…as you love yourself

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In my previous post, I wrote about the ways that we do unloving things in the name of love. As children, many of us didn’t have the best models for how to love, and as a result we were conditioned to be ashamed of and hide our true selves. We received the message, at least by some adults, that we were unworthy, undeserving, unacceptable, and that nothing we did would ever be “good enough.”

One of the big criticisms I hear about childhood education today is that kids are taught that “everyone is a winner.” While it’s true that there are times when one person succeeds more than others in a particular event, I cringe when I hear rants about how children are being overly coddled and not taught “the truth” that they can’t all be proud of their accomplishments. Those sorts of critiques sound a lot like that same old message I internalized in childhood regarding the aspects of myself that I knew adults wouldn’t approve of…my sinful heart, sinful mind, and sinful ways.

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When we constantly hear that there’s something intrinsically wrong with us, we do indeed absorb that message. It can lead to all sorts of self-destructive behavior that impact us for the rest of our lives. Children who are abused physically or sexually might be told that it’s their fault or that they’ll be hurt even more if they tell anyone…that is, if anyone would even believe them over an authoritative adult. Wives put up with various forms abuse (physical, sexual, emotional) as well, with reinforcement by some misguided church leaders who instruct them to submit to their husbands no matter what.  Teenage girls (and increasingly boys) develop eating disorders that cause long-term health problems, in an attempt to have a “perfect” body. And some at-risk kids even take their own lives after enduring physical and emotional bullying from peers, often with accusations surrounding their sexuality, with teachers and principals silently refusing to intervene.

And yet, Jesus told us to “love your neighbor as yourself.” I mentioned before that a lot of my own childhood shame stemmed from conflicting messages that I received at church. For a large portion of my life, I’m not even sure that I really knew that I should love myself. I was more preoccupied with what was wrong with me than what was good in me. One way I masked that was to overcompensate and be super-virtuous in my behavior, something that I still catch myself doing at times. I might shy away from talking about unpleasant feelings, such as times when I’m angry, until it finally bubbles over and I can’t contain it anymore.

God loves you

I’m still learning how to love myself, but I do know it involves acknowledging both the good and the ugly. I can strive to make peace with the world and people who have hurt me, but there will still be times when I feel angry, frustrated, impatient, and judgmental. Rather than push those feelings down and hide them (even from myself), I try to find healthy outlets to express them. My work with children has taught me that anger in particular benefits from a physical outlet because it is a form of energy that needs to be released. That might involve going on a long run, playing the piano, writing a poem, dancing, crying, eating lunch at the local soup kitchen with friends I’ve made there, praying, or meditating. Sometimes I do all of those things.

I also try to treat myself with loving-kindness by eating healthy and nourishing food, stretching and strengthening my body through exercise and yoga, creating art and music, traveling to and discovering new places, reading to stimulate my mind, learning new things, laughing, getting enough sleep, and taking a break when my introverted self needs some quiet time. And when I’m at my most vulnerable, I surround myself with friends and family who treat me with loving-kindness as well. Those are not times that I want to be around people who are vicious, nasty, or abusive.

Travel light, live light, spread the light, be the light

The self-care that I’ve learned as an adult differs from what I had internalized as a sometimes timid child. Where I was once afraid that I couldn’t be loved for who I truly was, now I realize that I must first love myself. Only then I can extend love toward others. The way I look at it, we’re stuck with ourselves no matter what. We can try to escape by self-medicating or engaging in self-abusive behavior, but we’re still there from the first breath to the very last. Sometimes we enter into relationships as a means of avoiding the a-lone-ness of facing our true selves, but those types of relationships create other problems. When we’re finally comfortable with ourselves, we can form relationships that are affirming, mutually respectful, and loving.

This same principle can be applied to how we relate to our communities and larger world around us. If we are cruel to others (even those we’ve never met), it’s a sign that we don’t know how to love ourselves. Even with the purchases I make, I find myself questioning whether it’s a purchase that helps or hurts others. If child labor was involved…or people halfway across the world being forced to work in an unreasonably hot room without sufficient breaks or adequate pay…or the materials were sourced in a way that caused destruction to the habitat that others must live in…or the profits will be used to fund wars, discrimination, human rights violations, or other atrocities, I must acknowledge that the harm could be happening to me just as easily as it is to others.

For if I wouldn’t want to subject myself to such conditions, then I can’t in good conscience contribute to systems that harm others. That’s not how I would love myself, so that’s not how I want to “love” others.

Bringing this back in to smaller day-to-day interactions, when we condemn others by telling them that they are “going to hell,” we’re acting as if the Bible as if it’s a “social improvement manual” (credit to Don Lee, the lead pastor of my church, for that brilliant phrasing) instead of a message of love. Some might still argue, “But love involves calling people out for their sins and not condoning ‘evil’ behavior.”

