One of the most fraught issues in our “post-Christian” society is the complex of questions around the issue of how to regard oneself in a moral sense. I find myself thinking my way into a morass of terminology trying to make that more clear, so instead let me just cut to the specific dilemma I want to face today.
A great deal of your typical self-help literature and culture in modern America encourages you to love yourself. Jen Sincero ends every single chapter in You Are a Badass with the section header “Love Yourself” followed by some hopefully pithy reflection related to the chapter content.
The theologic/philosophic tradition I am heir to often defines love as “to will the good of another.” Self-love can then be taken as almost a self-contradiction. If not, of course, it simply means to will my own good, and Christian thought can exhibit something of a split personality about this.
“Self-love” is very commonly used in Christian writings as a synonym for “selfishness.” I’m not aware of much of anyone, aside from fictional characters meant to embody negative tropes, liable to use the word “selfish” in any but a negative context. We nearly all agree there is some such thing as “selfishness,” and I think it is commonly understood to revolve around choosing good things, real or apparent, for ourselves at an undue cost to other people. What “undue cost” is then becomes an all-important thing to discern, along with whether a good we will for ourselves is real or not.
On the other hand, as much as Christianity depends on love of neighbor, there is an irreducible individualistic element in it. We will receive an individual reward or punishment for our own actions (loc. cit.!). We cannot save one another, although interestingly enough, St. Peter exhorts us to save ourselves. St. Paul even comments in passing, as if it were an obvious thing and in no contrast to either Christianity or plain common sense, that no one hates his own body but feeds and cares for it.
Ultimately, I think we all have to accept that self-love is a very critical term to understand in a properly nuanced way. The Big Red Book of the Twelve Step program called Adult Children of Alcoholics has an entire chapter on Self Love, which contains some important attempts to clarify these issues:
“We cannot address the issue of self-love without examining some of the confusion surrounding this important spiritual principle. On one side, there are those who argue that self-love always leads to the slippery slope of narcissism. In this line of thinking, self-love is cast as self-absorption. These critics usually cannot define self-love because they are too absorbed in saying what it is not. They liken self-love to Narcissus, the character of Greek mythology who “fell in love” with his own image. Transfixed by the pool, gazing at himself, Narcissus dies emotionally and physically due to his inability to connect with another person or God. This is not self-love. Narcissism and self-love often get linked together, but these two concepts could not be more different. One is self-absorption while the other is self-awareness. The person who practices true self-love cannot be narcissistic. The practicing narcissist can never know self-love.
“There are some sincere, religious folks who think that self-love diminishes the authority of God. They believe it elevates the human side of the person while lowering the Almighty. These well-meaning folks stand ready to correct any talk of self-love or self-worth. They fear that selfishness or unclean motives can rule the person and society. This attitude is akin to defining self-love wrongly as narcissism…
“We also have seen thoughtful people who confuse self-love and self-esteem. This confusion represents a segment of the self-esteem movement that seems to place too much emphasis on affirmations and positive self-talk while attempting to neutralize anything negative in a person’s life. Under this model of self-esteem, the person experiencing failure or challenge is encouraged to minimize any uncomfortable feelings associated with an event. This is all noble and kind, but a key element of building true self-esteem is left out in some cases… Self-love as we understand it does not eliminate pain or the need to try harder in some circumstances.”
Ultimately, in my own life, I rely on the results of my own inadvertent experimentation on myself. Very young, I internalized the idea that hating myself, focusing on how hateful my actions (which I could not separate from myself) were to God, was the way to self-discipline and virtue. As I later saw it summed up in a therapist’s handout sheet, I thought I could “horsewhip myself into compliance.” I failed, or at any rate, I stalled out at a very low plateau. No one would ever confuse the me of the past with Don Bosco or Mother Theresa. Of course, sadly, they still couldn’t, but I have come a long way, and I have done so by means of the Second Step of the Twelve Steps, which is stated and later augmented in Ch. 5 of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Came to believe that a Higher Power could restore me to sanity… God could and would if He were sought.” God only does this because He “wills the good of another”–that is, me, and it just fails to make sense to me that I should hate myself when God loves me.
More on this next week, when we tackle the word “deserve.”