Christianity, like other religions, has its share of believers who insist that the most virtuous life is only achieved through self-denial, extreme emotional, physical, and social austerities, self-loathing, and even actual self-flagellation. In fact, it seems that most Christians share in this belief to some extent, having been conditioned to do so by our churches, families, and much of society at large. For many of us, myself certainly included, that conditioning manifests as a nagging and belittling of ourselves for our shortcomings and mistakes, and an often harsh critique and minimization of our talents and successes. In this reflection we’ll examine some of the foundations and effects of this kind of religion, and then we’ll consider the alternative of self-love.
Is Violence against the Self Virtuous?
We must acknowledge that many respected Christian leaders seem to have spoken of self-love as a vice. For example, St. Ignatius of Loyola said:
Experience proves that in this life peace and satisfaction are had, not by the listless but by those who are fervent in God’s service. And rightly so. For in their effort to overcome themselves and to rid themselves of self-love, they rid themselves of the roots of all passion and unrest.
Statements like this are, in part, based upon the truthful realization that we are shortsighted, ignorant creatures who are often our own worst enemies. Yet it is a sad irony that this truth is often interwoven with the belief that we must do something cruel and combative with ourselves in order to serve God better or to be more acceptable to God. So it is that many of us think, feel, and act as if we must be our own judge, prison guard, and torturer, demonstrating to God how terribly aware we are of our unworthiness (as if God wouldn’t otherwise know!), and exacting from ourselves some degree of the retribution we fear we might otherwise suffer.
There are noteworthy problems with this kind of religion. First of all, it fails to acknowledge the pure grace of God’s mercy, instead making God’s forgiveness and salvation a prize to be won by effort. It also reveals another irony in our assumption, and perhaps hubris, that we have the power to make ourselves holier through violence against our own souls. In short, it is more a denial of Jesus’ teachings about meekness, peacemaking, and loving at all costs than it is a denial of ourselves.
There are not only theological problems with this practice, but it also has unhealthy consequences on our psyches. To begin with, any attempt by the self to restrain or attack anything within the self is by necessity an act of self-assertion. There can thus be no self-denial in any complete sense, but only denial of one part of the self by another. It is simply delusional to convince ourselves that we are overcoming the self by our own will and effort, for it is the self that initiates and sustains that very effort. This loss of contact with reality then becomes fertile ground for further self-deceptions, and the more we deceive ourselves the more likely we are to do harm to ourselves in other ways. Unfortunately, these ills cannot simply be contained within ourselves, because the more we succumb to self-deception and self-harm, the less able we are to be the fervent servants of God in this world that St. Ignatius would have us be. In the end, the self-neglect and self-abuse that are the denial of self-love position us to contribute more to the ills of the world. There is very little about any of this that can rightly be called virtuous.
The Virtue of Self-Love
In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas expressed the essential wisdom of self-love very simply and directly:
Well-ordered self-love, whereby man desires a fitting good for himself, is right and natural.
The Anglican theologian, clergyman, and mystical poet of the 17th century, Thomas Traherne, unfolds this wisdom further by saying:
Had we not loved ourselves at all, we could never have been obliged to love anything. So that self-love is the basis of all love.
If, as St. Ignatius alludes, our highest calling is to serve God, and if the highest form of service is love, as Jesus teaches, then Traherne’s comment begs us to remember that the place most immediately present and constantly available for such service is within oneself, and likewise the most immediately present and constantly available person one can serve is oneself. Furthermore, if we also believe the scriptures and many mystics claiming that God is love, and that to love is to know God, then the most immediately present and constantly available way of knowing God must be through loving oneself. We should also recall the second of Jesus’ Great Commandments, where he urges us to love our neighbors as ourselves. This statement reveals that self-love is not only recommended, but is also understood by Jesus, as is later explained by Traherne, to be central to our ability to love others.
The ways we do and do not love ourselves shape the ways that we do and do not love others; to a significant degree, we cannot help but love others as we love ourselves. This view is more than a theologically sound appreciation of self-love; it draws attention to the deep psychological dynamics by which one’s social and moral character in the world is formed. By analogy, consider that people who starve the body of food and water eventually become compromised in their ability to serve others food and water. So, for example, our refusal to be forgiving of our own shortcomings and mistakes leads us to be more hostile towards those of others, despite any pretense of forbearance we might offer. Likewise, if we are in the habit of harshly criticizing and minimizing our own talents and successes, then we will habitually do the same to other people, though we might try hiding our negativity behind feigned appreciation and admiration. In the extreme, violence to our own souls can even produce an attitude of justification in exacting unmerciful and vengeful violence on others. Thankfully these dynamics also produce positive results and thus reveal the virtue of self-love — the more we practice genuine acceptance, intimacy, compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and care for ourselves, the more freely we offer them to others.
