In order to really love, Thich Nhat Hanh proposes, we need to consider the elements of true love: benevolence, compassion, joy and freedom. But what about the more fundamental problem of selfishness? Can we ever love wholeheartedly in a way that puts the wellbeing of the other person – our beloved or a stranger – before our own? In her poem, Altruism, Molly Peacock uses the image of the fire of the self as the distorting lens that makes it difficult for us to perceive what lies beyond the scope of our own immediate experience, no matter how good we think our intentions are. ‘What if, when we said I love you, there were a you to love?’ is a compelling statement that strips down the way we see one another and asks the more radical question about how our self-involvement really skews our relationship with other people.
What if we got outside ourselves and there
really was an outside out there, not just
our insides turned inside out? What if there
really were a you beyond me, not just
the waves off my own fire, like those waves off
the backyard grill you can see the next yard through,
though not well — just enough to know that off
to the right belongs to someone else, not you.
What if, when we said I love you, there were
a you to love as there is a yard beyond
to walk past the grill and get to? To endure
the endless walk through the self, knowing through a bond
that has no basis (for ourselves are all we know)
is altruism: not giving, but coming to know
someone is there through the wavy vision
of the self’s heat, love become a decision.