You shall love your neighbor in the same way that you love yourself. ~ Jesus, Matthew 22:39
I’ve been waiting to write this post for a long time. The subject is extremely dear to me, and is one about which I am very passionate. In every setting in which I have ever worked, I have tried to encourage colleagues, patients, AND myself to put a higher priority on this theme. I believe it is truly the linchpin that, if firmly set in place in our moment-by-moment choices and daily habits, could and would pull our lives forward into having great positive impacts on the little worlds around each of us.
This subject is: loving ourselves. Now, in this phrase I am first and foremost referring to the word ‘loving’ as a verb. That is, I’m not so much speaking of the emotional, feelings side of love. I’m talking about how we treat ourselves; the things we do, or not, to take care of ourselves, our lives, on a daily basis.
Do you see what I am saying here? I am not saying that liking ourselves, or feeling deeply in love with ourselves, is the big key here. Actually, if you are like the vast majority of people I know, suggesting that you ought to like yourself, or have strong, passionate feelings of love toward yourself, would at first be an appealing suggestion, but it would have very little chance of happening simply by us deciding that, yeah, hey! I’m going to really like myself today! For whatever reason, it just doesn’t seem to work that way. We seem to, most of us, not really like ourselves much at all, in fact. And just deciding to do so would fade very quickly as our longstanding feelings of shame, guilt, inferiority, unloveliness, and unlikeability would soon take over once again.
So, what I’m actually suggesting here is to do an end-run, a “flanking maneuver”, in military parlance, around our feelings about ourselves. I’m saying, let’s forget how we feel about ourselves, and see if we can use our powers of reason to come up with enough motivation to take good care of ourselves anyway, in spite of not really liking ourselves. Does that seem doable? I hope so, because if you’re like me, it ain’t gonna happen if I wait for the good feelings to come first, or to stay!
Alcoholics Anonymous has many slogans, some of which have been very helpful to me after I had learned of them. One of these is “Fake it ’til you make it!” This refers to the fact that when a real alcoholic first enters into recovery, he or she finds that they have to start doing a lot of things that, a) they don’t like doing; b) they are not used to doing; and c) seem pretty downright silly! Things such as attending meetings with people you don’t know very well, telling your story (the whole truth!) to strangers, or picking up the phone and calling your sponsor when you’re REALLY craving a drink, are not fun things to do for these folks! But, as oldtimers who have built up a lot of serenity and strength of recovery will tell them, that’s okay, just “fake it ’til you make it.” Actually, this again points up one of the great, but little known truths about us humans: we don’t long keep doing things that we feel are useless or pointless, even though they are very worthwhile. Sooner or later, one or the other will change. We’ll either stop doing those things, or our feelings about them will change toward the positive. And that’s what we’re talking about here.
I want us to look at ways to treat ourselves better, despite the fact that we might think it’s selfish, or that we’re not worth treating well, or that it won’t matter in the end ‘cuz WE don’t matter. I really believe that if we do begin making healthier choices for ourselves, and KEEP doing this, that eventually we WILL start feeling good about ourselves. We will start liking ourselves. We will begin believing that we have a good purpose here on earth, and that our future will be successful in the ways it was meant to be! And then, one day we’ll find that we have made it! That our feelings match up with our choices! That will be a great day.