My response: Is that how you “love” yourself? If someone physically attacks you because they disagree with your identity, do you sit there and allow them to continue the attack? Do you hurt yourself, kick yourself out of your house to live on the streets, yell at yourself, or flat-out stop speaking to yourself? Do you demand Biblical canonical perfection from yourself? (If you say yes to that last one but omit a single instruction from the Bible then you’re not being honest…and that kind of self-dishonesty is not love.)

Now, I’d like to add the caveat that there are times when we do indeed need to step in and address the self-destructive behavior of our loved ones. One common example is in the case of addiction, when we witness a dangerous downward spiral due to chemical or behavioral dependency. But if I mention my concerns to a friend about excessive alcohol consumption and encourage that friend to seek treatment, my stance isn’t “You must stop drinking or you will go to hell.”

Rather, my worry is that my friend will develop cirrhosis or be involved in a car accident that could kill others. If that friend continues to prioritize alcohol over personal and public safety, I might decide that I need to stay away from the friend for my own self-protection. That’s a far cry from invoking God in an attempt to control the friend. Similarly, if someone abused me or otherwise intentionally hurt me, I would not spend time around that person because I love myself too much to subject myself to an unhealthy and abusive relationship.

I’ve been writing this from a Christian perspective because that’s my own cultural experience. Plus, it’s the religion that I most frequently see used as a justification for treating people unkindly. But everything I’ve said here can be applied to other religious and spiritual (and non-spiritual) traditions. The question still remains: how do we love ourselves, and by extension, others?

At the end of my last post, I suggested that we might reflect on the times in our lives when we’ve felt most loved. If we could rewrite our histories, what would we want love to look like for ourselves? Imagine the best possible childhood, and how a parent (or other adult) could have responded differently at a time when you were hurting. What would have made you feel safer?

Then do those things for yourself. Perhaps if I came home crying because I had been picked on at school, I would hear these words: “Others might not see how beautiful you are, but I do. Even if they are mean to you, I love you.” Or when I didn’t advance in the spelling bee: “Yes, you misspelled a word, and I’m sorry that you didn’t get to continue in the competition. But I still love you anyway, exactly as you are. My love for you isn’t based on your ability to spell.” Those statements acknowledge that bad things happen, that we don’t always “win,” and that we can’t escape feelings of disappointment or anger. But love is still at the heart of those statements.

Once we’ve reconciled the past, we have the freedom to move forward with self-love. Rather than clinging to the pain that we experienced in childhood, we can make peace with it or maybe even release it. And then…we can go forth and love others. I think of that mystical word Namaste that is often uttered at the end of yoga classes. “The divine light in me honors the divine light in you.”  If we don’t see God’s imprint in ourselves, we can’t honor it in others. And if we don’t acknowledge its presence in others, we’ll never truly see it in ourselves.

In the name of love

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I’ve been stalling on writing this post because it’s kind of an intimidating topic. I mean, I’m not always the best at modeling love…who am I to try to write about it? But it’s been on my mind for quite some time, so here goes.

A lot of things done in the name of love are not very loving. At various times, some people have claimed to do all of these things due to love: physical assault, rape, murder (crime of passion), verbal attacks, neglect, and war. Yep. Every single one of those things, and that’s just a partial list.

Part of me wonders if those who make such claims are intentionally lying, but then I also wonder if the problem has more to do with misguided notions of what is love. Maybe it’s a bit of both. The one thing I’m certain of, though: those are not acts of love.

Do we even know what love is?

[Cue the 1980s-era Foreigner song…]

More seriously, I suspect that a lot of us don’t really know how to love. After all, our earliest models in childhood weren’t always the best (even if the intent was well-meaning), and the same can be said for our parents’ childhoods. I could just throw up my hands and declare that it’s a never-ending cycle, and we’re stuck in this pattern of modeling less-than-loving behavior.

But I don’t believe it has to be this way. I also know that many of us did experience a safe, nurturing childhood environment, with at least one parent (if not both) who modeled healthy love. Some (but not all) of us still become scarred later along the road.

Ironically, one of the places where I see cruelty masked as “love” is in churches and religious institutions. To me, this is nothing short of spiritual abuse, especially when a religious authority tells others that God doesn’t love them for who they are. I’ve seen it a lot recently in debates about same-sex marriage. This issue surfaces in many other scenarios, though, such as when an unmarried teenage girl becomes pregnant or even when someone simply questions their faith and experiences doubts, as in the long tradition of what’s called “the dark night of the soul.”

I want to be clear that while I’ve seen this happen with leaders of all the world’s major religions, my own story is based on my childhood experience in Christian churches. 

