We all know the commandment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. It is first written in Leviticus (19:18), and then it shows up in the gospels of Matthew (19:19 and 22:39), Mark (12:31) and Luke (10:27). Paul writes it in his letters to the Romans (13:9) and the Galatians (5:14), and James quotes it in his letter to Jewish believers who remained settled in foreign countries (2:8). Clearly this is an important commandment.
We take it seriously, usually. We donate to charities. We bring casseroles to the bereaved. We loan our tools to the guy next door. We babysit. We donate to food pantries and clothing closets. We give to Goodwill. At the holidays we put change in the red Salvation Army buckets. We are generally nice to each other.
Frequently we hear sermons on this topic - often around a theme of, "Who is Our Neighbor?" Of course as the world shrinks through technology our neighbors are now people on the other side of the world. They may be suffering through famine, fleeing war, or trying desperately to escape extreme poverty. We pray for them because, well, what else can we do?
Some of us are moved to become missionaries. Some of us become activists demanding change for the poor and marginalized. Most of us go on with our lives because we don't know what else to do. We pray, we donate to our churches and trust them to use the money wisely. We might write to our elected officials to demand change or action, but it seems that unless they already agree with us our tweets, texts and strongly worded emails and letters don't do much good. Hopefully we all vote, but I do see how it often feels like one vote doesn't make much difference.
Yes, we are familiar with the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. But lets turn it around. How are we at loving ourselves as we love our neighbors?
I'm a little surprised at how difficult this post is to write. I don't want this to be a bunch of platitudes like "bloom where you're planted," and "Smiling makes you happy!" I think we hear enough cajoling to eat right, exercise, get plenty of rest and drink lots of water. I'm not a therapist and I could easily get into the weeds on this one. I'll just say this is draft #3. The answer to my question about loving ourselves is, "Not great."
Why is it so hard to love ourselves as we love our neighbors? Maybe it has to do with the fact that we know what we think of our neighbors, but we don't know what they think of us. We might think we know, but we don't, really. So we have anxiety and try to please because we don't really think that there is nothing in us not to like, but we aren't sure.
Let's start with the fact that we ARE loved by God. Can we agree that we are made in the image of God? Genesis 1:27, So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Why would God create something God couldn't love? Sure we have fallen, but then - long after the "fall" - there is John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. So, my beloveds, lets start with the fact that God does love us.
Many of us have been taught, though, that God only loves us if we play by the rules. If we stray, even a little bit, then we have to repent of our sin and ask for God's forgiveness. If we don't - even if we don't because we are too young to understand or because we didn't realize we sinned - then we are condemned to eternal torment. If we interpret scriptures in a way that is contrary to the established "authorities" - and I'll tell you there seems to be a lot of that going around - then we are condemned.
I have a button that says, "That isn't even bulls***. That's horses***!"
If I believe in a loving, merciful God, then I believe in a loving, merciful God. And I do - either hell is pretty sparsely populated or heaven is, and I think heaven is pretty crowded. Because we all make mistakes, we all sin, and we don't all repent. Not the way the church fathers (and mothers, to be fair) tell us we have to, any way. And God sees through the hurt, the traumas, the illnesses to who we really and truly are as only God can, and loves us.
So I think the church hierarchy bears a fair bit of responsibility for making us not love ourselves. Especially women - this purity culture thing has been so toxic to so many people. But that is for another post.
We also live in a time when we are bombarded with information. FOMO - Fear of Missing Out - is a real thing now, and psychologists and therapists write articles about why putting too much stock in social media isn't a good thing. We see our friends posting happy events and sharing their pride in their families, dogs, homes, vacations, etc., and we wonder what is wrong with us. Why aren't we living the great life our Facebook friends are?
Then there is Hollywood. Celebrities are made up, coiffed, and airbrushed, but we think we should be able to look like them, and if we don't, we are ugly, fat, and valueless.
And Madison Avenue. The images we see are of slender, athletic people with perfectly white teeth, flowing hair, tidy kitchens - did you ever notice how the coffee commercials show someone waking up with the sun streaming in the bedroom window? The sun shines in like that around 8:30 in the summer and 10:30 in the winter. More realistic would be rolling over in the dark to shut off the alarm clock. And the medication commercials? When I take a cold medicine I feel better, sure, but I still feel like I have a cold. We see portrayals of life that just aren't realistic.
No wonder the treatment we give ourselves in the mirror is less than kind.
