I’ve talked at length in my last several letters about love, but I’ve only barely touched on one of the most important people in your life . . . someone I hope you will learn to love as completely, fully, and unconditionally as you do anyone.
I hope you learn how to love yourself.
There’s a little ditty I learned when I was not much older than you are now. It went like this: “Jesus, then Others, then You . . . what a wonderful way to spell JOY.” The point of the song was to always put Jesus first in your life, and always put yourself last, meeting your own needs only after you’d met the needs of everyone else around you.
I have come to hate that song. And “hate” is not too strong a word here. It teaches children – as it taught me – that they are unimportant . . . that their needs don’t matter, or at the very least don’t matter until everyone around them has been fully satisfied.
In trying to teach them how to love others, it teaches them how not to love themselves.
I’ve spent much of my life thinking of that as the “Christian ideal”; failing to realize how very un-Christian it is.
When asked about the essence of his belief system as he practiced it, Jesus said that it all comes down to two things: First, love God, Second love everyone else. But look at the way he said it! He didn’t say “Love your neighbor instead of yourself.” Instead he said, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
In short, you simply cannot practice love as Christ intended it unless you first love yourself. Because if you hate yourself, and then proceed to treat your neighbor the same way you treat yourself, you’ll be a very poor neighbor indeed.
My very favorite thought on this topic is one your mom came up with years ago, back when we were still dating. We were talking with another young couple who were friends of ours about love and intimacy, and I said something to the effect that intimacy is knowing someone else as deeply as it is possible to know them. Your mom took issue with that definition, and said that it wasn’t quite right. She suggested instead that intimacy is knowing yourself as deeply as possible, and then sharing that self fully and completely with another person.
I think she got it exactly right. I think that to truly love others, you first have to love yourself enough to fully explore the person you are, get to know that person, and come to understand that that person is someone worth sharing.
Again, this is hard stuff. One of the things you will come to know about me – probably sooner than either of us would wish – is this: I’m a perfectionist. As such, I don’t like things that aren’t exactly how I want them to be. And I certainly don’t like sharing things with others when they’re not exactly how I want them to be.
And, as a perfectionist, I’m all too clear on the fact that I am not exactly how I want myself to be.
That being the case, I’ve spent large chunks of my life hating myself, and holding myself back from others as a consequence.
I think this self-loathing is something that tempts us all at some level. For one, our world seems tailor-made to encourage it – not just in the songs we learn in church, but in the things we see on the street, on television, on the computer . . . everywhere around us . . . that tell us we aren’t attractive enough, wealthy enough, fashionable enough, or successful enough to be worth loving.
Don’t believe them. They’re lying to you. It isn’t true even for one second. It isn’t true even for one person.
And that’s where everything we’ve discussed so far comes in: Everything about empathy, perspective-taking, loving people unconditionally . . .
. . . because when it comes right down to it, the worst person who ever lived still had the same basic needs you have. The worst person who ever lived still operated – albeit incredibly destructively – from the same desire we all have to accomplish something . . . to mean something. The worst person who ever lived still had people who thought he was worth loving.
The worst person who ever lived was still created in the image of God.
And if you can come to understand this about everyone else in your life, then you can understand it about yourself. If you can comprehend that everyone in your life has something of value for you, then you can comprehend that you, yourself are valuable.
If you can love others in this way, then certainly, you can love yourself enough to give yourself empathy. Sometimes perspective-taking doesn’t mean putting yourself in the shoes of another. Sometimes it means putting yourself in your own shoes from five minutes ago . . . or yesterday afternoon . . . when you were scared and lashed out at someone, or when you were tired and made a decision you now regret.
Because loving yourself means loving all of you . . . even – and perhaps especially – the parts that don’t always live up to your expectations.
And I very much hope you do, not for my sake, and not for anyone else, but for you.
Because I, for one, love you more than words can say.