Here are some quotes that I found helpful … hope you’ll agree:
To be beautiful means to be yourself. You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself. ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
I have an everyday religion that works for me. Love yourself first, and everything else falls into line. You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world. ~ Lucille Ball
He lives long that lives well, and time misspent is not lived, but lost. ~ Thomas Fuller
Those who think they have not time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness. ~ Edward Stanley
If I were given the opportunity to present a gift to the next generation, it would be the ability for each individual to learn to laugh at himself. ~ Charles Schulz
Eat to live, and not live to eat. ~ Benjamin Franklin
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not a single act, but a habit. ~ Aristotle
The day the child realizes that all adults are imperfect he becomes an adolescent; the day he forgives them, he becomes an adult; the day he forgives himself, he becomes wise. ~ Aiden Nowlan
The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. ~ Albert Einstein
Our bodies are the gardens to which our wills are gardeners. ~ William Shakespeare
If you aren’t good at loving yourself, you will have a difficult time loving anyone, since you’ll resent the time and energy you give another person that you aren’t even giving to yourself. ~ Barbara De Angelis
To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who lives within you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a very high price. Therefore, honor your Creator with your body. ~ I Corinthians 6:19-20
I see my body as an instrument, not as an ornament. My body is not an object on display for pleasure or judgment. It is a vehicle, equipped with legs that allow me to visit my favorite places; with arms that allow me to embrace the people I love. It is my home; the bearer of my soul and the carrier of my spirit. My body does not reflect my self-worth. ~ Alanis Morissette
Plant your own garden and decorate your own soul, instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers. ~ Veronica A. Shoffstall
Self-love is not opposed to the love of other people. You cannot really love yourself and do yourself a favor without doing other people a favor, and vise versa. ~ Dr. Karl Menninger
We are wont to condemn self-love; but what we really mean to condemn is contrary to self-love. It is that mixture of selfishness and self-hate that permanently pursues us, that prevents us from loving others, and that really prohibits us from loving ourselves. ~ Paul Valery
The picture below is of a small church known as St. Leonard’s Church, located in the town of Wixoe, Suffolk County, England. It is said to be well cared for, and sits at the heart of the village. The belfry dates from the 15th century, and as you can see, compared to so many of the pictures of belfries I have posted here on these pages, this is a very modest and yet self-assured bell tower. Like the old belfry on the campus of Radford University, this one seems perfectly OK with who and what it is, what its job is, and does it very well. And the people who love it so much don’t mind making the effort to take care of it, knowing that this care will pay great dividends, both in their lifetimes and in those of Wixoe citizens’ lives yet to come. So far as I could find, there is no reference to any person or persons having their names engraved on plaques or other monuments in or around this church or bell tower:
Now here is another church with a bell tower, also described as very “well cared for”. This is the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, located in Sutton-in-Ashfield, which happens to be located in the county of Nottingham (ring any ‘bells’?) in England. This church dates from the 12th century A.D. It is very pretty, certainly. The description also goes into great detail regarding the tidy (I am sure) sums that various members of the Sutton family paid to make sure this church and its bell tower were well cared for as time passed. To make sure, their names are engraved on several plaques located in and around the church. Do you think Walter, Gerard, Jordan, and William Sutton were more interested in the beauty of the church and its grounds, the clarity, tone, and volume of the belfry’s bells, or their own legacy, when they paid considerable sums to ensure that both the stones of the church as well as their names were well-preserved into posterity? As I said, though, this is a pretty church!
One of the things I most appreciate about the small town in which I live is the small, Christian liberal arts college located here. They now call themselves a University (ahh, modern times!), but I still know who and what they are and were meant to be (a college!), and I appreciate them for whom they are. This College (yes, I AM obstinate!) has a very nice bell tower that sits atop the administration building.
Every day, from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., the bells in this belfry sound out the time every 15 minutes, playing the old Westminster Chimes theme. In the spring and summer months, when in the afternoons and early evenings I am likely to be outdoors in my back yard, pulling weeds, or pruning trees or perennial shrubs or flowers, or relaxing on the swing, or just walking around admiring God’s marvelous handiwork, those chimes fill me with peace and quiet joy. Just hearing them makes me feel as if there are still little parts of the world that remain secure and steadfast, just as they were SUPPOSED to be. Occasionally, such as at noon or around 5:00 p.m., the carrillonneur (the person who plays the bells) will play a hymn, and this makes it even better, in my opinion.
And then I find myself appreciating and mentally thanking all of those persons who, a hundred or so years ago, advocated for the building of that belfry and the purchase of those bells, and the many other persons who have, over the decades, maintained that tower and the bells, as well as the ropes and chains from which they are suspended. None of them did this for me. They did it because it was right and good in their eyes. They took the time and effort, and paid out the money, so that the present and the future of the college and the town in which it sits would be a little bit better because of the wonderful tone of those bells in that tower! I strongly doubt that any of them has their name engraved on a bronze plaque over at that college (errr … University!). As I said, I am very grateful.
