless masturbation difficult, and so, in the face of the naked person — so vulnerably a self — we reciprocate by treating them as utterly other. The pixels provide a welcome safety net.

We do this all the time. We will reduce groups of selves to the object “crowd” unless we make the intentional, and difficult, act of faith, and claim that each individual walking in Times Square is an unrepeatable existence to be loved.

We reduce selves in moving boxes to “cars”, treating them with all the dignity and respect that a hunk of metal that doesn’t use turn-signals deserves. We create a whole host of labels to objectify selves into groups. The man who opposes the murder of infants is absorbed into the title “pro-life”, the one furious at God’s apparent inactivity in the world into “New Atheist”, the man without money is no longer a man but “the poor”, and so on and thus forth, fulfilling Kierkegaard’s bitter observation that “once you label me, you negate me.”

We are told not to objectify others.  It is truly not objectifying others that is the effort, for all it takes to objectify is not to make a leap of faith and treat the other as a self. Objectification is the natural result of an unexamined experience.

Every person you meet, you meet as an object outside of yourself, as an interestingly arranged collection of atoms interacting upon your senses. You have no proof that he is a self. It is natural to treat humans like objects. Thus we categorize human beings, label them, use them orgasm-aiding devices, ignore them, and otherwise make like a dead thing and, without any effort, take the downward stream towards the total objectification of all others.

But blocking our path is that strange demand to love our neighbor as ourself. Love is an action of the human will that, in faith, treats those who can only be experienced as others as selves. This is self-evident. The more you love another, the less concerned you are with their objective qualities — how they appear to you, how they affect you — and the more you are concerned with their subjective qualities, their qualities as the selves that you cannot possibly have proof of them being — how they feel, whether they are at home in the world, their state of being, etc. As Kierkegaard posits in Works of Love:

Who, then, is one’s neighbor? The word is clearly derived from neahgebur [near-dweller]; consequently your neighbor is he who dwells nearer than anyone else, yet not in the sense of partiality, for to love him who through favoritism is nearer to you than all others is self-love—”Do not the heathens also do the same?” [Matt. 5.46f.] …The concept of neighbor really means a duplicating of one’s own self (p. 37).

If a man watching porn were for a moment to love the porn-star he would weep, for in making that absurd leap of faith that treats all others as selves, he would care how she felt, as he cares how he himself feels. If the philanthropist were to see “the poor” as singular selves, he would — by his act of love — cease to be a philanthropist and begin to be a Saint, for a Saint doesn’t give a damn about the poor — he loves his neighbor.

This may be why the sudden death of a loved one is so unbelievable, so vomit-inducing, so utterly rejected by the human mind. The one we have loved, the one we have treated as a self, has died. It follows that we, a known self, in a very real way, experience a death within that death. (When Michael Jackson died it felt far different. He was an other to me.)

There is far more to say on this subject, and I fear that I’ll be doing just that. But for now, lest we vomit Christ’s notable-quotable to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” onto bumper stickers crowded with the similar sentiments of a multitude of Golden Rule religions, we should remember He said a little more: “Love your neighbor as yourself”, and that this is truly the greatest and most difficult of commandments.

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  • Andrew

    Are you involved with FOCUS yet, Marc?

  • Brian Formica

    Didn’t Jesus say rule #1 is love God and #2 is “love your neighbor as yourself”?

    • Emily

      I thought he called them together just one commandment?

  • Jake

    FYI that first picture is fake. Although, I am sure you are just using it to illustrate your point.

    • badcatholic


  • Obliged_Cornball

    I’ve always had the impression that most people want to be treated as “selves” the way you describe it. We may objectify others by default, but we loathe to have our own views reduced to a nonsubjective status. We scaffold our external world on the crumbling foundations of the Fundamental Attribution Error, but we would never dream of letting it anchor our own experiences.

    So in this way, I actually do think “Do Unto Others” necessarily entails some degree of selfhood for other people. There are almost certainly exceptions – there are some strange cases out there of people wanting to be objectified. But most of us hate to be boxed into someone else’s crude understanding of our own being. For that majority, doing unto others means not objectifying, else we would have to want object status ourselves.

