“To love yourself right now, just as you are, is to give yourself heaven. Don’t wait until you die. If you wait, you die now. If you love, you love now.” Alan Cohen
One of the most difficult things for both religious and non-religious alike is to love oneself. That is, to accept ourselves as we are in the moment and not as we might want ourselves to be tomorrow. It can be more difficult than the giving or the asking of forgiveness. Why is it so hard? “The most terrifying thing,” writes C. J. Jung the well-known founder of analytical psychology, “is to accept oneself completely.” Of course, we are not speaking of egotistical or hedonistic self-worship which has become one of the staples of modern culture given the rise and ubiquity of social media. Loving ourselves for who we are is for the most part insufferably hard because no one knows us as we know ourselves. No one has access to those dark places of the soul which we ourselves possess and would recoil from, if we were to encounter them in another. “But I do nothing upon myself”, reflects the 16th century English poet and cleric John Donne, “and yet am mine own executioner.”
In our hearts we have committed abominable crimes, too despicable and shameful to mention. We know all too well who we really are deep down. We punish ourselves, sometimes mercilessly, for our past misdemeanours and mistakes. We needlessly poison our spirits. We relive the pain we have caused others or which has been delivered to us. And so it must, and it will hurt. But here, in the very place of that agonizing conflict rests our way out from this condition of ‘self-unforgiving’. Only after this toughest of confrontations with one of the most sensitive components of our consciousness, can we come to a true comprehension of what it means to love oneself. Vironika Tugaleva, who fought many life-threatening battles to do with her self-esteem, writes knowingly from her own experience, “You will not love anyone or anything until those eyes in the mirror soften up and embrace the beauty that is already within.”
It is very important to arrive at a place where we are at peace with the present, the eternal-present, to come to an understanding that any absolute resolution can only ever come with our death. For the present let us consider ourselves works in progress imbued with an infinite grace and the potential to accomplish wonderful things. There is no denying the effect and burden of guilt, for real or even perceived failings, volumes have been written on this subject. The underlying consensus of the literature is unless we deal with this pressing weight of self-condemnation (again an entirely different matter to self-correction and interior vigilance), unless we find our own way out, unless we initiate a process where we can begin to be gentle and kind to ourselves, we will only perpetuate the anger or self-hatred. There will be no peace for the heart remains agitated. And so we look for the other, destructive ways out, we abuse ourselves through various forms of addictions and cause damage to both the mind and the body. We set about decomposing and deconstructing “the temple”.
For each one of us the path to self-love will be different, we will be touched and inspired by separate revelations and distinct moments of higher intuition. But there are to be found in each of our stories some very similar signposts. To offer a peace offering where we have offended and to repair a wrong where possible; to make a personal sacrifice in whatever way that might be demanded of us; to not permit for others to diminish or to wound our self-esteem; to surround ourselves with people who practice the art of love; to respect ourselves; to love as we ourselves might wish to be loved; and especially to forgive those who have hurt us. We should try, also, to remember we are fragile and wounded creatures ourselves and that we are dealing with other similarly imperfect creatures. “The other” is living out the conditions of his or her soul’s present state of enlightenment and they too are on the journey to self-knowledge.
So why is it important to love and to be kind to ourselves? Because it is only in loving ourselves can we unleash the great torrent of love and grace which rests dormant with in us, for it is precisely here that one of the greatest spiritual maxims has been spoken, and this by the GodMan Himself, the Lord Jesus Christ: “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Mk. 12:31). Unless we love ourselves, that is, to see the potential grandeur and awesomeness within us which flows from the creative energies of the Creator, we cannot love our neighbour. That is why there is so much hate in the world, and why killing and wars will not end. We have stopped loving ourselves and so we have stopped seeing God in the presence of the other.
Prayer, however we might choose to initially practise it, brings us back into the interior of our being and to the recognition that we are not a random existence. Our presence upon this earth was an act and a movement of infinite Love. We had been loved and known, Jeremiah the OT Prophet gives us to understand, even before we were “formed” in our mother’s wombs (Jer. 1:5). Loving myself means I acknowledge my absolute uniqueness. I establish my self-worth in the originating act and movement of Love proceeding and emanating from the Creator. The acknowledgement of the existence and continuing activity of this originating source of Love which has brought us into being is where the principal foundation of our value and uniqueness is to be found. It is not in our achievements or temporal successes, not in our fame or gilded reputations, not in our possessions or accumulation of wealth, not in our physical attractiveness or in our great intellects.
One of the fundamental teachings of Trinitarian theology, which has also been stunningly presented to us in the Icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev, is the reciprocity of love which emanates and flows eternally between each of the three divine persons. There is a “stumbling block” for those who would criticize the Scriptures as pointing to a God who makes too many demands to be loved and to be worshiped. If the Creator did not have this divine sense of self-worth His love for us would be impossibly diminished. It is this self-worth which led to Gethsemane. It is where He empties Himself of His divine splendour to save the world. Here is the highest example of theophany and humanity. The great fruits of this self-love into which we are called, are humility and self-knowledge. “Yet not I”, says Saint Paul, “but the grace of God which was in me” (1Cor. 15:10). There is no place here for self-aggrandizement nor for vainglory. This is not the “self-love” of the beautiful hunter Narcissus who saw his reflection in a pool of water and fell in love with it. He could not detach himself from his image and eventually drowned. These are things we should always guard against and cannot ever be immune from.
Significantly, in patristic literature when the narcissistic elements of ‘self-love’ are warned against, it is invariably in the context of kenodoxia, which is, vainglory and empty pride.
“Dear Lord, teach me the proper and safest way to love myself that I might draw nearer to You, to discern Your imprint on my hand, to experience You in my neighbour.”