Taking good care of ourselves is about just that: taking … care … of … ourselves. It is a mindset, a commitment, an attitude, and a set of practices that is very, very hard for us to introduce into our lives, and to build into habits. It requires, for most of us, making changes in our lifestyle. Remember, it does NOT require us to FEEL LIKE making changes. And, it does not require us to feel “sick”, or that we’re “getting old”, or that there is something wrong with us in any way.
Similar to the contrast that we drew a few weeks ago between mental health and mental illness, good self-care does not imply the existence of some kind of disorder or illness, but neither does it imply the absence of such. Self-care, caring for oneself – one’s body, mind, soul, time, talents, interests … everything that comprises each of us – is really the verbs that would comprise loving oneself, again, in the non-emotional sense we talked about above.
Many people have told me that they interpret Jesus’ quote from Matthew at the top of the page above to mean that since God knows that we are hopelessly selfish and “in love with ourselves”, we should use our ‘boundless, ego-centered love for self’ as the measuring stick by which we ought to boundlessly love others. It was God “giving in” to our self-centered nature, knowing we would never stop loving ourselves, so He was just commanding us to give at least as much time and effort caring about others as we give ourselves! Well, I am certainly no theologian, but this does not jive with what I know about God (who in my belief is, after all, all-knowing), and about us! Not at all.
In my view, the commandment is indeed twofold. We are instructed to love our neighbors AND to love ourselves. And what did Jesus mean by the use of the word, ‘love’? Did he mean the passionate, romantic feeling kind of love we often think of? Apparently not, as the very next thing he said, in response to the question, “And who is my neighbor?”, was to describe a set of almost incredible (especially to the Jews who sat there listening) and selfless actions of a Samaritan (whom the Jews apparently despised) in caring for a Jewish man who had fallen prey to robbers who beat him and left him for dead.
Now, ’tis true that the main thrust of this command is to do just the same as the Samaritan for anyone whom we see in need around us, when we have the opportunity and ability to help. But the command does, indeed, also refer to loving ourselves! And, whether or not we believe Jesus is being somewhat resigned about our selfish natures, it is clear that he expects us to be looking after the needs of ourselves in the same mindful, compassionate, and selfless way.
As you might imagine, I work with a lot of people who are or have been very depressed. I can tell you that in almost every case, most of these persons are the kind who would rather take care of others than to take care of themselves. In many cases, shame and guilt drive them to try to please others by serving them all day long. While there may be unhealthy beliefs at work underneath this “others-first” mindset, I really believe most of them are very unselfish. When I talk with them about exercise, or speaking up for themselves, or eating in a healthy way, or resting when they are tired and are at their limit, or simply saying ‘no’, they almost invariably shrink away, as they believe this would be “selfish”.
On the surface, so it might seem. And certainly, you could do some very good things for yourself FOR selfish motives and reasons! In fact, “looking out for #1!” was an American national catchphrase through much of the 1980s and 90s!
But, as the Karl Menninger quote above describes, when we do ourselves a favor and take care of ourselves, such as going to bed at an early hour, we are really doing others a favor, as this makes us better people! It helps us be better able to take care of them! I discuss with people all the time how, if they can’t be with their lover or their spouse, or their children or grandchildren, or anyone else whom they care for, by taking good care of themselves now they will be the very best friend/lover/spouse/mother/father/grandparent, etc. they can possibly be when the time comes that they are reunited! So whatever your motives are, Love-ing yourself is a good and kind thing to do.
So, how do we get started? Well, lots of ways. But we’ll have to flesh this out over time. I want to look with you at several different ways in which we can take better care of ourselves. We will talk about exercise, about eating (and drinking!), about rest, about dressing and grooming, about taking care of our minds, about having fun, and about taking care of our souls and spirits! Maybe even one or two things that will come up as the winds change! So please stick around!
Let’s begin to think of our lives as if they are gardens, and we have just been hired to be the gardeners. And as the bells chime out the hours from the belfry in the distance, we’ll work to make those gardens wonderful and beautiful for the “neighbors” we’re loving!
Craig Meek, M.D.