Self-Love in Contemplative Practice
The hallmark of contemplative practice in Christianity is silent prayer, the practice of being still and quietly attentive to the present moment. Silent contemplative prayer is practiced with faith that the Holy Spirit is revealing God to us in and through this very moment just as it is, including not merely what is apparent to us through our physical senses, but also, and more importantly, though what is occurring within our hearts and minds. In other words, God, as Truth, is always immediately present to us in the truth about ourselves, a truth that we encounter most clearly and fully when we are simply attentive to and accepting of the natural flow of our thoughts and feelings. We simply practice being as consciously present as possible to the truth of ourselves without judgment, neither condoning nor rejecting, but just being honestly aware of our bared souls. It is a way of being that, while often wordless, may be approximated with words like these:
Ah, yes, there is pain. Ah, yes, there is pleasure.
Ah, yes, there is anger. Ah, yes, there is peace.
Ah, yes, there is sadness. Ah, yes, there is joy.
Ah, yes, there is confusion. Ah, yes, there is clarity.
Ah, yes, there is doubt. Ah, yes, there is certainty.
Ah, yes, there is gluttony. Ah, yes, there is temperance.
Ah, yes, there is greed. Ah, yes, there is generosity.
Ah, yes, there is arrogance. Ah, yes, there is humility.
Ah, yes, there is distrust. Ah, yes, there is faith.
Ah, yes, there is despair. Ah, yes, there is hope.
Ah, yes, there is love, always love, in and around all of this.
It might not be immediately apparent that this way of being is actually the cornerstone of self-love, but it becomes apparent when we consider what we most desire in giving and receiving love with others. Underlying all the wonderful experiences and expressions of love between human beings, and between us and God, what we most need is to know we are intimately welcomed, unconditionally accepted, and compassionately understood, just as we are, without hiding or pretending in any way.
Self-Love in Extension
As we have already seen, how we love ourselves determines our character in this world. So it is that the contemplative practice of silent prayer leads us into greater awareness, acceptance, and compassionate understanding of the world as it really is and of other people as they actually are. This is the kind of love that Jesus revealed God freely offers us, and which he urges us to let flow through us for ourselves and others. Indeed, this kind of love can mystically reveal to us that the self is not actually an entity separate from others. It can awaken us to the reality that each individualized self, with all its limitations, is nonetheless a precious expression of the one infinite Spirit lovingly breathed into all of humanity, the one Self that is God’s living presence in all of us.
This mystical realization has a number of additional benefits. At a very personal level, it frees us to develop, express, and enjoy our uniqueness as gifts of God to this world. There is no need to crush our spirits with false humility, excessive guilt, toxic shame and other forms of self-abuse. It further enables us to embrace and celebrate the same freedom for other people, letting go of expectations for everyone to conform to the mores and customs of a particular culture, the specific beliefs of a single religion, or the attitudes and behavioral patterns of a particular personality type. In welcoming ourselves and others as we are, and knowing God’s love is always abundantly present within us and through our spiritual interconnectedness, we are less likely to regard relationships, other people, rights, and liberties as personal possessions we must jealously keep to ourselves. It isn’t hard to see how such significant shifts in attitudes would result in less psychological and physical suffering in this world, and more peace, harmony, and healthy creativity.
A Closing Observation
While there is so much to be gained in the practice of self-love, we should avoid assuming that it automatically results in nothing but rainbows and butterflies. There are constant temptations to fall back into our self-deceptions and vacillations between self-aggrandizement and self-condemnation, and we are surrounded by other human beings with similar struggles. Contemplatives also invariably become more sensitive to the suffering in this world. A huge portion of the work of loving self and others is therefore persevering in our intentions to practice non-judgmental awareness, acceptance, and compassionate understanding when it seems most difficult and least rewarding to do so. Of course, this also means returning to patience and understanding with ourselves when those intentions have been temporarily lost. It certainly helps to keep a sense of humor!