    This isn’t to say that the two commandments are identical – I think you did a good job of showing how “Do Unto Others” produces other effects besides the one I argue for. But I do think it converges on the conclusion of nonobjectification, despite doing so via a different route. And rather than undercut Jesus’ rule, I think the fact that another method arrives at the same conclusion serves as corroboratory evidence.

  • Mary Liz Bartell

    Love – Love – Love. Not Lust, it’s all about Love. Agape!

  • Meg

    Love this! What happens, though, when we don’t love ourselves first? Or, when we help and love others more than we love ourselves? How is this possible?

    • sara

      Meg, I think if you love an ‘other’ so much that you feel like you love him/her more than you love yourself, then you’re doing it right. :) By loving them, you love your own self, but not for that end, of course– you love them just for being, for existing. That is anyone’s greatest quality: they simply are. So you act accordingly, you love them because love is a (never ending) action, and it inherently reflects how you view yourself because it is the action you choose to perform– in spite of what the selfish world encourages you to do (i.e. put yourself first)!

      The point is to love others. (To do so you must obviously take care of yourself, take care of your health, etc. so that you can physically/emotionally/financially care for your neighbors.) But the point isn’t to love yourself first; it’s just to love the other, as you love your own self…

      I’m still thinking through this, but it seems to me the two ways of looking at How to Love are:
      1. consider your neighbor first, put him/her before yourself in all things
      2. consider your neighbor as your direct equal, put his/her needs right alongside your own and do your best to meet both in all things.

      Neither of these views ranks yourself first. But with either view, by loving your neighbor, you do, in effect, love yourself.

      I don’t know if you believe in God, or Jesus, or the Saints, but if you do, I think it helps to remember that they never loved themselves first. It was/is always about their neighbor, simply about loving the other. That’s the spirit that distinguished them from the rest of the world. The spirit of the world has always and will continue to be about loving yourself first, but this will accomplish nothing in the long run for any society. If you feel like you’re helping and loving others more than you love yourself, then I say keep at it! The world needs more of it! Just remember to keep yourself healthy so that you can keep on truckin’. And, of course, pray. God loves you even beyond your human need to be loved, so there’s no need to worry about that. :)

    • badcatholic

      Actually, I don’t think it’s possible to love ourselves. Love is intentional, directed to something other than ourselves. How can we say “I love myself” without splitting the singular “I” into two — The one who loves and the one who is loved? Perhaps the impulse with which we wish to love ourselves is really our desire to know that we are loved.

      • Montague

        No, remember, “No man hated his own, etc.?” I may be mistaken, but I think that is the sense in which Paul tells husbands to love their wives (who are persons that, at least once, are other.) In this sense “Love” is the unconditional wishing of good for the object/subject.

        • Nick

          Having recently watched Fr. Barron’s Catholicism series, it is my understanding that the ability of self-knowledge, self-love, “I said to myself,” etc behavior is one of the ways we are an image of the Triune God.

    • Linebyline

      If I’m remembering my Baltimore Catechism correctly, “as yourself” doesn’t really mean in amount. It means more like in the same manner. You don’t have a special kind of love that applies to yourself, but love others as though they were anything other than a human being *just like you are*. (Whereas you have a different kind of love reserved for God.) Which is basically what Marc was talking about in the post.

  • Montague

    But of course. ; )

    The only thing I wish to say is that we must balance this with using terms to group people… It would be an error to think only of many. Everyone is himself, a self; but at the same time there is a real thing such as the human race, a real collective entity. Same thing with the Church. As soon as we either say there are only collectives or only individuals, we break logic. I do not think Kierkegaard was correct (though I have not read him so I cannot be sure.) He seems too anti-rational. But that will not do. We must have subjects AND Objects, Persons AND Others – that is the importance of the Christian God. Trinity – One-ness and Many-ness. Infinite Personality – Personal and Other. Christ – Man and God. Are you familiar with Van Til’s Trancendental argument? Probably you will say a Catholic invented it first. Maybe Chesterton. “If the Universe is to have [Science/Logic, Epistemology (Knowledge), Meaning, etc.] then X (God) must be the case.”

