I remember when my children were very young, I was substituting for my four-year-old son’s Sunday School class. The lesson the teacher had prepared was on The Golden Rule, suitably scaled-down to child size. We were talking about the kindness one shows to others, and in the teacher’s notes was the statement “we are here to live for others” which I dutifully read. There was a small pause, and then one tiny girl looked up at me curiously and in a disquietingly clear voice said, “What are the others here for?”
I have given much thought to that statement, over the years, and to the Golden Rule itself, and to many other ways of seeing, ways of living. And I have come to a precarious conclusion. I have concluded that over centuries of so-called enlightened living, we have somehow gotten it wrong, That core ethic, “Do unto others,” which is, in various forms, at the heart of nearly all of the world’s religions, which is the baseline of morality, and even to an extent of civil law, has been grossly misinterpreted, and therefore misapplied, by centuries of well-meaning adherents.
Could this be true? I asked. Could we all have missed it? So… I went looking. And in doing so I realized that we had indeed, all of us as a culture, made errors of emphasis, and therefore errors of interpretation, in this passage.
It is not difficult. It is not arcane. The passage, repeated many many times in many many religious writings, says, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
AS thyself. Not INSTEAD OF thyself. Not BEFORE, or BETTER THAN, thyself. The passage is further clarified in the 5th chapter of Ephesians, where it is said, “For what man ever yet hated his own flesh, but nourisheth it and cherisheth it.?”
And I thought about that. It was a revelation. God wanted me to love myself. His standard for how much I owed to my neighbor was based on how much I loved myself, no more, no less. And so I began to think. Did I love myself? And how was I to know?
You all realize, of course, that the word “Selfish” has been made one of the most profound insults in our culture. It is bred out of us from the time we are infants, that natural desire to be good to the self. We tell our very small children to give the truck to Johnny, even if they want to play with it themselves. We teach our preschoolers to wait to be served last, even if they come to the table hungry. Our grade-school children are taught that it is rude to ask for something, and that they must wait until it is offered to them by their hostess. We go so far as to teach high-schoolers that when they write an essay they are to write it in the third person, not using the word “I”. And when we reach the age of dating and thinking about making life decisions about partnering, we evaluate potential mates partly on their ability to be unselfish. The most scathing thing we can call someone is “self-centered” or “self-focused,” and a girl will easily dismiss a boy with the offhand comment, “It’s all about him.” When we look at parenting, one of our highest terms of praise for another is, “S/he is selfless.” There is an oft-repeated aphorism, “A mother is the person at the table who, on seeing that there are three pieces of pie for four people, asserts confidently that she never did have much use for pie.” We apologize for reading a book just because we want to when there is laundry to be done, for taking a day off work if we are not ill. We defer to others to such a degree that often when asked what WE want, our response is “I don’t know.” Our culture has effectively eradicated the concept of love of the Self, or marginalized it to the point of sinfulness. We have pretty much retranslated the Golden Rule, in practice, so that it now reads, “Love thy neighbor INSTEAD OF thyself.” And if we looked within, frankly and steadily, many of us would realize that we do NOT love ourselves, not at all. Many of us don’t even LIKE that person in the mirror.
And with all this emphasis on denying the Self, what have we achieved? We live in a culture of materialism and mindlessness, looking ever for the next instant reward or sensory stimulus. We have teenagers who do not think there is any purpose to their lives. We have rampant divorce and an ever-increasing number of people on Prozac and other such drugs. And most chilling of all, we have many people in our culture who have no sense whatsoever of who they really are or what they are supposed to be doing here.
And so I have become a missionary. I have a standard to bear and a flag to wave. And it goes like this: Take back your right to love yourself. Nourish yourself. Cherish yourself. Love of the self is the basis upon which all other love rests. True love of the self is the one tool which gives us the power to be whole, to sustain others, to be independent and self-reliant, to give meaning and purpose to our own lives, and to model healthy love for our children. It is imperative that we begin once again to remember how to Minister to ourSelves, to Care for ourSelves, so that we might, one person by one person, heal the fabric of our society by creating healthier humans within it. So, how do we do that? To minister to the Self is to care for the Self, to love the Self. Over centuries of conditioning, we have absorbed the idea that the Self is not only unimportant, but that it is wrong to concentrate on the Self. How do we heal that? With love. Self-love. So…what is that?
Self-love is the recognition of your own uniqueness. It is the acknowledgement that you are indeed irreplaceable to the Universe, which, the last time I checked, had not yet begun mass-production of the human soul. Self love is based on taking time to listen to your own thoughts, to become aware of your own needs and desires, to enlarge your own soul and your own capacity to learn, to appreciate life, to grow.
Self love asks of yourself, “Who are You?” instead of “What do you do?” Ministry to the Self means taking time and space and silence in order to feel the breath in your own body and listen to the rush of thoughts in your own head. It means not apologizing for caring enough about your own needs and desires to voice your real thoughts and opinions where it matters. It means not silencing your preferences or muting your feelings when it is significant. And it is always significant.
Ministering to the Self is treating oneself like a cherished friend. It is seeing the beauty in one’s own face and body, and caring enough about that not to apologize for one’s looks or body type or age or other physical states of being. It is honoring one’s physical existence with a healthy diet, a lifestyle that allows time for sufficient sleep and exercise, and scheduled-in quiet time and self-time that is free from agendae.
Ministering to the Self means encouraging one’s own progress, even if the things on which one wishes to expend time and energy have no material value. It means never apologizing for taking time to take a quiet walk under the stars or sit reading a book that has nothing to do with work, just because you want to. It means there is, too, money in the budget for music lessons, even if you are beginning at forty. It means it is not a waste of time and money to go back to school even if you do not get a degree. It means giving yourself permission to pursue what you care about and become whom you wish to be.
Are there benefits to this healthy self-love beyond the Self? Definitely. People who understand self-love are not co-dependent. They do not seek outside affirmation of the rightness of their being, because they KNOW within themselves that they are right, just as they are, just because they are. It must have become obvious to you all that when you are overstressed and overstrained you have nothing left to give. People who have a healthy self-love are capable of replenishing themselves, and therefore have an overflow to give to others. But most significantly, people who understand how to love themselves have the deepest and most profound respect for the uniqueness of their own being, one that sheds happiness and wholeness on the lives of everyone with whom they interact. You might go out from here today with a renewed consciousness that you are intrinsically holy, intrinsically whole, and that you are irreplaceable to the Universe. Listen to this:
D E S I D E R A T A
Go placidly amid the noise and haste, And remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly & clearly; and listen to others, even the dull & ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud & aggressive persons, they are a vexation to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain & bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing future of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity & disenchantment it is perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with vain imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue & loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees & the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labours & aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery & broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Strive to be happy.
There is no one like you. There never will be again and there never was before. So….never apologize for ministering to yourself, for loving yourself first and your neighbor as yourself. You are unique. You are irreplaceable. You are one of a kind. What’s not to love?