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.
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.
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.
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.