The Dilemma of Narcissus - by Louis Lavelle


I am wrong, doubtless, if I complain of the treatment I receive from others, for it is always an effect and a reflection of the way I treat them. I am grieved because others do not love me enough, but the reason is my own lovelessness. It is the warmth of welcome which I bear within me which makes others warm to me, and they reject me only if, in the bottom of my heart, I have already rejected them. Now man is so made that he is not conscious of this reciprocity: he would be noticed by those he cares nothing for, and thought much of by those he despises. "But with what measure ye mete it shall be measured to you again."

I have never done accusing others; I ignore them, loudly protesting that I despise them, that I have no desire to know them. But I cannot do without them. This contempt I feel for them is nothing but the sign of my need to esteem them; and it dictates my duty towards them, which is to give them enough love to make them worthy of my esteem.


To be sincere is to descend into the depths of our selves, and there to find the gifts which are ours, and yet which are nothing except by virtue of the use we make of them. It is refusing to let them lie unused. It is preventing them remaining buried within us, in the darkness of the realm of possibility. It is bringing them forth into the light of day, so that, in the view of all, they increase the wealth of the world, by being, as it were, a revelation which continually enriches it. Sincerity is the act by which, at one and the same time, a man knows himself and makes himself. It is the act by which he shows himself to be what he is, and consents to contribute, according to the measure of his strength, to the work of creation.

The birds of the air and the lilies of the field

To live like the birds and the lilies is to listen faithfully to every call within, and to respond obediently to every call coming from without; it is to begin our lives all over again at every instant; it is to entrust the results of our actions to an order which transcends us, and which we can neither alter nor control. Not that we should leave everything to Fate out of sloth or despair, the slaves of our temperament, be it optimistic or pessimistic. On the contrary, we must exercicse our will in all its strength, adapting it precisely and accurately to the specific circumstances. As for the results, they do not depend on us but on the order which rules the world, an order which can never be violated, though it is for us to collaborate in maintaining it. Moreover this order still triumphs even when, from the disorder of our wills, arises the disorder of things.

Humanity's greatest error, particularly in our own age, is to imagine that by means of an external effect one can obtain the supreme good; this resides alone in an operation which the sould must accomplish. Men make enjoyment their supreme goal. But they expend immense exterior activity creating the instruments by which to come by anything and everything, while turning away from that inner activity which would free them from the bondage to these instruments, and without which they cannot even take possession of the things they create.

Suffering transfigured

We may be sure that the value of every individual is in proportion to the extent, the subtlety, and the depth of the sufferings of which he is capable, for it is suffering which gives him the most intimate communication with the world, and with himself. The extent, the subtlety, and the depth of all the joys he can ever know are in proportion to them. Who would renounce the joy in order to escape the suffering, and desire insensibility in their place? So let us boldly assert that suffering must not only be endured, nor even accepted only, but that it must also be willed, for he who would dull it would dull the fine point of his soul. And it is not enough to say that we must will suffering in the same way as we will our destiny, or the order of the world, for it is suffering that deepens our consciousness, plowing it up, making it understanding and loving, scooping out a refuge in our souls into which the world may be welcomed. It refines to an extreme delicacy our every contact with the world.

Indifference and disinterestedness

All that is radically other than me cannot but be a matter of indifference to me. And so indifference is a defensive position to which we may retire in the battle with self-love. Indifference is the medicine for self-love, and should be brought into play only in situations in which self-love has been rearing its head. The purest expression of it, which is also the most exacting, is indifference to one's own feelings. It is the indifference of the will in relation to anything which may cause me pleasure or pain. The stronger the feelings, the more total must be the indifference. It then leaves our courage intact, whether Fortune crushes us, or whether she smiles.

To be indifferent to what happens to us, to every occasion and to every event, is to recognize the unique character of every occasion and every event, and so to make the perfect response. And this apparent indifference is at the same time and uninhibited self-giving, by means of which I am enabled to treat all the vicissitudes of fate as of equal significance, turning my eyes not on myself as I suffer them, but on God, who sends them.

The unavoidable choice

No one can wait for the discovery of his destiny before beginning to act: there comes a moment when he must gamble, and run the risk the gamble involves. And perhaps we should say that the longing, the discovery, and the gamble, do not follow one another in time, but take place together at every moment of our lives. This is the drama of the present moment.