    I only am saying this as a sort of reminder… I am quite certain that you are fully aware of it and don’t mean to imply any mad conclusions from your language. A Catholic really can’t.

    Theology is kind of the Philosophy of eating your cake and having it too. The only way to defeat death – Entropy. Eternal life. Infinities. Not Zen. Zen is balanced at zero. We need to feast and fast sometimes. Life – eternal life – comes with infinite opposite qualities, and the intersection of the infinite with the finite. Apologies for Rambling. But I think you already know this is the way God solves all our puny little problems.

  • sara

    Yea, verily Marc! Love this one. I’m going to work on this, which is especially fitting as I conclude the last week of my prep for Total Consecration!! May God have mercy on our often ridiculously selfish hearts when we all are more than capable of loving one another. Peace, neighbor! :)

  • JethroElfman

    Good post. I’ve been telling people for years that the Golden Rule sucks. I love Dale Carnegie’s version, “Treat others as they wish to be treated”.

    • sara

      *So long as others wish to be treated with love. The problem of the Golden Rule might still lurk within Carnegie’s version if the other doesn’t wish/want good for him/herself. Again using Marc’s example of the masochist, if the other actually wishes to be treated horribly, then Carnegie’s version ends up being no better than the Golden Rule.

      “Treat others as they wish to be treated” works insofar as others wholly and consistently wish to be treated well, with respect, and with love. It also works insofar as we are capable of fully comprehending exactly how others wish to be treated! Humans can be really good at misinterpreting each other’s wishes…

      Does each of us have an inherent desire to be loved? I believe we do. But what can we say for those with distorted views of the world, distorted views of themselves? The inherent desire still exists, but if the person with severe, clinical depression has a mental condition which causes him or her to wish ill upon him or herself, what does Carnegie’s version do to improve things? How do we assess (that is, correctly interpret) if a person with depression wishes what is truly best for him or herself? Not to get all personal in a blog comment, but if I treated my mother, who has clinical depression, as she wished to be treated a few years ago, she wouldn’t be around, and in a twisted way, it would have been my action and others’ action (or inaction) that lead to her death… That’s a terrible thought, but the point is I don’t think Carnegie’s version resolves the fault of the Golden Rule in some cases.

      (Thank God for good medicine and a strong family, my mother is alive and happy to be here!)

      • badcatholic

        How about, “treat others as they should like to be treated?” (:

        • Linebyline

          Problem there is who decides how people *should* like to be treated.

          Isn’t that exactly what the Obama administration does?

        • Chris Shaw

          You know the old saying: “a true sadist is kind to a masocist.”

        • sara

          “Treat others as they should like to be treated” sounds alright, but it also runs into the issue of forced love. But maybe the key to loving as God does, loving others as yourself, is to just outright ignore what treatment others like, and even what treatment they should like, and just give them our all, whether they like it or not! :)

          Kind of (sadly) like the loving relationship between God and us. He gave/gives his all, yet we don’t even know if that’s what we want sometimes. He doesn’t ask for our permission or our preference, He just loves with all he’s got.

          Perhaps we’re all over-thinking this. We had the best example of “love your neighbor as yourself” approximately 2000 years ago. No rephrasing is necessary if we just keep looking back to that example and applying it to relevant situations today.

          “Always more, more, more for one another.”

          I guess the rephrasing is difficult to stop. :)

    • sara

      Rereading your comment, I may have even misinterpreted your words…speaking of misinterpreting others.

      If you were being sarcastic about ‘loving’ Carnegie’s version, then I suppose I feel the same way: his version sucks just as much as the Golden Rule, in my opinion. :)

  • Paul T

    comment re. Jackson felt strange, did his death not affect you ? Surely his fans experienced a death within a death ? I love the posting – this felt a tad discordant.

