The Essence of Psychology Is Love
Erich Fromm's "The Art of Loving" teaches us how to love ourselves and others.
Posted May 14, 2019
As a young psychology student, I remember reading Erich Fromm’s evocative book, The Art of Loving, and thinking it was pretty good. I was particularly struck by Fromm’s suggestion that it was impossible to love one’s neighbor without loving oneself. It had never occurred to me that, if I do not love myself, then loving my neighbor as myself, is to do a disservice to my neighbor!
Now, as an older person, whose values and focus are not exclusively on the romantic side of love, and include an overarching drive to love others and be loving, I have reread Fromm’s book and walked away with an entirely different impression. Maturing will do that – help you see things you weren’t prepared to see before. The purpose of this article is to point us all in the direction of the art of loving and to simultaneously write about it for myself – letting the words deepen in me as I reflect upon them through my writing.
As a psychologist, I have often expressed my belief that psychology requires courage. There are demons and falsehoods floating around in our brains which influence how we interpret and interact with the world. The average person would rather not engage with these phantasms, because they are manifestations of events upon which she does not want to gaze. Yet, these events are clouds on her vision, like psychic cataracts, which make life more difficult and harder to experience fully. The courageous engagement with the therapeutic process, which nudges us toward the naming of those ghosts from the past, gradually robs them of their power and hands our power back to us.
Erich Fromm’s book has convinced me that this message I have been delivering is short-sighted. While psychology absolutely requires the courage to face our fears, and name our demons, this requirement is only the first part of the path that psychology urges us to trod. The individual journey of self-exploration is the key to loving oneself; the next step is to expand that love toward others in a way that is authentic and real.
Loving others is, according to Fromm, extremely difficult. What we tend to call love in our world is often a masquerade for neurotic attachment, manipulation, and opportunism. The polite face and tone we adopt when we are engaging with others are misinterpreted as love, when in fact it may be mere propriety. Loving others demands the determination of virtues like humility, courage, faith, and discipline. If you are in doubt that love is a rarity, rather than commonplace, just ask yourself, “How many truly loving people have I ever known?”
To describe love as an art implies several things: 1) It requires knowledge; 2) It requires effort and practice; 3) It is a skill that only intentional practitioners possess. No one who thinks of himself as an artist came out of the womb with the ability to sculpt or paint or draw. Even the people you think of as “naturally artistic” started creating basic works that lacked sophistication. The naturally artistic person might have had some kind of genetic or environmental headstart, but for the most part, he became an expert from practicing, and from thinking about his practicing even when he wasn’t practicing.
Loving others is the same way. Reflecting on how to love, trying hard to practice love, and thinking about love leads to a more developed skill. Where most of us fall short is in thinking that the problem of love is “that of being loved, rather than that of loving.” We are looking for self-validation, the feelings of giddiness that can come about from attaching to another person who “gets us.” Our relationships consist of people who are very much like us, confirming our deeply held beliefs, and ridiculing those who are outside of our circle. We think we love, when really what we do is see in the people we encounter reflections of ourselves, projections of our wishes for the future.
Fromm suggests that “What most people in our culture mean by being lovable is essentially a mixture between being popular and having sex appeal.” I know that I think about my immense popularity and obvious sex appeal every day! Believe me, I am fully aware that I am all that as well as a bag of chips. But this self-conception of mine has nothing to do with love as a skill that I use to improve the world and help others expand their own lives to be more fulfilled and actualized.
Note that I include myself in the mass of people who struggle to be loving. I find myself getting angry when I hear someone support policies that do not match what I believe to be best. The loving questions might be, “From whence comes this anger, and how can I move away from the divisiveness of my anger and toward the inclusion of understanding?”
According to Fromm, “The mastery of the art [of loving] must be a matter of ultimate concern; there must be nothing else in the world more important than the art.” And yet, the practical realities of our world pull us away from enacting love, and toward learning and striving toward the achievement of other aims; namely, success, prestige, money and/or power, none of which concern anyone outside of ourselves and our own small circle. I admit to perseverations of my own about success, prestige, money, and power. While my writing and other accomplishments have some impetus to help others, they are also attempts to build up my name and my influence.
What about you? To what degree is your life focused on the giving and receiving of love, as opposed to more self-centered goals? The question behind the question really is this: If you weren’t self-centered in your striving, who would look out for you? This is the conundrum, especially in a capitalist culture. Indeed, Fromm states that “the principle of capitalism [is] incompatible with the principle of love.” Since I “know” (rather, I’ve been told) that this is a “dog-eat-dog world,” I must look out for myself and myself alone. Or else, everyone else will get ahead of me, and I’ll be left out in the cold, eating dust mites for breakfast. If I do too much loving of others, what will I get back?
My own inspiration from the book is that this kind of question, fraught with my own economic anxieties, comes from the mouth of a cultural demon, who wishes to temper my desire to be more loving. Must love be mutually exclusive of self-concern? If I try harder to be loving and compassionate toward other people, especially those who are less familiar to me, does that necessitate self-sacrifice? I would suggest, along with Fromm, that loving others makes the loved one more loving, and makes the lover more complete. Thus, the art of loving consists of acts of non-conformity in the face of a culture that does not understand or know how to promote loving acts.
Our culture’s capitalist framework bends conversations toward fairness – we negotiate a way to interact with one another, and everyone gets what he deserves – while a norm of love bends in an entirely different direction. To love others is only possible if we love ourselves first, and the desire to love others is a natural extension of that belief in our own worth, which is, in essence, a belief that we are the embodiment of love in the world, which must be expressed.
Psychology requires courage and demands that we are ever on the search for more enlightenment and self-understanding, even in the face of fears and anxieties which delight in holding us back. As we develop, our love for self deepens, matures, and then yearns to expand outward, so that others might also love. Therefore, the essence of psychology, and all psychological activity, is the art of loving.
Fromm, E. (2000). The art of loving: The centennial edition. A&C Black.