I must not be preoccupied by the idea of myself as a unique and inimitable person, for this stimulates my amour-propre, an instinct which drives me to try to keep everything for myself, and to turn everything to my own use. A man acts and lives from the depths of his being when he assumes a free and generous attitude towars the self of which he is conscious, but which as a matter of fact he transcends, and to which, therefore, he ought never to allow himself to be enslaved. Narcissus remained forever its slave. Amour-propre spoils our relations with others in countless ways. It breeds touchiness. We are afraid people will dislike us, then we imagine they do, when in fact they are not even thinking about us. Sometimes our suspicions bring about the very thing we fear: we create antipathy in someone who had no feelings for us either way, or who had even been quite ready to be our friend. I see things that others do not see, while others see things I miss. The things which give people pleasure differ. All this gives rise to misunderstandings; and often we only avoid mutual jealousy at the price of mutual contempt.

Hatred of the spiritually-minded

No one realizes his life alone, but only through the mediation of others. I need the reassurance and the help of friends, but I need men's hatred too. It tests me, forces me to become aware of my limitations, to grow, to perform a work of ceaseless self-purification; it makes me more and more faithful to myself, protects me against all the temptations to take the easy way to "success"; it compels me to fall back on what is deepest, most secret, and most spiritual in me, where those who hate me are powerless to hurt, where they meet no object into which to fix their claws, and nothing they can destroy. And the most spiritual men are also inevitably the most hated: for hatred is nothing but love enslaved, jealous of itself, and enraged by its own impotence. The most implacable hatred is reserved for those who have achieved a genuine, and not merely a feigned indifference to the things by which others set most store. It is specially virulent in those who possess these things, and are in a position to bestow them on others, for they fancy they are being slighted, and further, deprived of the sole source of influence available to them.

The smallest spiritual progress which we make isolates us from others. They recognize in us someone who has begun to be sufficient unto himself. The world hates all those who are not of the world, namely those who do not belong to a closed society which is sufficient unto itself, but in which no one is sufficient unto himself alone, a society which only values a thing for its appearance and for the opinions of others which form about it. It hates all those who have access to another world, in which public opinion counts for nothing; for here every individual is sufficient unto himself. In this world, reality is interior and invisible, appearances melt away, public opinion has no weight. The world of the spirit lies beyond the world of matter; it can never become an object of observation, and yet in it alone we live.

Humility and esteem for others

Only humility can keep us firmly planted on the soil in which we live and grow; when we are rooted there we fear no fall. We should not consider it a virtue: it only appears to be one because pride, which makes us the center of the world, inflating the little parcel of reality which we occupy until it fills infinity itself, is of all vices the most tenacious. Humility makes us take note of what we are not, and forces us to correct the estimate of our pride. But it does so to enable us to find our true measure. For humility is not self-contempt, which is degrading, and which is almost always the sign of resentment directed against ourselves, and against the universe to which we belong. Self-contempt deprives us of all our resources, while humility establishes their limits, so that we may use them better.

The separation which unites

Men cannot unite until they have recognized and accepted their distinctive differences. When this happens, a man can reveal to another something in himself which he could not have found unaided. It is a mistake to imagine that I have to scan the horizon of my life in the hopes of finding others identical to myself, with identical thoughts and feelings; or that I should seek nothing in others but character traits similar to mine, and neglect that individual part of their natures which constitutes their essential being, by virtue of which they can say "I"; for this is in fact the precise point at which we meet, and which I must reach if my solitude is to be broken down. If men could bring themselves to recognize the uniqueness and inimitability of each individual, their egoism and their jealousy would fade away, and a mutual admiration would develop; their instinct would be to hold out the hand of friendship, rather than to repulse the other man.


Influence on someone else is only possible on condition that one is not trying to influence him. Your desire to win me over to your point of view puts me on my guard, and stimulates opposition in me. Your thought is debased and corrupted, you are no longer single-minded, when you are thinking of your coming victory. A man influences another solely by what he is, not by what he is trying to do. The desire to insinuate himself into another mind in order to subject it to his own can only be prompted by amour-propre, and this in turn is to corrupt the purity of his spiritual insight. I begin to awaken another's interest only when he feels that I am entirely disinterested, and even, one might say, indifferent as to whether I convince him or not. He has the best chance of succeeding who withdraws farthest into the depths of his own essence, unconcerned as to whether others are watching, or understanding what he says.


