September 2008

Authentic Love ©

Whenever a child is reported missing, neighbours—and sometimes strangers from far away—rally round the bereaved family and organize search parties, sometimes spending many days combing unfamiliar terrain in the hope of finding the child alive.

If we were to ask any of these volunteers what motivated them, they would likely answer that they could identify with the distressed parents and would appreciate such help if their own son or daughter was lost.

Among the most admirable traits of humanist decency is the inclination to treat others at least as well as we ourselves would like to be treated in similar circumstances. This attitude honours a sort of natural law that governs ethical decisions in most people, whether religious or not. Its foundation seems to rest on a wisdom that is intrinsic to human life itself.

So pervasive is this idea that world religions share this common ground. What we often refer to as The Golden Rule is enshrined in texts central to the most ancient spiritual traditions of humanity.

For example, for Hindus, “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you;” for Muslims, “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” For Taoists, “Regard your neighbour’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbour’s loss as your own loss.” For Buddhists “A state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another.”

In Paul’s letter to the Romans (13:8-10), we find an excellent frame in which to appreciate the importance of this rule in Christian spirituality. He sets the stage by writing, “The one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” He is effectively saying that to love is the purpose of life. L’Abbe Pierre, a French Capuchin whose life was dedicated to defending the right of the poor to decent housing and livelihood, revealed in an interview that living had taught him this simple fact: that life is a short duration of time given to our free will in order that we might learn to love and to prepare ourselves for an eternal encounter with Eternal Love.

Learning to love starts with learning the meaning of true love, as taught by Christ. It is also to grow in the realization that true love is wholesome love. It requires authenticity, or what psychologists call “individuation,” which enables us to assume our unique identity. That is why Paul writes, “Owe nothing to anyone.”

Individuation is the progressive liberation from all undue external influences to guarantee the individual’s freedom. Individuation is the goal of all human growth. (Definitions by Jean Monbourquette, Self-Esteem and the Soul)

In effect, to owe nothing to anyone as a condition for authentic love means that we must progressively free ourselves from unhealthy admiration or envy; fear or resentment.

The Ten Commandments warn against actions that are promoted by falseness or inauthenticity, creating a distance from God, as when we violate the first three, or from our neighbour, as when we commit adultery, kill, steal or covet. These are perhaps extreme examples of alienation from others but we are all inclined to unhealthy desires, to violence, infidelity and envy, are we not?

What is Paul’s recipe for true love? Quite simply, he ends by writing, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” The ironic difficulty of this familiar admonition is that it supposes that we esteem others and esteem ourselves, an achievement that cannot be taken for granted.

Theoretically, Paul might be arguing that we should love God first, and this would make it a bit easier to love our neighbour. Love of self doesn’t get much attention is traditional Christian literature. In fact, most of what’s been written over the centuries places our self on the altar of self-sacrifice, all in the name of loving God and our neighbour. The model often cited is Christ who, as Paul wrote to the Philippians, emptied himself and died painfully and in humiliation. (Cf. Phil. 2:5-11)

Practically, we’ve learned since Paul’s time a few things about how the human person develops and acts. We realize that how we think about our self has a lot to do with how we think of God, and how we treat our self has a lot to do with how we treat others.

So the esteem we have for our self has a bearing on our ability and capacity to love. That’s the hidden wisdom of Paul’s message. We will love our neighbour once we love our self.

This is the deal: Love your own person; love your neighbour; and love God, in that order. Experience shows that the reverse does not work. When love directs the Christian’s moral decisions, it is made of one part grace and one part knowledge and esteem of the self.

The self is too easily misunderstood. Esteem of the self is not selfishness, arrogance or vanity. Healthy self-esteem is the assessment that persons give themselves as much for their person as for their abilities.

True self-esteem requires knowing how to accept and integrate both our gifts and our faults so that we can have a healthy, balanced self-image. It includes humble self-acceptance and rejoices in what God has created. This, in turn, translates into love of self, which is showing compassion and kindness towards oneself.

To see how love of self is not contrary to biblical teaching, it may be helpful to see a link between our personal self and what the pioneering psychiatrist Carl Jung termed the Self with a capital “S.” He called this the “soul inhabited by the divine.”

Theologically, we call this the imago Dei, the image of God, as in being created in the image of God. In Genesis 5:1-2, we read, “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God; he created them male and female. When they were created, he blessed them and named them ‘man.’”

This sacred quality constitutes the deep spiritual identity of every human being and imposes a subtle direction on the self. To diminish the self and especially to vilify it creates terrible consequences.

The anxiety that results from this spiral creates all sorts of distortions in our relationships with our neighbour and God who we are called to love. We transfer or project unhealthy feelings and attitudes onto others, including God. Learning to love another begins, therefore, with learning to esteem the presence of God’s Holy Spirit in each of us, including our Self.

When I work with people distressed by a loss of some sort, the grieving work that we do together is partly aimed at rehabilitating, or sometimes fostering for the first time, healthy self-esteem. Our vulnerability at the time of a loss often is related to our esteem for our person and gifts, and healthy acceptance of human foibles. The shock of loss itself undermines the trust that we might have in how God has gifted us for Life. Self-respect is either displaced by self-loathing or confused with self-pity, and our capacity to love unconditionally can be diminished as a result.

Getting in touch again with our beauty, as seen through God’s eyes, and our giftedness for a mission are two vital activities from which we can all profit. Therein lay our joy and hope, these being the key to love—love of self, love of neighbour and love of God.

Two towering figures in the history of Christian theology seem to commend this attitude to us. In the second Century, Irenaeus of Lyons wrote, “the glory of God is the human person fully alive, and the life of the human person is the vision of God.” Ten centuries later, Aquinas, Doctor of the Church affirmed and built upon Irenaeus’ insight: “a man’s love for himself is the model of his love for another.”

Today, despite advances in social sciences, we have never been more threatened by suspicion of others and doubts about ourselves. More than ever, we need Jesus’ reminder to love our neighbour and ourselves equally.