The story starts with the Sadducees. They were eager to find a reason to condemn Jesus, so they approached him and tried to trick him into saying something blasphemous or heretical. They asked him questions about the law that they thought would stump him. None of them did. A man, seeing that Jesus had a perfect answer to all of their tricky questions, decided to pose one of his own. He asked Jesus, "Out of all the commandments, which one is the most important?" His response is one of the most commonly known passages of scripture.
The most important one is this... Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.
The Sadducees were troubled by the answer. Honestly, so am I.
The choice of words is so specific. Jesus doesn't simply command me to love my neighbor in general, or to love my neighbor as God loves them. Instead he says to love my neighbor as I love myself.
And that's going to be a problem.
To love my neighbor as I love myself would be to hate her first thing in the morning and think about killing her at night. It would come with criticism of her body, her skin, her hair, her mind, and her sense of humor. It would be hold her to standards of perfection in all aspects of life and physically punish her when she fell short. My words to her would be mean. You're a terrible wife, a terrible friend, a weak person, unloved and unworthy. I would spend time in conversation telling her how much I dislike her, and convincing her that others felt the same way. In short, to love my neighbor as myself just sounds like really terrible news for my neighbor.
I've never particularly liked myself. Actually, for good portion of my life I have ardently hated myself. I always knew that the situation wasn't ideal, but it never struck me as a problem as far as loving my neighbor is concerned. What does it matter if I treat myself terribly as long as I don't treat others terribly? Hating myself only affects me, so I'm not hurting anyone. I would never treat anyone but me this poorly.
Well, yes and no.
It's true, in many ways I would never treat others as poorly as I treat myself. I would never walk up to one of my friends and say, "Those ten extra pounds make you look disgusting. You should be ashamed. I bet your husband wants nothing to do with you anymore." I would never accuse a dinner companion of being mentally inadequate for calculating the tip incorrectly. I can't fathom running a razor blade over another person - even someone who I REALLY don't like. I especially can't fathom doing that because of something as inconsequential as forgetting to pick up something from the grocery store, or eating ice cream. I just couldn't. I'm not a complete monster.
However, I have noticed the way I interact with myself impacting the way I interact with others. During my Great Depression I hated myself with all of my energy all of the time, and everything in my life passed through that filter. I felt disgusting and burdensome. I didn't believe that my life was meaningful or worth protecting. In turn, I didn't think my marriage - a partnership that is fifty percent me - was meaningful or worth protecting either. You can imagine how that went. The more I said hateful things to myself, the easier it became to say hateful things to others. When I could see that my words or actions were hurting someone I cared about I was relatively unaffected. I would think to myself, I have no intention of being here tomorrow, so what I say to this person today isn't going to matter. I won't have to clean up this mess, I'll be long gone.
I began to hate people for being what I interpreted as superior to me. I hated people for earning more money than me, being thinner than me, having a better job than me, and for having a normal brain that wasn't riddled with demons. I belittled the accomplishments of acquaintances and scoffed at the happiness I saw others experiencing. I simultaneously began to hate people for being just like me. I began to think the things about them that I constantly thought about myself. I hated people for being depressed and anxious. We all have bad days. You could handle this if you weren't so weak minded. I hated people for struggling with self control. You know the right choice, why don't you just DO it? I hated people for talking about their problems. No one wants to hear about your feelings. Suck it up and deal. I was perfectly summed up in this line from a movie, "I hate myself, but I'm better than everyone."
The more I dehumanized and stripped myself of value, the easier it was to dehumanize and strip others of their value. The less respect, care, and mercy I gave myself, the less respect, care, and mercy I gave others. It caused problems.
So, how do you love your neighbor when you hate yourself? As it turns out - not very well.
This makes me think about the specific choice of words in Jesus' response to the Sadducees. I think either of the examples I mentioned earlier would have been a perfectly acceptable way of phrasing this commandment. Love God with everything you have. Also, love your neighbor. Period. Or, even better, love your neighbor as God loves them - or as God loves you. Why not just say that?
I like to believe that Jesus said things a certain way for a reason. To me his words here sound like both a commandment and an explanation. I'm commanded to love my neighbor as myself, with the understanding that I have value and deserve respect. Therefore, so does my neighbor. I also think he's telling us that there will inevitably be a correlation between our relationship with ourselves and our relationships with others. Jesus knew our human limitations and understood that we wouldn't be very good at manifesting unconditional love for others if we couldn't even master tolerating ourselves. He says, "love your neighbor as yourself" not because it's the best way we can, but because it's the only way we can. And if that's true, we ought to be very mindful about loving ourselves.
Sorry - this is not the part where I give you all the answers about how to love yourself, repair your broken self esteem, and become a confidence factory. I spent most of the last year believing I wasn't worth keeping alive, so I definitely don't have this one all figured out. However, I am more determined than ever to work on my relationship with myself. Not only because it will be healthy and beneficial to me, but because I now believe that loving myself is an essential part of properly loving my neighbor. Loving my neighbor is the second half of what we call The Greatest Commandment, so this seems worth mastering.
I'm making progress. I'm working on being forgiving and offering myself a fraction of the grace that Christ has already given me. I'm trying to be merciful and value myself even when I don't "deserve" it. I think this process will be difficult, because I'm confident that no one dislikes me quite as much as I do. I'm definitely my own worst enemy, and sometimes I don't even think I'm worth the hassle of figuring this all out. Then I hear more words from Jesus in the back of my mind.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
To quote Kahlil Gibran: “God said 'Love Your Enemy,' so I obeyed him and loved myself.”