    • badcatholic

      My apologies for the obscurity of that line. I knew nothing of Michael Jackson, I was neither a fan nor friend. MJ was to me an ever-present pop icon. His death was strange because it was the death, not of a self — which were I a saint or a philosopher I would have known — but of a great, pop Thing, which I’d unconsciously objectified, other-ed and otherwise ignored throughout my life. A better example would be when we read about murder in the news: The death of those we do not know/love rarely evokes a genuine experience of death within ourselves.

  • Tom

    A corollary to the need to view others as…others is that we want desperately to make those who do or support evil as unlike us as possible. We want Bond villains; we want SPECTRE.

    We want this scarred megalomaniac who spends his time plotting schemes like missile toppling, nuclear blackmail, and World War III in his volcano lair, who commands underlings with all ridiculous traits, like an Asian doctor with metal hands in his underwater base, or a lesbian Russian with a shoe knife, or a homicidal Aryan assassin nearly immune to pain or a conceited chess-laying schemer, or a eyepatched Sicilian who lives in a two-part detachable yacht in the Bahamas, and beautiful redheads, all of whom have names like Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Julius No, Rosa Klebb, Emilio Largo, and Helga Brandt.

    What we don’t want is people like us, who wake up in the morning and have families, favorite songs, pet peeves, and aches and pains. Some of my friends are pro-choice, and it’s something of a shock to think to myself, “Gee, this perfectly decent, respectable person supports allowing millions to be murdered for convenience.” Those who supported slavery were likewise not racist caricatures who spent all day every day thinking of ways to oppress black people. They had daily lives and to them being pro-slavery was no different from our being pro-choice. It was a perfectly respectable position.

    We even see this on a more mundane level. Whenever we’re talking with like-minded people (online and offline), those who hold different positions become a bunch of cackling malfeasants, who spend their time planning to kill the poor/destroy the Church/institute liturgical dance/eliminate every non-gender-neutral pronoun because they want to do the most evil thing possible. We don’t stop to consider that, first, their positions are not nearly as extreme as we believe them to be, and second, that they might have decent, or at least understandable, reasons to believe the things that they do.

    • Montague

      Yes, Only bigots cannot understand where most people are coming from; though I don’t think any position but the Christian one is eventually rational or morally correct.

      Actually, I think it is quite consistent with reality to say that most moderate people have enormous and evil fallacies attached to their reasoning. No one can really tell because everyone is similar. But the human sin nature is the greatest fallacy possible, a madness which blinds us to our wrongs. But it’s one that everyone falls into, so it is quite equitable to be gentle about it in most cases. As the Lord said, the plank in my own eye is the one I ought to deal with first.

  • Jake

    Hey Marc — I think you’ve already met my SO, Sarah Spangenberg, who’s starting up 1flesh at the University of St. Thomas. I recently made the first post on our new co-blog, and actually touch on a number of similar themes. Would love your input and insight if you have any:

    • Jake

      Ironic use of the term “significant other” is acknowledged.

  • Louise

    I posted a critique of your comment re: Michael Jackson yesterday. I see you have edited your essay comment referring to him, which I appreciate very much. However, I’m calling you out – as one Catholic to another – for removing my original comment and not responding directly to it. That was dishonest; although you may feel regret that you spoke judgmentally about another person (which is a human error), you still should have acknowledged what I said. I have loved reading your blog and I don’t say these things to pick on you, but simply to encourage you to show your best self to your readers, which includes making amends for errors made. I reiterate my challenge to you and hope that you have – or will – visit to learn what kind of man he really was, and why so many millions grieved his death. Far more than a great talent was lost. You know, “Just because you read it in magazine or see it on the TV screen, don’t make it factual, actual.” – From his song “Tabloid Junkie.” Peace and God bless you. It’s all for love.

  • Josh

    The only way to truly follow the Golden Rule, to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” IS to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” because each of us wishes to be acknowledged as a Self by others, more than anything else, so to truly obey the Golden Rule I must “Do unto others” that honor of greeting them as their Selves “as I would have them do unto me.”