Nothing and everything: on self-love

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You know how Catholicism is said to be a “both/and” religion? We don’t make people choose between seemingly contradictory things. Faith and reason. Belief in God and science. Such pairings (and others) work together, so why feel like you need to pick one or the other? It’s a pretty cool thing.

I think the way we perceive ourselves in the big picture of God’s creation can be thought of in the same way: we are nothing, and yet we are everything.

We are nothing before the grandeur of God. We are just one item on the endless list of things that God created. Think of all that’s out there—the mind-blowing variety of species on earth, the rivers and seas and mountains and deserts, the stars, other planets, other galaxies. And that’s just what we know. Who knows what else is out there that has yet to be discovered! Humans are a negligible blip on the radar compared to the rest of creation. We’re small. It’s just the truth. And beyond that, there’s the fact that humans are sinful and God is perfect. We constantly fail at choosing Him above other manmade gods. We are weak and so utterly dependent upon Him. When we realize who we are before God, we realize that we really are no better than any other person. This is humility: being right-sized before God and others.

Saints and Christian thinkers through the ages have reminded us of this many times. If we want to truly imitate Christ, we need to be humble. We need to see how truly incapable we are of anything without God. It’s a hard thing to swallow, but it’s important.

If you’ve read anything by the saints, you’ve probably come across the idea that self-love is bad. And to an extent, it is. If we understand self-love to mean pride, that is, attempting to play God and be entirely self-sufficient, thinking that we are greater than we really are. But when we see writings or quotes condemning self-love, the word “self-love” is usually never offered with any context or meaning. This can lead us to believe that we must hate ourselves.

Which brings me to the second half of how we perceive ourselves in God’s creation: we are everything.

We are everything because out of all of God’s creation, He chooses to pour Himself into us little humans. Even though we fail Him. Even though we so often choose to love other things. Even though we constantly hurt each other. God values us more than anything else that He made. We are His greatest treasure. We are important and precious in His eyes. He loves us. He loves us. He loves us.

So where did this idea come from that we’re not allowed to love ourselves?

Last week I was running a retreat for high school seniors and one day, I wore my shirt from a company called So Worth Loving, which is dedicated to spreading the message of self-love and self-worth. The shirt simply says “Love you. Love people.” The priest who joined us for the retreat noticed it and asked about it, so I told him about the company and its message. He said something in reply that I hope I never forget:

We can’t love other people unless we love ourselves first. It’s why Jesus said that the second greatest commandment is to “love our neighbor as we do ourselves.”

It makes a lot of sense, really. If we know and understand and really believe that we are loved and treasured by God, we’ll begin to treat ourselves with greater kindness. And if we believe this about ourselves and learn to see ourselves as God sees us, we will come to believe the same thing about others, for they, too, are children of a God who loves them. If we see ourselves this way, we must also see others this way.

It’s only been about a week since that priest dropped his wisdom about self-love but it’s already changing the way I think about my struggles with love. I can love others when it’s easy or convenient. But when someone starts to annoy me, when someone is being difficult? Love is the last thing I want to give to such people. And guess what? I treat myself the same way. I give myself about the same amount of mercy and grace when things get hard as I would anybody else who is trying me. Maybe even less. And I’m starting to think that the two are related.

Self-love is a tricky dance. It’s a concept that is often treated in one of two ways. Secular culture can lead us to believe that we must love ourselves at the expense of others, and Christian culture (especially in Catholicism) can make it seem like self-love is interchangeable with pride and vanity and therefore must be avoided. We are led to believe that we are either everything, or we are nothing. But I don’t think true and right self-love can be achieved unless we embrace both of those statements:

We are nothing. Small, insignificant, just one of the millions of pretty things out there.

And yet, we are everything. Cherished, valued, the pretty thing that catches our Father’s eye the most.

Our willingness to assent to both of those truths, not just one, can change everything.

Both/and. It’s a beautiful thing.

 

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