Five-year-old Lily and her seven-year-old cousins, Caroline and Grace, quickly found each other and began sharing summer escapades and autumn expectations. Engrossed in our own small groups, we barely noticed them. Suddenly, however, a little girl’s voice, full of wonder, rose above the murmur of our conversations. Her dark eyes dancing and her face glowing with joy, Lily announced to the whole room, They like me! They want me to sit with them! We laughed, of course, and her incredulous grandmother responded, What’s not to like?
Indeed. What’s not to like? The question made me wonder why it is that, even as adults, we are so often surprised when others like us. Why can’t we see what’s not to like about ourselves? Why do so many of us view ourselves as unlikable, unlovable or even worthless?
During 11 years as a campus minister at a state university, I witnessed lack of self-love numerous times. It was the root of many problems and of much suffering. Watching students, faculty and staff struggle in and with human relationships, I realized that sometimes they did not know how to act toward others because they did not know how to love, protect and care for themselves. Even those who had internalized the necessity and desirability of loving others had frequently not perceived that this had anything to do with loving themselves.
I saw this especially with Barbara, a university employee who shed endless tears over her husband’s infidelity. (Names have been changed to protect privacy.) Her marriage had become a harmful relationship in which she felt both helpless and worthless. She worried more about loving her husband than about loving herself. She had not yet seen that the key to change that would benefit both of them was appropriate love for herself.
Another who did not value herself enough was Beth, a plain, shy student who judged her worth in terms of the attention she received from men. To make herself more appealing, she frequently compromised her conscience and denied her own interests. She had yet to learn that any man who treated her only as a means of sexual pleasure demeaned her rather than valued her.
How fortunate these two would have been to have an experience like Lily’s at our family gathering. Lily saw that in her family there was a place for everyone at the table, even a little girl. She was included and loved simply because of who she was. She was beginning to learn a trinity of truths: how lovable she was, how important it was to value oneself and how right it was to receive respect from others. Barbara and Beth had either missed or forgotten these lessons. They could not quite believe that they really deserved all of that. In working with them and others, I began to wonder if the difficulty all of us have with loving ourselves is rooted in something deeply ingrained in our human condition.
When we look to our origins in the Book of Genesis, we find that proper self-love has been a problem from the beginning. In the stories of creation and the fall of humanity, the authors of Genesis emphasized that God surveyed all of creation and pronounced it very good. What could Adam and Eve possibly find not to like? What could possibly disrupt the harmony of Paradise?
Enter the snake. With great insight the writers of Genesis showed how the serpent took Eve’s focus away from what she was and had and fixed it on what she was not and had not. Cleverly, he sowed in Eve the seeds of discontent, not with the things of Paradise, but with her own human condition. Being human was no longer good enough; both she and Adam wanted to be like God. They refused to believe God’s judgment about the goodness of their humanity made in God’s own image. Their lack of proper self-love precipitated their fall and has forever affected humanity, leaving all of us to live with the scar from that primal wound.
As children of Adam and Eve, we face the same challenge they did: to accept God’s judgment about our goodness and lovableness. It is a matter of faith. We believe that we are good because God said so, and lovable because God loves us.
Time and again, I found that my task as a campus minister was to help those who sought my guidance learn to love themselves better. They needed to know themselves at a deeper level and become more aware of their virtues as well as their faults, their strengths as well as their weaknesses.
Love of self and love of others are at the heart of Christian thought and behavior. When Jesus said, Love your neighbor as yourself, he assumed that we do indeed love ourselves, and he made that love the standard or model for love of neighbor. As followers of Jesus, we believe that loving our neighbor as ourselves is our highest vocation because such love makes us like him and obedient to him. Furthermore, we believe that the gift of God’s grace enables us to love this way.
The behavior of my three little cousins is a wonderful illustration of these principles. When Caroline and Grace offered Lily the gift of their friendship, they were acknowledging her goodness and helping her believe in her own inherent lovableness. They modeled God’s love for her. Lily responded by accepting their judgment of her and loving them in return. A happiness spilled out from her that touched the rest of us. Through the innocence of her childhood, she showed us that good things follow when we accept the grace that is always there for us.
It is not, of course, as easy as children make it look. We must love ourselves properly while handling the problems of daily life. Conflicting obligations, dealing with difficult people, forgiving the wrongs done to us and by usall these complicate our practice of self-love.
Balancing such complex issues was a problem facing Tom, an administrator who was well liked and widely admired by his colleagues. Unfortunately, his superior often abused him verbally, berated him publicly and kept him tense with threats of termination. It was easy to understand why Tom had trouble standing up for himself in such situations. More than once, he found the campus ministry office a place where he could safely vent his anger and frustrations.
While Tom’s challenge was formidable, Jack, a popular professor, faced the difficult task of loving himself enough to forgive himself. The first time I met him he revealed the ever-present pain he felt for causing his marriage to fail. He had been divorced a number of years and accepted his responsibility for the harm he had brought to his family and himself. Yet his inability to forgive himself only compounded his sufferings and affected most of his relationships.
The struggles of Tom and Jack illustrate the need to learn some important lessons about our worth and lovableness early on. As Lily’s experience reminds us, it is no accident that we are born into families where we are meant to offer and receive unconditional love. The family is the first group in which we learn to give and take, to affirm and be affirmed, to forgive and be forgiven. These lessons in self-love help us meet with dignity and courage the inevitable difficulties and sufferings we all face without being overwhelmed by them.
But the family is not our only teacher in the school of self-love. We can also look with confidence to the texts of the Gospels. There we find Jesus, the quintessential man for others. In his public ministry, he exhausted himself, healing and teaching and caring for the neediest of the people he encountered. Yet Jesus also showed us that there are limits even in an unselfish service of others. The Gospels reveal that he occasionally left the crowds, and sometimes his closest friends, to withdraw by himself to refresh his body and spirit and to commune with his father in prayer.
Grounded in his close relationship with the Father, Jesus stood up for himself in his dealings with difficult people. With clear reasoning and skillful debate, he answered attacks on his character and wielded his considerable verbal skills against those who used insincere questions intended to trick him into heresy or blasphemy. He was afraid neither of confronting his opponents nor of using strong language. He showed us that loving ourselves rightly gives us the courage, when necessary, to deal with difficult people from our strengths without compromising the truth or sacrificing our ideals.
Jesus also showed us that the ultimate challenge to love is the ability to forgive. He insisted that his followers forgive unconditionally and repeatedly. He knew that forgiveness benefitted the one offering it as well as the one receiving it. Refusing to let go of the wrongs done to us, or clinging to our own guilt, distorts our vision not only of others but of ourselves as well. Forgiveness does not erase negative facts or qualities that may be true, but it does enable us to go beyond them. It frees us to move past labels and wrongs, and it opens us to greater love for ourselves and others.
As Caroline and Grace and Lily showed us, we begin to learn lessons about everyone’s innate dignity and worth at an early age. And we never stop learning. When we treat others with kindness and respect, we echo God’s first opinion of humanity. We mirror a family gathering where good and loving people enjoy one another. Even more than that, we anticipate our place at the table in God’s kingdom, where God’s confirmation of our lovableness will amaze and delight us forever.