There are also the stories we have been told since we were children. Stories that really reflect more on the teller, but we have internalized them until we believe that they are true. Remember that playground song, "Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, I'm going out and eat some worms"? Theme song of my life.
Here is my story. I was told that I was sullen and glum all the time - actually it was another word that was used, and it became so hurtful I won't write it here. I'll just write [word]. It is a perfectly acceptable word, accessible in any dictionary, but I heard it so often that it is not allowed to be spoken in my house. Or written, either.
Any way - what teenager isn't sometimes glum and sullen? Teenagers are going through a LOT with the hormones and acne and stuff. And parents wonder what happened to their sweet little loving kids - at least mine did. But here's the thing - I had stuff to be angry about. We moved around as I was in my teen years - Dad's job required it. But instead of helping me to navigate my anger, which was really grief and isolation, they labeled me as [word]. And I believed it.
So did those around me, and they perpetuated that myth. It wasn't until a couple of years ago - and I will be 62 in a couple of weeks! - with the help of a good therapist (thanks!) that I was able to realize that I was in fact NOT and NEVER WAS [word]. But I believed the myth that I was angry and controlling, because people kept telling me I was. And because I believed it, and because I was never taught how to control my anger because I wasn't allowed to be angry, guess what? I came across as angry.
So I look back at times I lost my temper and I regret it. Sometimes my kids didn't deserve to be yelled at. But usually there was something else going on. I was overtired. I was worried about something. I had been pushed to a breaking point and felt cornered. Or I was desperately trying to sort through something I didn't like, and I appeared angry but was really feeling grief or fear or even Fang (my depression). I bought into the myth that "ladies" were supposed to be calm and soothing all the time and so when I wasn't "ladylike" I regretted it and was clearly [word].
When I looked in the mirror I saw [word]. I saw the ugliness of anger. It has taken a lot of work to learn to smile at that reflection. Why did I treat myself that way? Because I bought into and internalized all these myths, and so I allowed other people to treat me in ways that perpetuated them.
So here are some truths that I hold on to. First, my life is not boring. I am not a party girl - never was and never will be. I feel invisible sometimes, and I don't like that, but I am an introvert and prefer to be helping in the kitchen rather than keeping an audience in the living room. Maybe you are the opposite and would rather eat glass than help in the kitchen. As long as you aren't the host, that is OK! Hosts need people to keep the party hopping. And how many people do you know that saved lives in the ICU, then became a school librarian and dressed up as Captain Underpants, then became an alpaca farmer? I might be shy and quiet but I am not boring! And those Facebook friends? Well, why would they post the mundane or bad stuff? I don't either. Facebook is not a multi-faceted platform.
Second, I am not ugly. Childbirth, menopause and gravity have taken their toll, but I would not trade one of my children or any of my struggles to have a few less wrinkles and fewer gray hairs. Those beautiful young people are going to age, too. I am not sexy in a "hot" way, but I have wisdom, and trust, and the deep abiding love of the man that I deeply and abidingly love.
Third, I am who I am, and eccentricities are good things. I don't need to meet anyone else's expectations of me. I am not here to fulfill your fantasies of who you are. I hope to bring out the best in you but if that doesn't happen, or if you bring out the worst in me, perhaps it is best if we part ways.
Fourth, I am smart. I might not be math-smart, and I might not be quick with a response. But I can understand deep truths. I can put coherent thoughts together. If it is something that is meaningful to me I will remember it. On the wheel of multiple intelligences according to Howard Gardener, I am more linguistic than music smart. Jay is more music smart. We are both smart.
Gardner's Multiple Intelligences. Cherry, 2019
I discovered a podcast a couple of weeks ago called Love. Period. The host is Rev. Jacqui Lewis who is the senior pastor at Middlechurch in New York City. She is one of my heroes, so when I saw that she was starting this podcast I couldn't wait to listen. I've only heard the first two episodes but they are powerful. Both were about learning to love ourselves. The first guest was Barbara Brown Taylor, one of my favorite authors. Rev. Taylor pastored an Episcopal Church, and then became a college professor. She spoke about coming to the realization that she didn't need to have a lot of people around her - that people actually drained her. Spoken like a true introvert! She finds companionship and God in her relationship with her husband, her dog, a few true friends, the rocks, the trees and the animals on her farm in Georgia. I can relate to that! She has accepted who she is and what she needs, not what the world tells her she needs. She sets boundaries and has learned to accept herself.
