when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome
This is the first verse of the poem “Love After Love" by Derek Walcott, the Nobel Prize-winning poet from St. Lucia. The poem could be taken literally: it’s about love after love. Perhaps an all-consuming relationship has come to an end. The adventure is over. The pain is unbearable.
Perhaps you're someone who tends to be very giving in a relationship; you have what some therapists call a “self-sacrifice schema.” Perhaps you often pair up with someone who tends to be very taking; someone perhaps more likely to be on the “entitlement/grandiosity schema” end of the spectrum. In such an arrangement, there’s an opposites-attract complementarity, a kind of equilibrium. But it’s doomed. You give all your love away, and in so doing, you lose yourself. Such a scenario led Yeats to the conclusion that you should “Never Give All the Heart”—as though it’s better to be just a little bit in love, half in a relationship, somewhat married. As if you have a choice anyway.
So, it's over. Eventually, maybe even years later, you manage find your way back to that much neglected, overgrown metaphorical path to your own front door. You come home. And when you get there, you discover yourself. You’d been patiently waiting there all along. You reconnect, and “love again the stranger who was your self . . . who has loved you all your life, whom you ignored for another, who knows you by heart.” And you reclaim all that you gave to that other person who never loved you back, who never even saw you, for the narcissist knows only their own reflection. No need for blame—you cultivate some self-compassion, and you are ready to love and live again. Narcissus, meanwhile, has drowned.
There are other ways to lose your self besides in love. You can lose yourself in work, in study, in the fanatical pursuit of pastimes—in being busy. In drugs, alcohol, gambling, shopping. In the cacophony of other people’s ideas about what you should be doing with your life. You lose yourself by being instead that person that you imagine other people want you to be—by trying to tick other people’s boxes. What relief, freedom, energy—what elation—when you realize that you can give up all that, your mask, your “false self.” You stop living from the outside in, and start living from the inside out.
The last line of Walcott's poem is a command: “Feast on your life."