During my childhood, my family spent several years at a small church that nearly caused irreparable damage and trauma to me. I don’t think it was intentional on the part of my Sunday School teachers, but the trauma was still all too real. I was terrified that I hadn’t been baptized because I was told that God would not “wipe the slate clean” until such an event happened. In the meantime, I lived with the threat that if I died before I was baptized (fully immersed in water, of course, as christening “didn’t count”), God would hold me accountable for every single sin I had committed, regardless of whether I was even aware that I had sinned. What a warped notion of what a loving God should look like!

Picture of my mother, sister, and me

Church portrait of my family shortly before we started attending the non-denominational church

I cannot begin to describe how scary this was for me, as by that point in my life I had somehow absorbed the message that approval from “adults” meant everything. This led me to two habits: 1) praying every night “for the sins that I didn’t know I committed” (my own little loophole that I hoped God would grant me); 2) hiding certain aspects of myself that I didn’t think would be accepted.

In retrospect, I can’t help but laugh because the thing I was most ashamed of was that I loved rock-and-roll music. I didn’t find anything wrong with it, but I knew that my Sunday School teacher would have been horrified if she had known about my secret. The message at church was that “secular music is Satanic,” and my childhood mind wondered if there was something inherently evil in me that caused me to love that music. There were other things that I kept to myself as well, such as the questions and doubts that I had about what I was being taught in that church. But if I couldn’t be perfect, at least I could pretend to be.

When my church decided to hold its first baptismal ceremony, I jumped at the opportunity to be washed anew. I sometimes wonder if part of my motivation was to stop feeling the need to pray for all those unknown sins. Admittedly, it was nice to shorten my nightly confession, but in spite of that little incentive, I really did believe that Jesus could (finally) work in my life if I was baptized.

As it turned out, I became the very first person to be baptized as part of that church, a sort of symbol for how God could work in anyone’s life…even if I was the daughter of a single mother who had willfully sinned by deciding that it was important for her kids not to be raised in the unhealthy home environment that we had experienced in early childhood. My mother’s divorce became a bigger issue in the coming months (although she was still encouraged to play piano every Sunday for services, by that time without any financial compensation). Soon after that, we went back to the United Methodist Church (UMC), my family’s church home for multiple generations.

I later lost faith in the vengeful brand of God that I had come to know during those few years away from the UMC. I had reached a point where I could no longer believe that God was so cruel and vengeful as to banish children to hell simply because they hadn’t been immersed in a baptismal pool. It took a lot longer for me to reestablish trust in God, but fortunately the UMC taught me about a God who was less condemning and more grace-full.

I considered deleting the above story from this post because it does make for a lengthier entry, but I’ve decided to keep it. To me, this is representative of the tension that exists between different religious camps when it comes to what constitutes love. The God that I feared in childhood was that of a harsh, stern father who wouldn’t hesitate to condemn His own children to a fiery eternity in hell. My own personal concept of “father” didn’t help to balance out what I had been taught of fatherhood at church–my own father was largely absent and often unpredictable.

Some pastors and churches use intimidation and fear to force people into submission. We’re told that we’re utterly wretched, but if we follow certain rules, we can be part of a chosen elite. Those who select which rules should be imposed typically ignore other parts of the Bible that are more inconvenient. Sometimes it’s a matter of recognizing the near impossibility of adhering to orthodox standards such as unmixed fibers in clothing or kosher crop division. Then there are times when behavior is excused or covered up for “men of the cloth” but condemned for others. (Note: These instances of abuse are not representative of all or even most religious leaders–one of my closest friends is a priest, and I would trust him, as well as anyone I love, with my life.)

This hypocrisy leads many people to reject Christianity entirely. When churches bully or otherwise abuse anyone who doesn’t conform to their understanding of scripture, they can have the effect of undermining the proclamation that God is love. At a deeper level, this conduct also sends out a message that love is a twisted and conditional sort of thing. 

The mantra “Love the sinner but hate the sin” is a classic example of how spiritually abusive behavior confuses the true meaning of love. I have tried and tried to understand what this means (“I love you but I hate the way you live your life”), and I still can’t wrap my head around how this sort of intimidation would motivate someone to change, if that’s even the intent.

Regardless of the protestations, those words still sound a lot like hate, conscious or not, and remind me of the list that I offered at the beginning. “I love you, and that is why I am speaking for God by telling you that you are going to hell.” Or said to a teenager, “I love you, and that is why I am kicking you out of the house for telling me that you are gay.”

Originally, I had intended for this post to delve into what authentic love looks like, but I’ve decided to write that as a follow-up entry. In the meantime, I would like to challenge us all to imagine what love would ideally look like in our own lives. Imagine those moments when we’ve truly felt loved, and what it felt like. 

Did it feel safe…or scary? Was it comforting…or unsettling? Was it familiar…or uncharted territory? Or was it all of the above? Next, let’s imagine how do we show love…and how can we be the love that we want to receive.