My dog is dying, after a long life of beaches and forests and affection. She is one of the sweetest, gentlest, most enthusiastic creatures I’ve ever met, my friend and companion for nearly fifteen years. So even before the news and social media degraded and humiliated themselves by going into hysterics over the death of Cecil the lion while covering up or excusing Planned Parenthood’s butchery and sale of human babies, I’ve had cause to reflect on human-animal relationships.
It in no way detracts from the goodness of my dog nor diminishes my devotion to her to observe that there’s a measure of narcissism in the love of animals. Our pets demand any number of little attentions from us, but they will never ask us to change our opinions. They will never challenge the validity of our inner worlds with their own.
Those competing inner visions humans have — other outlooks; conflicting opinions — that’s what narcissists can’t stand; that’s what really offends them. It’s not enough for a narcissistic tyrant that you do what he says, you also have to profess what he believes. It’s not enough that you leave him alone, you have to bake the cake for his wedding too. Narcissists can’t abide the Other. Competing inner worlds drive them to insane levels of cruelty, brutality and even murder. Animals never pose that problem for them. That’s why so many people who preen themselves on their love of animals are such rotten imbeciles when it comes to other humans. The PETA types who assault people for wearing fur, say. Philosopher Peter Singer who believes a baby may be morally killed but not a dog. Such love of animals is not love at all; just narcissism made flesh.
Narcissism should not be confused with self love, no matter what the dictionary tells you. Narcissism grows out of a sense that the self is fragile, that it will shatter in the presence of hostility or even bland contradiction. True love of self, used wisely, is a virtue. True love of self is the school of our affections. The Gospels tell us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves because it’s in true self love that we first learn forbearance, tolerance and kindness to someone very dear to us. With true love of self as a guide, our love for our pets can be a perfect training ground for a love of others.
In this, the love of animals is very like another kind of love: the love of a mother for her baby. That love, too, has a measure of narcissism in it. That love too attaches itself at first to a creature with no inner consciousness of its own.
But a good mother knows that people don’t just live in space, they live in time as well. (This is the great point Peter Singer misses, by the way.) You are not just who you are, but also who you’ve been and who you will be. Likewise, a fetus is not just the creature it is, it is also the child it will become, and likewise the child is the adult it will grow into. A mother who lets the love for her baby grow as the baby grows, who learns to release her child into its own consciousness and yet loves it still even on into adulthood — she is the nearest exemplar to the gospel commandment we have this side of heaven. That’s why — no matter how many female soccer stars and talk show hosts and corrupt senators the media hold up for our veneration — the Good Mother remains our chief human image of love, sacrifice and virtue.
Narcissism or the golden rule; Cecil the lion or America’s murdered babies; to dance round the golden calf of our own egos or to worship in the temple of true love. In the media these last couple of weeks, we’ve seen what choice the powers-that-be would have us make. Let’s make another.