July 19, 2021 How Can We Come to Love Ourselves?
In His Two Great Commandments Jesus first tells us to love God with all of ourselves and, secondly, He tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves. I think the problem is that we don’t know how to love ourselves or even what that would look like, so that we often do “love” our neighbors as poorly as we “love” ourselves. So, how do we learn to love ourselves, when our self-images are so low and rejecting, when we are trying to live up to a family or cultural standard that probably does not take into account all that we are? We internalized a self-image when we are five or six years old, during the time when we are trying to obey our parents, but failing often. So, our self-images are colored by the guilt and shame of those early failures.
When we become adults, that self-image means that we are still trying to improve who we are and rejecting ourselves as we fail to live up to the early standards set for us by others. We can spend our lifetimes trying to be all that others say we should be and failing, because we cannot love who we are. We were never shown who we were created to be. We were seldom acknowledged for our strengths and talents and interests as the focus has always been on where we fail to live up to what the world wants for us.
I certainly see this clearly in myself. The defining image of myself was for years full of doubt and fear about who I was. This was not just from my parents, but also from the church of my youth. Until I was 13, my family belonged to a hell-fire-and-damnation church, which promoted an image of God in my who was capricious and vengeful, and not loving at all. I was also born during World War II which meant that my prospects as a woman were to be determined solely by the man I married and had nothing to do with my talents. I was so clear about this that my one burning desire as I grew into adulthood was to be a mother.
By my late 20s I was out of the church, because no matter what image of God the current church I attended had, I was stuck with the image of God as a raven ready to zap me for anything I did wrong. So how could I love myself, when it was clear that God couldn’t love me. The saving grace for me in all this is that I was so attached to God in this negative way that I had to find a way to love God or to find a God that I could love. So, I began a long search for God. And I now believe that God was leading the way back to Him as He really is. My husband and I entered a cult that studied the gospels, but didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus. There I learned that there were different interpretations about God’s word—a revelation to me. And from there He led me on a long journey reading about other religions—Taoism, Hinduism and Buddhism. And in everything I read, I thought, “Oh, that’s what Jesus meant!” I especially liked Taoism which said that we shouldn’t try to go upstream, to fight the current, but that we should follow the energy wherever it flowed.
I was also reading the works of the saints of the church. In the end, I ended up giving up my life to Christ in a period of time when I was beginning to deal with exactly who I am. I began to ask myself, “What do I really want to do?” And that led me to reevaluate all that I do, instead of just following the shoulds and have-tos of my self-image. And continued with the charge to “Write!” which I heard first on an airplane and then often over the next three weeks. With three small kids, there was little time to write, but I began to write out my heart’s desires, my images of myself on scraps of paper, whenever I had a minute or two to myself. In the midst of all this writing, I surrendered my life to God and walked on air for three days. I came crashing down to earth with this thought, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me!” I spent the next weeks listing all the things and people in my life that I put before God. And I can report that the last forty years of my life have been about giving up all those gods. And I am sure that I am not done yet.
Much later, I thought that if God could love me as I am, then surely I could love myself. And so I made a conscious decision to love myself and all that I am, the good, the bad, and the ugly, as the old western movie title put it. I am so much more accepting of all that I have said and done than I used to be, and, at the same time, more loving of other people. In fact, I feel that God has led me on a journey the last twenty years since my husband died to see people as they really are, instead of what I project onto them. Through two stays in Haiti, one in Oaxaca, Mexico, a year-long stint interviewing poor people at Crisis Assistance Ministry in Charlotte, the books I have read, especially these two: The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk and Tatoos on the Heart by Father Gregory Boyle plus the research for the books I have written, 1) about the poor and needy in the Bible and 2)about the problems in our country and how we ignore all the poor and needy—the Lord has definitely changed my mind about how I look at other people, especially the ones who are not like me.
Love myself, love others—the two are radically intertwined with loving everyone’s Creator, God Himself. We are commanded to love God, ourselves and others. And the sooner we get down to loving all of these, the sooner we will lead fulfilling, purposeful lives.