That brings me to the fourth truth. I need to figure out who I am, who I want to be based on my truths, and set boundaries. I need to stop listening to other people tell me who I should be. I need to get my parents out of my head - I know they loved me, but I always believed I disappointed them. I need to get my sisters out of my head. The church, too - and that includes the interpretations of scriptures that tell me I am not good enough.
And the fifth truth. Because God created me the way I am, God loves me. I may have lost "me," but God hasn't. I need to shut up, get quiet, and listen.
I'm thinking of another song: you say po-tay-toes and I say po-tah-toes. Each of us is different. Each of us has unique gifts. Each of us was created to be the people we are at our very core.
Some of us are extroverts and some are introverts. It is exhausting to be the one you aren't.
Some of us like busy-ness and some of us can sit and be contemplative. We need to find the right balance for ourselves.
Some of us are linguistic learners and some of us are other kinds of learners according to Howard Gardener. None is better than another - just different. Good teachers teach to multiple intelligences.
Some of us are tidy and some of us are messy.
Some of us are glamorous and some of us are utilitarian.
Some of us are slender and some of us are "rubenesque."
Some of us can hold our own in a conversation and some of us are better at listening.
All of us are entitled to respect, courtesy and kindness. All of us are entitled to set our own boundaries. Once they are set only we get to decide when to adjust them. No one gets to decide for us.
I am aware that there is a line between self-love and narcissism. There is a difference between setting boundaries and being rigid. Selfishness serves no one's purpose. But I also think that true self-love will help guide us to avoid those things. True self-love allows us to be authentic and to say what we need and want. If there is a crisis a person who loves herself can gather the wherewithal to face the crisis and support the suffering person - including herself. Someone who truly loves himself recognizes the self-love in another and knows that the other person is as loved as he is.
Self-love does allow us to recognize when our own needs can or must be overshadowed by another - new parents, for example, are profoundly sleep deprived because the baby's needs must be met, even in the middle of the night. But you know the directions when you are on an airplane and the O2 masks drop down? The parent should put his or her own mask on first because you can't help your kid if you are unconscious or confused by hypoxemia. That is actually a pretty good analogy for self love. How can you take care of others if you haven't first taken care of yourself?
Maslow's hierarchy of needs says that we can't achieve psychological or self-fulfillment needs until our own basic needs are met. We aren't too bad at that, except where it comes to rest, which you'll note is at the very base of the pyramid. I suggest that we are so busy trying to help our neighbors become self-actualized that we forget to tend to our own basic and psychological needs. It won't work. (For the record, we do need to help others achieve their basic needs to the best of our ability).
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.
So, my beloveds, lets practice this week and see what happens. Tend to your basic needs. Eat right, drink enough, stay cool (since it is summer where I live - if you live somewhere where it is cold right now, stay warm) and stay safe. Let's also address our psychological needs by reflecting on what we need and want from our friends and relatives. Lets spend some time unpacking those myths we carry about whether we should be eating worms or ice cream - whatever unhealthy refrains are on repeat in our heads. Once we know the myths we repeat to ourselves, lets counteract them by telling our mirror that we are beautiful, handsome, wise, kind, industrious - whatever adjectives we find most important. They may be different for each of us. If you can't say one, say another. Practice, practice, practice!
If you find that these myths are too deeply ingrained, ask for help. Talk to a friend, a mentor, a therapist, or a pastor - as long as that pastor is giving you a message of love and redemption and not toxic Christianity.
Hold on to the truths that God made you the way God wants you to be. The world obstructs and changes us to hide our true selves, but God never loses sight of us. God has promised to never leave us or abandon us. Claim those truths - they are yours. Rediscover the you that God knows, and don't let anyone take that away.
P.S. The little alpaca at the top is Long Tall Sally, born here on May 24, 2021. She is the cutest thing and I couldn't resist sharing her picture with you!
P.S.S Give a listen to Jacqui Lewis's podcast. The link is below.
Cherry, Kendra. "Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences." Very Well Mind. Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences (verywellmind.com) July 17, 2019. Accessed June 4, 2021.
Image. "Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs." Maslow-hierarchy.jpg (1344×1000) (wunderkindworld.com) Accessed June 4, 2021
Lewis, Jacqui. Love. Period. Podcast. Love. Period. — Jacqui Lewis (jacquijlewis.com).