If you are anything like me, you were probably nodding along there with the title of this blog post until your mind read the word “self.”
Isn’t it amazing how one little word change can throw us so off track?
Personally, I was raised in what I would term a “lightly Christian” environment. By this I mean, once we reached middle school, my parents (bless them) gave us the option to a) continue going to church, or b) sleep in on Sunday mornings.
Guess which option I chose?
This is relevant because I never felt like religion was forced on me. I got interested in high school because I was socializing with other teens who were already interested.
I got interested again in college because the eating disorder was slowly killing me off and I thought perhaps it was time to call for (divine) backup.
Ultimately, after several years exploring faith and different religions from all accessible angles, including an extended trip to India to live in an ashram, much reading and study in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, an intensive Judaism conversion course led by an Orthodox rabbi, formal employment at a very large, famous and traditional Episcopalian church, and an intensive year-long process to release a Christian-themed music CD and form a music ministry band behind it, I finally realized what was missing in my faith quest.
Before I say this, I feel like I need to qualify that today I do not self-identify as any particular religion.
To that point, if this was an online dating profile instead a Psych Central blog post, I might simply say I am “spiritual but not religious.”
This is not because I am attempting to disrespect my own Christian roots or anyone else’s active Christian (or other) faith walk.
It is simply because, for me personally, after a while the whole experience of being religious, by which I mean being actively involved in a particular religious community with its requirement of declaring I believed certain things and only certain things, began to feel really divisive and limiting.
Uss versus them was no longer appealing. Reason being, I was already dealing with me versus me and that was more than enough challenge to tackle.
Here I should mention this moving away from my faith roots and childhood faith tradition actually started when I was still struggling through the blood and guts of my eating disorder recovery work. So I truly didn’t need lofty codified belief ideals to aspire to or yet another reason to feel Christian-superior to my other-faith or non-faith neighbors or friends.
I needed almighty ammo (here, think Old Testament rather than New) to fling at the ungodly angry mind inside me and I needed it NOW.
As I searched for it here, there and everywhere, one day I ran across something Jesus said that was (mercifully) translated into very modern, very plain English even I couldn’t misinterpret:
Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.
I became fascinated with the last two words. “As yourself.”
I still remember my first reaction after reading it.
I should love me? I must (as in I am commanded to) love me? But I don’t even like myself!
This is also when I knew it was going to be very VERY hard work to overturn the reigning rageful despot currently seated on my inner throne.
But it made sense, really. No wonder I was so perpetually disappointed with myself in every way, with my thoughts, my behaviors, my judgements towards others, my willingness to say or do anything to put myself down and push other people away no matter how much it hurt us all.
I didn’t think I mattered. I didn’t think I had any worth. The way I reasoned it, my small cruelties in thought, word and deed were more than justified in service to the bigger goal: protecting those who had worth from the awful, horrible, terrible, despicable me.
I was still active with my band and the Christian music community when I started unpacking Jesus’s words, by the way. And “fake it til you make it” was starting to wear awfully thin.
To learn more, I would try to bring this commandment up when we were out doing our music ministry or in conversation with Christian friends I was close to at the time. And it stunned me again and again to encounter a) blank looks, b) disinterest, c) denial, d) alternate explanations clearly designed to refocus on “love God” and “love your neighbor” and weasel out of having to “love yourself.”
This is when I realized something about this picture wasn’t like all the others. That something – someone – was me.
To be fair, knowing you are slowly killing yourself and nothing you’ve tried has stopped it can bring out the radical in anyone. I was desperate. I was making my last-ditch effort to save my own life and to that end I was willing to try even the really craaaaazzzzyyyy stuff – like loving myself – if that is what it took.
After all, I was pretty sure I would fail anyway. And attempting to circumvent death felt at least slightly less scary than actual death.
So I set out to learn everything I could learn about what it might mean to love my neighbor as myself.
I started with loving my neighbor, because at least there I had ideas of what that might look like…and even some little remaining hope of one day achieving the same.
For example, I wanted to be kind, generous, non-judgmental, compassionate, caring, positive, encouraging, uplifting, loving towards my neighbor. I wanted to see the best in everyone around me – and really see it, not just pretend to see it. I wanted to be a good neighbor (thank you, Mr. Rogers).
This contemplation gave me a greater understanding of what it might mean to love myself the way I loved my neighbor, or at least the way I wanted to love my neighbor.
It also felt completely impossible, of course. But hey, so did recovering from the eating disorder. And one day having a life. And waking up each morning to greetings from a mind that wasn’t completely possessed by ANGRY SELF-CONDEMNING VOICE. And having friends who knew the “real me” and actually liked her. Oh, and not hating myself.
