I find the great invocation, “love your neighbor as yourself” which finds expression in many of our world’s religions, to be problematic, not because I have any trouble with the idea of loving my neighbor, but because as I look around my world I simply do not think that many (if any) of us love ourselves all that well. Love your neighbor as yourself. How well do any of us really love ourselves? Psychiatry, psychology, social work and self help industries would not be flourishing to the degree that they are if authentic self love flourished. Rather self love stands as an anathema, it is more often taken as self indulgence rather than acceptance and cherishing based on awareness, knowledge and insight. More often those who begin to walk the path of self-acceptance experience a duality within themselves – good and evil, angel and demon, love and hate – and then work to nurture one side while banishing the other. But, a house divided against itself will never stand. Until we each learn to fully cherish our selves for all of who we are, in all of our wonderful, delicious complexity, there will be no loving the other well. Until we each learn to fully cherish our selves for all of who we are, in all of our complexity, and until we learn to love each other well, there will be no justice, no respect for human rights, no peace.
‘Love yourself well, and love your neighbor as yourself’ is perhaps a better rendition of the precept. Karen Armstrong has eloquently described a path to loving our neighbor in her book, “twelve steps to a compassionate life.” The first step: learn about compassion progresses to look at your own world; develop compassion for yourself; develop empathy with others; practice mindfulness; take action; be aware of how little we know; consider how we should speak to one another; act with concern for everybody; continuously develop your knowledge; expand your recognition; and love your enemies.
And as I come back to ‘love yourself well’ and Armstrong’s second step, ‘develop compassion for yourself’ I find myself thinking about how little we seem to appreciate the depth and breadth of human complexity, of how the trajectory of understanding trends toward parsimony and simplicity. But we are neither parsimonious nor simple beings. To bring Occam’s razor to understanding ourselves (and others) may be nothing more than self injury and cutting at best and perhaps slitting our wrists at worst.
Recently, as I was reading Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, on page 75 I came across a particularly apt metaphor for what I am trying to get at here:
A person designs for herself a garden with a hundred kinds of trees, a thousand kinds of flowers, a hundred kinds of fruit and vegetables. Suppose, then, that the gardener of this garden knew no other distinction than between edible and inedible, nine tenths of this garden would be useless to him. He would pull up the most enchanting flowers and hew down the noblest trees and even regard them with a loathing and envious eye. This is what we do with the flowers of our soul. What does not stand classified as either man or wolf, what does not fit neatly into our predefined dichotomies we do not see at all.
In order to love our selves well, we need to learn to look at ourselves with open hearts and minds, with the eyes of loving kindness and fierce open hearted compassion. Then we can begin to love our neighbors as our selves. Then we can begin to work together to build a world of justice, a world where human dignity (in all of its messy complexity) is respected, a world of peace where differences and diversity is celebrated!