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Jesus said (summarising the law concerned with people rather than focused on God):
You shall love your neighbour as yourself.
Here’s my guess about what Jesus meant. We naturally want to be healthy: we spit out what tastes bad. If we see a projectile heading for us we dodge. We have a spontaneous care for ourselves that is instinctive and healthy. My guess is Jesus wants us to have this kind of spontaneous care for others also.
This often happens too. We do often feel in sympathy when bad things happen to others. When someone falls over in the street in front of us, we may wince in sympathy. This kind of love for others is part of our everyday experience, though we often overlook it.
Do we need to love ourselves?
I think my answer to this is that infuriating one of “yes and no”. People who feel good about being alive are usually nice to be around. People who dislike themselves (hate their bodies, believe they are evil or whatever) usually aren’t very attractive. When we feel good about ourselves we are more likely to enjoy life. When we feel bad about ourselves we are more likely to be miserable. Meeting someone who accepts every part of who they are is usually a remarkable and enlivening experience. All of which means that respect for ourselves and caring for our health are positives. Loving ourselves is good.
[A brief excursion into christian theology. Skip this if you are not interested. The Reformers doctrine of total depravity was never meant to assert that there was nothing good about people. The point of the doctrine was that god needed to act first in order for people to be redeemed (this follows from the emphasis on grace). Augustine scoring rhetorical points (saying that we should speak of ‘the vices of the heathens, not their virtues’ [rough translation]) is not a correct understanding of total depravity – nor of scripture in my view. Paul in Romans speaks of the light of the gentiles and James tells us that the image of god persists even after the fall. End of theological excursion.]
Does not loving our selves mean we can’t love others?
In my experience usually not. In my experience most people are kinder to others than to themselves. This is true, in my experience, even of those who are extremely critical of others. Many a woman who battles with bad feelings about her past has a deep and genuine love for her children.
Not loving ourselves doesn’t mean that we can’t care for others. Most of us have probably done this at times. Do we really need to feel happy in ourselves before we can help others? There is an important sense in which the answer is no. The money we give to charity will still help even if we are motivated by guilt instead of love.
There is also an important sense in which it does make a difference if we feel good about ourselves when helping others. This is especially the case when the contact is personal. If we do something grudgingly or because we believe we should when we don’t want to, then this makes a difference. The spirit is different and this will probably communicate itself. It is much easier to receive from someone who feels good about giving to us.
It also seems to me that those moments of spontaneous sympathy (like wincing when we see someone fall over) happen to us whether we love ourselves or not.
This is the reason for my “yes and no”. We can and do love others as we love ourselves. We can and do love others when we don’t love ourselves. It is better for both ourselves and others when we do love ourselves and love others.
Do we need to love ourselves first? My guess is that the answer is no. And to the question: Does my self come second. The answer is also no.
My guess is that health is a kind of self-forgetfulness. When we are healthy we have enough energy to engage with our world and the people in it (though sometimes it is the interior world rather than the exterior that we are engaged with). We usually don’t stop to calculate whether we should feel sympathy for the person something bad has happened to: we just do. In some sense we have ‘forgotten ourselves’ and become involved with what has happened to the other person. If we stopped and had to think about whether we would feel good about feeling sympathy then I think this would be a problem. The kind of self-love that’s always calculating what’s in it for me is not healthy, it seems to me. I don’t think this is what Jesus meant when he talked about loving ourselves. I think instead he meant that spontaneous concern we show when we spit out something bad.
It seems to me that love of self and other often happen at the same time.
When seeing others who are pre-occupied with themselves and who are only interested in ‘What’s in it for me?’ it is easy to think that self-love is a major problem. And I think that this kind of self-love probably is.
The mistake is to think that self-hatred is the appropriate antidote (it is sometimes called humility). The problem with this approach is that we end up being just as self-pre-occupied as those who are always calculating ‘What’s in it for me?’ We just end up calculating ‘How humble am I being?’ instead. The concern is still well and truly on ourselves. We are still caring only for ourselves and not others.
We Can Start With Ourselves or Others.
If we have wounds which leads us to doubt that we are any good, then it may be possible to build this sense by caring for others. If the wounds are very deep this may not work and it may be necessary to get angry with those who wounded us. Caring for others, when done because we want to, can feel good. And this can help us begin to feel better about ourselves.
If we feel good about ourselves we usually have the energy to engage with others. When we care for ourselves we usually end up with the energy to care for others too. (The exception is when we have exhausted ourselves and need to rest to restore our health.)
I think most of the time loving ourselves and others happen together. Working on either one will usually benefit the other part too. We can focus on either loving our neighbour or ourself. We can pretty sure that if we do it will benefit both our neighbour and our self.
This has been a long post. I hope I have managed to be clear in what I am saying. I realise that dealing with Jesus’ words can stir up strong feelings and beliefs. And I realise too that this is a core concern in psychotherapy, so there may be strong feelings from this perspective too. If you do have strong feelings, thoughts, reactions or beliefs, I am very happy to hear them in the comments. I will do my best to respond as well as I can. Disagreement is welcome and strong expression is expected. All comments most welcome.