So I started trying.
(I wrote a lot more about what I actually did in this trying process in my first-ever book, Beating Ana: how to outsmart your eating disorder and take your life back. The book itself is now out of print, although you can still find a copy here and there, by which I mean on Amazon, of course. And I’m only even mentioning this because it actually did take a whole book to describe all the things I tried and which things worked, which is why I’m not going to go further into this topic here.)
At first, even my most strenuous efforts only got me to self-toleration level (i.e. I wasn’t a complete black hole or a total waste of space).
In time and with some truly stellar, over-the-top mentoring, I started to inch closer to self-acceptance (which also came way before self-like).
Today I am working really diligently towards daily, consistent self-love. I am also still working very diligently towards self-like, since I am not always likable to myself either. It is a daily discipline, a daily practice and also the most spiritual practice I have ever done.
After all, how can I forgive, accept, love, care for my neighbor if I can’t forgive, accept, love, care for myself?
Jesus was right. Smart, smart, smart.
At this point you may be wondering why you are still reading this blog post – is there a point to all this?
Here is the point. It is the day ‘o love.
It happens every year on this very same date. And we all know it is coming long before it gets here. Sure, the reason we know it is coming is because Valentine’s Day is a mass-marketing creation designed to give our national economy a much-needed leg up in the weeks that occur between Black Friday and Black Friday each year.
But still, it holds meaning for many of us on a deeper level, too.
We want to connect with a day dedicated to love, even if we don’t have a significant romantic partner and even if roses make us sneeze and even if we only celebrate V-Day with black balloons and half-price red-colored heart-shaped candies on the day after.
We all want – need – love.
It is just – I don’t think you have to have had an eating disorder or any serious life issue at all to get hung up trying to love others when you don’t love yourself.
Here is an example.
The last casa we lived in, my (retired, daily church-going) landlord got so mad at me because I didn’t like living with his daytime loud music and television while trying to run my business from home that he hurled passive-aggressive insults and then gave me the silent treatment as I was moving out. Then he took my sizable security deposit…just because he could.
In three previous casas before that one, my polite requests for lowered music or television volume from near-neighbors got me slashed tires, nasty notes tucked under my windshield wipers, rage-filled looks and even louder music lasting well into the early hours of the morning. Some nights I didn’t get any sleep at all.
And while at the time these situations were unfolding I felt very afraid and very angry myself and very, very put-upon (to the tune of such horribly self-righteous thoughts as “why oh why am I the only considerate person left in this neighborhood/city/continent/world/solar system?”) and I also felt very angry with myself for not being able to “just live with it,” now looking back I have to think it probably felt pretty horrible to be them, too, whether they were consciously aware of the horrible-feeling or not.
We all felt horrible – me and them.
Because it feels horrible to hate.
It feels horrible to wish others harm.
It feels horrible to continue doing what you are doing knowing someone else is hurting because of your actions.
It feels horrible to witness your own inner finger on the red button.
For most of my life, I hated myself just for existing. So when I had thoughts or behaved in ways that I did not admire or wish to have, I just hated myself even more.
If you are a Star Wars fan like I am, you will understand when I say the Dark Side runs very strong in me. I have to constantly fight against its influence. It is the easy, slick, quick path to a feeling of inner power.
But a feeling is all it is.
One of many lessons the eating disorder taught me is that when I am in the grips of the Dark Side and I need some actual power, it is nowhere to be found.
All I can do is hate, and harm, and destroy. I can tear down but then there I am having to live with the aftermath – the stinking, miserable, monochrome, wasted landscape I myself have created.
And the loneliness.
So much loneliness.
I guess my point is, we fight wars with big armies and destroy thousands and millions because we cannot even manage to make nice over barking dogs and television volume. We don’t know how to merge lanes on the freeway or take turns when the traffic lights go out, let alone negotiate any kind of peace that doesn’t involve the continual specter of (alleged or real) uranium-fueled global annihilation.
And sharing? Hah. As if.
I am part of the problem, no doubt about it. But at least now I know it.
With this knowledge well in hand, at least now I can try my utmost to do what I can do to solve it.
I can try to love myself first and then try to love my neighbor in the same way.
Today, on this day o’ love, please remember this world needs you. We are all in this together. I need you to love you just as you need me to love me. Will you join me? Will you at least try to love yourself, no matter how impossible or at least hard it sometimes feels or gets?
I love you. I love me too.
With great respect and love,