“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second [commandment] is: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these. -Mark 12:30-31
Modern American culture is obsessed with personal responsibility. As children, many of us are raised in systems of inextricably linked actions and consequences. When we break the rules, misbehave or disobey, we go to time-out, get sent to our room or we’re grounded. At school, this sense of personal responsibility is reinforced; if you miss the deadline to turn in your book report, you’ll get a bad grade; solving a math problem incorrectly results in a lower score. Finally, personal responsibility governs our experience of the workplace and of adulthood: if you’re late work too many times in a row, a note goes in your file. If you fail to fulfill your workplace responsibilities, you’ll be at risk of being fired.
The natural conclusion seems to be that our value is commensurate with our obedience, productivity or reliability. We become careful perfectionists at our best and self-hating workaholics at our worst.
Either extreme bears profound negative implications on our social lives, but the implications on our private lives are often overlooked. There is typically a great divide between our public and private selves. We are trained, either outright or implicitly, to put our best foot forward and to project ourselves in the best light possible with others. But we are the only ones who see the entirety of our private lives. We are the only ones who know how selfish we truly are, or how far we bend the rules without breaking them, how easily we become distracted when we’re trying to stay diligent. We alone know the full extent of our failures.
In a culture obsessed with personal responsibility, self-awareness can produce a pervasive sense of guilt; and guilt can give birth to its more insidious counterpart, shame. While guilt is responsive to specific actions or failures to act, shame extends beyond actions to shape our very identities. While guilt is the belief that we have done something bad, shame is the belief that we are bad. Not only will shame, when left unchecked, consume and destroy us, but it is self-perpetuating. We tell ourselves we are the only ones who are this bad, and that we dare not share our true selves with others. By keeping our shame private, it grows—thriving in the darkness of our hearts and minds.
Self-love may sound like a modern concept, but it’s actually an ancient mandate. Jesus spoke of loving our neighbors as ourselves, implying that our ability to love others is inextricably linked with our ability to love ourselves. Too often we speak of putting others ahead of ourselves, as though we are incapable of loving others and ourselves at the same time. Jesus taught us that we can, and must, do both. We can have compassion toward ourselves and toward others simultaneously. Jesus suggests that love functions in a generative, cyclical fashion: our love for our neighbor feeds our love for ourselves. Our sense of common human dignity will expand through this cycle of generative love.
Today, challenge your own conception of love. Challenge any sense of guilt or shame that you may have, and consider those attributes of your character that are lovely. Be a friend to yourself. Love and compassion are unlimited and abundant, so freely pour them out for others—and for yourself.
About the Author
Elizabeth Jeffries is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Pittsburgh and writes nonfiction on a freelance basis. She and her husband, Mark, live in the City of Pittsburgh, and members of Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community in the South Side neighborhood. You can find her online at www.elizabethjeffrieswrites.com and on Twitter @EPJeff.