Self-Love Comes First!
In a book called Peace of Mind , which had a flurry of attention some years ago, Joshua Liebman tells about a letter sent to a social worker by a prominent society woman who wanted to join his crusade among the poor children of New York City. She wrote at great length about her own personality defects and her many failures, and said that perhaps she could make up for them by enlisting in this cause. The social worker may not have been very kind, but perhaps he understood something about human nature when he wrote back: “Dear Madam, Your truly magnificent shortcomings at present are too great. I advise that you love yourself more before you squander any love on others.”
Clearly, he felt that in her condition she could not possibly fulfill what Christ made into the second half of the Great Commandment: You are to love your neighbor as you love yourself …..with the vital implication that unless there is some healthy self-love there cannot be love for anyone else. We may seem to be taking a complete turn-about this morning, since the series on happiness began with statements that falling too much in love with oneself is deadly, but full truth often comes in paradoxes. There is no ultimate contradiction between saying that extreme selfishness is fatal to happiness while proper self-love is essential to it. The two are not the same. If self-worship can make us, and everybody near us, miserable, so can that “poor me” attitude which comes from people who do not respect themselves or feel they deserve anything. The book I’m OK, You’re OK dealt with this problem of self-diskike by pointing out that in general we do not learn to be loving if we have not been loved. When we can’t love othersd, the rason is that we don’t love ourselves, and we don’t love ourselves because for some reason our families never made us feel that we were loved.
I used to think, as a child, that everybody was loved. I knew I was, even in the midst of frequent and richly-deserved punishments, and I simply assumed that this was true for other children. It was a long time before I realized that many people enter adult life severely crippled by not having been genuinely and wisely loved as children. There must have been hints of that all around me, but I can remember vividly the first time I was able to link someone’s incapacity for loving himself with real tragedy.
I married two young people who were extraordinarily handsome, and whose wedding — at a large Methodist church not far from here, seemed as surely made in heaven as a union can be. But one year later there was trouble, and when the two came for counseling it was soon apparent what the trouble was. The young man, through no fault of his own, had no notion of what it meant to love someone. I discovered that his own family had been terribly undemonstrative, that neither father nor mother had expressed affection for him or for each other, and that as a result he knew no more of love than one could get from reading ads in a magazine. He didn’t know how to show real love for his wife, so the two divorced, he married again — and then again — and whether he has finally discovered late in life how to love himself enough to give love to someone else, I’m not sure.
But I am sure that no greater gift can be given by parents to children than the kind of self-love which is created in them when they know that they are surrounded by the love of others. I recall a newspaper story of many years ago about the death by gunshot of a Wichita football star named Percy Battles. His friends agreed that he threw his weight around, that he needed to fight, that he “wasn’t comfortable with himself.” The story went on to suggest that home life was troubled and that his parents divorced when he was young. The roots of his tragedy, I would guess, reached far back to a time when no one demonstated much love in front of him, nor ever loved him enough to make him believe that he was lovable and could be “comfortable” with himself.
One Spring semester, in a graduate seminar, I used among several other Victorian novels a book which is not at all well known, though I think it should be. It is called The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford , and at one point the man who wrote it [Wm. Hale White] says, “Blessed are they who heal us of self-despisings. Of all services which can be done to [humanity], I know of none more precious.” He had learned that we cannot be happy or accept others gladly unless we have been convinced of our own worth and can accept ourselves. This acceptance is normally a quiet thing. We feel it in private moments. It comes when we are glad to be alive for no particular reason, when we are not bored with our own company, when we feel safe within ourselves….and all these things not because of anything we have done, but because of what we are. And that last is important because we are prone to think that self-love comes with great accomplishments, that we first have to prove ourselves in some grandiose way, that we actually have to earn the right to like ourselves.
That sad conviction often comes from the kind of childhood in which it was apparent that the way to get your father and mother to show affection was to achieve. Parents find it easy to show children how much they are loved when they succeed, harder to show that they are loved just as much when something turns out to be beyond their abilities — but in the art of being a parent that balancing act ranks near the top of the list in importance. Children lucky enough to grow up in such a home will be able to accept themselves without constantly having to prove something.
And what they will have from that is not the same as conceit. It is, in fact, the very opposite. Conceit is one form of personality disorder which is not too hard to recognize. We all know someone who begins any conversation, even one by accident on a street corner, with a recital of his latest accomplishments. He has no sense of priority among the details of his life: he must make even the most trivial triumphs known. And there is likely to be such a compulsive need to get it all out, and win approval, that he talks loud and fast so no one else can interrupt. What he is doing is selling himself with passionate urgency, and that is sad. If he really believed in himself, if she truly loved and accepted herself, all that advertising would not be necessary. With the coming of real self-love, conceit dries up. The feeling that “I am worth something” no longer has to be solicited from others. It comes from within, where as Christ so profoundly put it, the kingdom of heaven — the kingdom of right relation-ships — is found.
