[Note: I wrote this two weeks ago now, before the purchase of a house went through and wedding planning got crazy-busy. Apologies that the blog has been such a minimal focus of late – duties call! Still relevant…]
Every now and then, something that has been in the background pops out to be seen with new eyes and perspective. A quote or a symbol for which you had never known the full meaning becomes distinctly more profound and useful. Sometimes, it might be the most obvious thing in the world for others, even if for us it is profound. I had some of these scales fall away just last Sunday.
Last Sunday, the Gospel spanned over the now-clichéd “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which Jesus proclaims is the penultimate commandment (seconded only by God’s wish that He be at the center of our lives). Generally, when something becomes clichéd, it fails to signify that which it should. My realization was that this saying, so important to Jesus’ mission on earth, is clichéd to the point that a popular understanding of Christianity is a completely unrecognizable version of the real thing.
My theory as to why this is the case: We splice the proverb into two clauses, and completely ignore the second half. “Love your neighbor as yourself” becomes “Love your neighbor [and that’s it].” This is problematic, because there is not an anchor to what love should be in the latter understanding. The last two words of the proverb define the way we are meant to love, and it makes all the difference.
Perhaps the easiest way to see the way the definition of love has been degraded is to examine how its opposite is used in our culture. “Hate speech” is a political term used to describe any rhetoric that criticizes – however constructively – any lifestyle choices or differences in moral opinion. Even the term “hate crimes” exists to describe criminal actions against an out-group in which the reasoning behind or emotion used in perpetration of a crime is seen as making the crime more despicable or worthy of punishment. Leaving aside the obvious debates as to the value of deterrence or retribution and the inherent equal worth of human persons no matter what characteristics they possess, the use of “hate” as pertaining only to certain out-groups in criminal action is very obviously a perversion of the word.
But this is also done with “love.” Most people believe “love” to be a feeling of niceness or romantic interest toward others, so it is no wonder our love is shallow. It is all-too-common to hear someone proclaiming that to “love” someone is to be nice to them; to be tolerant of or open-minded about them; to be open to their flaws and failings; to feel pity for them; to give them money; to pass regulations that protect or provide for them; to seduce them; to feel affinity for them; or to support them in their actions and choices no matter what those choices are.
The Gospel reframes love. Here, we are provided something more than “Love your neighbor.” You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. Narcissism, personality disorders, and egoism aside, what does it mean to love yourself? Though a complete definition would be somewhat difficult to canvas, a few examples come to mind:
• Consistently pushing one’s self to improve mentally, physically, morally, emotionally, interpersonally, athletically, socially, spiritually, aesthetically, and professionally.
• Taking care to avoid danger and decay of one’s bodily health, mental condition, soul, and behavior.
• Making deliberate choices to change one’s life away from decisions that have harmed the self or others. Whether it includes the Sacrament of Confession, journaling progress, or mere awareness of wrongs, choices should be directed toward forgiveness, personal growth, and the good of other people.
We are very diversely faceted beings, blessed with gifts and cursed with failings that make us human and good. Self-love is a journey of striving throughout one’s life to do more than be smugly satisfied with our shortcomings. Life is too short for loving ourselves to mean stagnation. None of us are perfect, and self-improvement is the name of the game that is life.
I see my own pitfalls very easily, and I know where I fall far short of my potential. I can be proud and apathetic, quick to anger and slow to apologize, unforgiving, brutally honest, impatient with injustice, and far too willing to connect with someone by picking a fight. Improving these things will have drastic effects on every sphere of my life. I know they must be conquered, eventually. Though I don’t want to let go of all of them now, I know that when people talk about self-love, I am not willing the good for myself on holding onto my many vices. The truth is, the summit of self-love would be abandoning those things in my life that prevent me from being the best son, fiancé, friend, brother, uncle, cousin, and human being that I can be.
The problem is, reform and self-reflection hurt. Lifting weights will make you stronger, but in the short term, soreness can be extremely painful. It is humiliating to apologize and admit you have been wrong. Even if it means self-improvement, mistakes aren’t fun to admit, especially when they are substantial. Most people don’t like enduring short-term pain, even if it means long term gain. But it is essential. You can’t be better before rooting out the bad, and it isn’t usually an easy process. And it is from this that it is clear: sometimes, words that are classified in our culture as “hate speech” aren’t hate at all; they are love. There is a purpose and focus to constructive criticism and the bettering of the self. There is good to wanting others to improve as well, even if we cannot read their hearts or minds.
I am not an ascetic or puritan, by any means. But I will say that there is something inside people that use their bodies as a means toward pleasure that seems to me to always end in self-loathing, poor self-esteem, or guilt, unless someone is able to dissociate from the self completely (which could be argued is a form of apathy and thus the opposite of love to begin with). Whether the vice be eating until they are severely overweight, use of serious drugs as escapism, pursuit of sexual exploit as meaning, your archetypal hero like The Punisher who struggles more with his own evils than he does with others’, or a simple hedonistic avoid-confrontation-at-all-costs-and-everyone-will-be-happy outlook, most people who aim their lives at avoiding pain at all cost understand quite well what a lack of self-love looks like. Quite a few people who don’t believe in or don’t push themselves toward virtue don’t really like themselves, even if they pretend to the world that they do.
What does it mean, that real love can hurt even while it makes us better? It means that loving people can be uncomfortable. It means having standards for others. It can mean wanting more of the people around you, for their own good. It means disagreeing with their choices when those choices are wrong. It means, in sum, that you owe others the same considerations for their soul that you owe yourself. Anything less is to ignore this Gospel. Anything less, and you aren’t really loving others as you love yourself…