The worst loneliness is not to be comfortable with yourself. – Mark Twain
Over the years I’ve moved away from the aphorisms about loving oneself and being one’s own best friend, in part because that’s not so much what I needed and in part because I noticed too much self-concern weakens people, making them too subjective. I do think there’s a healthy and natural measure of self-love that is needed in life, and for some people in some circumstances that measure of self-love needs to be increased (in abusive relationships, for instance, or when people grossly underestimate their brilliance and potential) or brought down a notch or two (for narcissists).
There’s a taboo among some portions of society against healthy levels of self-love. The truth is that we have a self and a natural need for an identity, and that selflessness is impossible: to have no self means to not exist in some way or another. We must avoid the altruistic extreme where selflessness is seen as an ideal. We must have healthy respect for our own egoes and our own needs in all of our relationships to avoid labor and relationship abuses that would otherwise happen. We need to oftentimes set healthy boundaries with people, stand up for ourselves in cases of injustice (this trickles down into a general culture of respect and dignity when people do this), and take time to take care of ourselves.
Once this balance is found, it must be cultivated and revisited. There isn’t a clear line that determines what is our natural measure of self-love: life is too dynamic and, depending on our relations, we may or may not need to assert ourselves in different instances. Sometimes a good conversation with a friend or loved one can change the dynamics between us so that abuses of our trust and of our kindness do not happen again.
It’s unfortunate that we don’t have more ancient sources on Epicurean philosophy that may have explained the ideal of autarchy in detail, however the contractarian ethics and notions of justice in Epicurus clearly require that we be individuals, free agents capable of making independent choices and of entering into covenants and arrangements with each other. This implies, of course, that we must know what we want. And how can we know what we want if we don’t know and befriend ourselves?
Befriending the self, living and loving and laughing with oneself, is literally the beginning of the most fulfilling long-term relationship we can possibly have. Boredom becomes an excuse if we befriend ourselves and learn to enjoy our own company. Authenticity becomes easier if we learn to confide in ourselves honestly. Most people frequently lie to themselves and live in what philosopher Sartre called bad faith.
One thing I’ve learned as the insights of Epicurean doctrine have settled over time, is that the act of making a commitment with ourselves and with our ataraxia, our peace and tranquility and equanimity, is an act of befriending ourselves. We are each ultimately responsible for our own happiness, no one else is or must be. To take this responsibility seriously (as every Epicurean is told that he or she must) is an act of compassion for oneself. We owe at least as much kindness and compassion to ourselves as we do to others, if not more: our happiness, safety, health and wellbeing is in our own hands.