All sorts of good things come from being able to accept ourselves. For one thing, it wipes out loneliness. If we enjoy ourselves we don’t have to be with others every minute. We can appreciate the presence of our own company, saved from the kind of frantic activity which is often only a coverup to hide from our own emptiness. If we have proper regard for ourselves we can take all sorts of short vacations into a solitude where we are not in the least dismayed by the absence of applauding crowds.
But when we do want to be with other people, healthy self-love makes it possible to be with them in peace. We do not have to be in constant competition, trying to prove who is prettiest, who is wittiest, who is most successful, because we have already come to terms with all that stuff. It is lack of sensible self-love that makes us feel a need to dominate other people, and as we agreed earlier, boasting is one way of trying to dominate. We tell our friends constantly, either crudely or cleverly, how great we are. If we sense they are pulling back, we frantically try even harder, and then we go home knowing that we have been foolish and that we have lost still another pound from an already starved self-respect.
We’ve all known someone who spends much of life trying to please others, an obsession that also springs from lack of self-regard. Perhaps if we please them often enough they will like us, and perhaps then we can like ourselves. What we are trying to do is get rid of the dark feelings we have inside, but it doesn’t work. Until we can believe that we are likeable, there is not much anyone else can say or do to convince us. There is also a relationship between being able to accept ourselves and being able to accept things that happen to us. A man I know was so deeply depressed one day that he set up a luncheon with a dear old friend who was a psychiatrist and close to 80, but still active. After the two had talked for a while, the doctor said abruptly, “Let’s walk over to my office. I want your reaction to something.”
In the office, he took a tape from a box and put it on the recorder. Three unidentified people, who had come for help, talked on the tape. The doctor said, “Listen carefully and see if you can pick out the two-word phrase which is the common denominator in all three conversations. The first speaker had suffered a crippling business loss and berated himself for not having worked harder. The second, a woman who had never married because of obligations to her widowed mother, remembered bitterly all the chances she had let pass. The third speaker was a mother whose teenage son was in trouble with police. She blamed herself endlessly.
When the doctor switched off the tape, he said, “Did you spot the phrase that was used over and over by those three people?” And when his patient could not come up with the right answer, he said, “Well, maybe that’s because you used it yourself in the restaurant a little while ago.” He pointed to the tape label, on which he had written in red ink the words IF ONLY. “You’d be amazed,” he said, “to know how many thousands of times I have sat in this chair and listented to woeful sentences that began with those two words. ‘If only I had done it differently, or not at all. If only I had not lost my temper, made that move, told that lie. If only I’d been wiser, more self-controlled.’ They go on and on until I stop them. I say to them, “If only you’d stop saying ‘If only,’ we might begin to get somewhere.”
Because, as he went on to explain, if only doesn’t change anything. It keeps a person facing the wrong way, backward instead of forward, and it wastes precious time. But there is a perverse streak in most of us that makes us rather enjoy it. We like to hash over old mistakes. After all, we are still the chief character in them — still in the center of the stage, even if it is our own failure we are talking about. So you see, even this familiar problem comes back again to thinking too constantly about ourselves instead of escaping that prison.
What we should do, of course, is substitute for if only the phrase, Next Time. Because the moment we say that we have changed our point of view. We are looking forward, we have resumed living, we have accepted what has happened and resolved to accompany ourselves into a future which will be better. But that takes a healthy measure of the self-respect we’ve been talking about, and for some that’s simply in too short supply. One begins to understand why Paul took Christ’s comment one step further and said, “All the commandments are summed up in this sentence: You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself. Because if we extend to others the same boundless good will we extend to ourselves., there is not much chance we will harm them.
If they fail and ask forgiveness, we forgive them, remembering how those who loved us extended forgiveness when we stumbled. Convinced of our own worth, we are able to forgive ourselves when we are petty or short-tempered. Such moments, we tell ourselves, are an aberration, unworthy of a person who has enjoyed the love and respect of others. Imagine how much happiness would come into life if we felt the same about others when they stumble or slip!
But the happiness would come by indirection, because we were doing the right thing and not because we were aiming at happiness. The one constant thread in these talks about happiness is that if we make it a primary goal, we will miss it. I have already quoted wiser people than myself in support of this proposition. Here is another reminder, a single sentence spoken one day by the celebrated Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko to a crowd of college students:
“Forget the vulgar insulting patronizing fairy tale that has been hammered into your heads since childhood, that the main meaning of life is to be happy.” The great poet understood that happiness is a by-product, discovered in faithful work, in compassion for those less fortuante, in an abiding resolve to make the world a kinder and more decent place. Or to sum it all up in an even shorter sentence, this time from great Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard: “The door to happiness opens outward.” Happy are they who remember his words!
Remind us as we leave, gracious God, that the “neighbor” we are
meant to love is not only the one next door, or down the block,
but anyone we meet with a legitimate claim on our concern. Amen.