Throughout my life I’ve always been interested in Greek myth. I loved learning how people explained natural phenomena and human behavior before science proved it. Though they all hold a place in my heart, the one story that resonates within me still is the story of Echo and Narcissus, the woeful nymph and her unrequited love.
I’ll start with Narcissus. More than once, I’ve heard gay men described as narcissistic, not because they are vain or shallow, but because they seek a partner that perfectly mirrors them in personality in addition to biology. I mean what is more narcissistic than choosing a lover that, for all intended purposes, may as well have stepped out of your bathroom mirror? Gym bunnies date gym bunnies, bears date bears, twinks date twinks, hipsters date hipsters, drag queens date drag queens, and so on.
Now, at this point you may think I am writing this all stank-faced, shaking my fist at all the well-muscled or ultra-creative boys that didn’t go out with me because I wasn’t the one looking back at them through the back of the mirror’s glass. I’m not. I understand why they do this; it’s about understanding. It’s a very human need to find and surround yourself with people that understand you, have gone through the same trials and adversities that you have to get to today. Sometimes, life can be painful, and it helps sharing that pain with people who feel it the same way you do. I get it.
And then we have Echo. The boys who focus on someone completely unattainable, whether it be their straight neighbors and coworkers, celebrities and models, or the BFFs that simply do not find them sexually attractive. They pine away, following the object of their desire from the periphery, never giving up despite inevitable, and often brutal, rejection.
Narcissus: “You can never love me.”
Echo: “Love me!”
Most of us, I believe, see ourselves as Echoes and everyone else as Narssicusseses (Narccissi? Whatever.) We’ve all felt the heartbreak of a love that radiates outward, but is never reflected back, at least not in the way we want it. But we all have a bit of Narcissus in us too, and even if it’s not a physical reflection we seek, we want to be with someone that reflects our ideals, our morals, our intelligence, and our passion. We want to see ourselves in our lovers, to reach in and pull out something that affirms us as people.
I will admit that I’ve pined and whined over someone I wanted to be with, to be given an opportunity to show him that there’s more to who I am than a voice ringing redundancies throughout the forest (or, in this case, the internet). This boy that I strive to be with, whose love I will never attain, is unwittingly casting a spell over my whole being that I cannot escape, no matter how much I, or he, would want me to.
Narcissus: “I’ll die before I give you power over me.”
Echo: “I give you power over me.”
This love, as we perceive it, is not love, but mere infatuation. Echo herself, or myself in this case, is not seeing Narcissus/that cute boy on Grindr for who is he, but who she/I want him to be. We’re in love with the idea of a person, not in love with who the person is. If everyone could have been able to see Narcissus for who he was, maybe he would have felt the need to look beyond himself and his reflection, and maybe he wouldn’t have died, alone and unrequited on the side of that stream. The more options you have, whether it be lovers and admirers or places to eat dinner or colors of socks to wear, the more you will strive to find the perfect match. Instead of making the most of what you have, and challenging yourself to finding the beauty in everything, you’re constantly disappointed with an eye on the door, waiting for something better. While I haven’t done extensive traveling in my life, one thing I’ve noticed about gay men in general is that the more pervasive the gay community is in their city or town, the more… let’s say fickle they are about their relationships. San Francisco, as one of the gay meccas in the United States, is a perfect example. It’s condensed full of gay men, all vying for love and affection, and instead of taking the time to get to know someone on a visceral level, they spend a few hours on the surface, talking about money and income and social status and using sex as a deciding factor as to whether this person is up to par, all the while checking Facebook and Twitter throughout the night on their phones instead of actually focusing and learning about the person in front of them. And even when two people decide to get together, more often than not they enter into open relationships and polyamory because one person just isn’t enough; they need the love of many, because many are willing to give them love. One of several reasons I closed my Facebook account was because I didn’t feel like my “friends” were real; I was clamoring for the attention of all, instead of focusing on the few that really, really mattered.
Narcissus: “Why would I have just one lover when many will give me love?”
Echo: “Give me love.”
Echo is not only a victim in this story, of course. No one pisses off the gods arbitrarily. Her everlasting longing was a punishment for her adultery with Zeus (at least according to one version) because her love, in whatever form it held, was never a love that could be fully requited and she didn’t think about anyone but herself until it was too late. Narcissus too was a victim of his own doing, perpetuating the idea that the object of your affections is unattainable, and for whatever reason must remain that way. In this vein, I really don’t think the phrase “love triangle” is apt enough, because it’s really more like a love spirograph. I love him, be he loves someone else, and that someone else loves another someone else, and so on. Once in a while these chains of affection intersect, and a pair of people actually end up loving each other, but there’s always a wake of heartbreak behind them. Sometimes the heartbreak is their own, and sometimes it’s the heartbreak they inflict on their admirers, but its impact is always there.
If there is any lesson I need to learn for myself from this story, it’s that a bit of both Echo and Narcissus live within all of us, and we need to find balance. Both find longing in reflection, whether the reflection is in front of them, or coming from their own mouths, but in both cases they’re reflecting a surface, not a thought or a feeling. They’re blinded by their own concepts of beauty and need to reflect inwards, and see the world for what it really is: gorgeous, complicated, and full of people that are perfectly capable of returning love. And the only way to see it is to put the mirror down, put away your preconceived notions of beauty, and get to know someone. Trust me, it will be worth it.