The most elusive center of our vocation does not lie in the choice of a task for which we seem specially made, for this will merely determine the influence we may have on things. It lies in the choice of our friends, those whose company gives savor to life, those who understand us and help us, with whom we can live in uninterrupted familiarity, those who never cramp our genius by suspicion or hostility, but support it and enable it to unfold. The ability to recognize kindred spirits without sacrificing one's integrity to them, is the secret of strength, success, and happiness. Just as the author needs a public which understands him and supports him, just so every man needs a favorable milieu, like the soil without which no seed can bear fruit. But it would be a mistake to think that this milieu is given to us, and that our part is merely to accept it. Like every other event in our lives, it is a meeting-place of chance and free-will. But we must be prudent; for all those about us, all those we meet along the way are, for us, opportunities and challenges. We have no right to reject them. And so what we are left with is less the choice of the people among whom we will live, than the discovery of the precise point of contact between their destiny and ours which will lead to mutual enrichment rather than to separation or enmity.

A friend is he in whose presence we hold nothing back; we show ourselves as we are; there is no difference between what we are and the impression we wish to create. And in him also there is abolished the difference, characteristic of our relations with all other men, between the within, which is only real for us, and the without, which is the appearance we offer to the world. But a friend is also he in whose presence we cease to be anything at all, and we can, without fear of humiliation, leave the question both of what we want, and what we are worth, in total indetermination. A friend is he in whose presence we can try out unashamed all the potentialites of our inner life.

Without haste

We must never be in a hurry, never hasty, like those slavish souls whose restless appetites distort their faces, proving that they have found nothing in themselves that is truly theirs--their one desire to get away from themselves, their one fear that of reaching their destination too late. But to what purpose all their haste? All the particular goals which they pursue so feverishly are similar to the objects which they already hold in their hands; it is unlikely that they will find in them anything new. For they are contained in the All, whose presence has been given to them already. Then why this haste? We will reach home sooner or later. We are there already. The problem is to enjoy what we have, rather than to acquire what we have not--some other thing, which we will not be able to enjoy once we have it. For the end is never attained, since we always project it into an ever-receding future. We must learn to abandon the idea of a never-ending chase: we will never reach our destination; we merely postpone living, and thereby never live.

Life breaks the surface of reality and emerges at the present moment; we must not hold our gaze fixed on a future which, when it comes, will be merely another present. The unhappy man is he who is forever thinking back into the past or forward into the future; the happy man does not try to escape from the present, but rather to penetrate within it and to take possession of it. Almost always we ask of the future to bring us a happiness which, if it came, we would have to enjoy in another present; but this is to see the problem the wrong way round. For it is out of the present which we have already, and from the way we make use of it, without turning our eyes to right or left, that will emerge the only happy future we will ever have.

A presence which passes our understanding

Habit makes me blind and dulls my mind to all the extraordinary things of which the world is full--light, movement, my own existence, you who are speaking to me and who, suddenly, come towards me with friendship in your eyes; and yet, were there no such thing as habit, I would be surrounded exclusively by objects of terror and miraculous presences. The child is well aware that when he fixes his eyes for a moment on the things he knows best, and suddenly forgets their habitual use, they are the ones which leave him thunderstruck. And the most perfect art is that which shows us afresh the things we know best, as if, in a new revelation, we were seeing them for the first time. So it is that were it not for the force of habit, reality would strike our senses so directly and so violently that we could not bear its impact. Habit is a sort of protective shield.

Now spiritual activity in all its forms is an attempt not to acquire habits, as some say, but to break them, so as to uncover the fabulous spectacle beneath--which habit hides, and always distorts. And so men do very wrong to scorn the humble object beneath their eyes, to dream sterile dreams of the future, to imagine on the other side of the grave a world which will finally realize their desires. The whole of reality is already given to them; the difficulty is to obtain an undistorted image of it. It is not by going beyond appearances, as is commonly said, that we will ultimately grasp the truth, for our need precisely is that truth should appear to us, and the greatest minds reveal what before had escaped us, and what habit will cover over again soon enough. Neither behind phenomena, nor beyond the grave, does there exist a reality other than the one we see today; some reject it and chase after fantasies, while others find in it, according to the measure of their love, all the joys of earth, together with the joys of Paradise.

The pinnacle of the soul

It is in the present that the peak of our consciousness is to be found. But we are incapable of remaining there. We make excuses: the present moment, we say, offers insufficient matter for thought and action, and so we are forever running away from it. We try to forget that it demands too much effort and too much courage, and we turn aside as our wills weaken, allowing a less enduring but more accessible object to distract us. This we seek either in the past or in the future, in other words, in memory, or in dreams. The present moment is a peak whence the world opens out before us like a landless ocean, where there is no haven we will reach one day, nor any path leading to a mysterious, far away, and ever-receding distance. Infinity is the negation of the end, and therefore of the way. It is itself the end, and the way. And the soul finds her equilibrium and her security only when she fixes her eyes on infinity present here and now, and has ceased to relegate it to an eternal beyond.