On loving your neighbor as yourself

 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!

The Scorpion and the Frog

Once upon a time in a land where anthropomorphism was alive and well, there lived a scorpion who lived on a secluded mountain. The scorpion was well known in throughout the community, and was regarded with wariness by one and all. The scorpion grew weary of this, was hoping for a bit of challenge and intrigue. So the scorpion set off down the mountain and across the valley looking for change and adventure. Soon enough there came the Delaware River. Just the day before there had been a heavy rain storm, and the river was at near flood level, it was wide and running swiftly.  The scorpion stood on the bank, considering the situation. New Jersey was calling out. It was the land of Jersey Shore, Jerseylicious, and The Real Housewives of Jersey. This was the place to be. But as the scorpion paused and looked, there was not see a way across the river. Running upstream and downstream, and the waters looks too wide, too deep, too fast to be forded even by a mean and lean scorpion.

 Just on the verge of abandoning hope, then the scorpion came across a frog sitting on the bank just across the river, “Hey, Froggy, would you be kind enough to carry me across the river?” the scorpion shouted across.

 “Yo, scorpion, what kind of fool do you take me for!” the frog responded. “How do I know you won’t take me out with your stinger?”

 “Easy queasy” replied the scorpion, “If I kill you, I will drown! I can’t swim; otherwise I would just pop in the river and swim across on my own.”

 The frog thought about it, and then asked, “so, how do I know you won’t wait until we are close to the other side, and then you would sting me and kill me when you don’t need me anymore?”

 “Gratitude,” said the scorpion. “Once you have carried me across the river, I will be so grateful to you my gratitude would prevent me from such an action.”

 The frog thought a bit more, what the scorpion said made sense, and so the frog swam across the river, jumped up the other bank and agreed to carry the scorpion across the river from Pennsylvania to New Jersey.

 The scorpion crawled onto the frog and with his claws, held onto the frog’s delicate back for dear life.  The frog jumped into the Delaware, but stayed near the surface so that the scorpion would not drown. The current carried the two unlikely travelers downstream, much as it had as Washington attempted his crossing of the very same (but different) river some years before, and like Washington before them, they made progress across the river. They were just about half way across the Delaware when the frog felt a sharp sting, and turning to see what had happened, the frog saw the scorpion pulling a stinger from the frog’s back. The frog was stunned! How could this be happening! The scorpion had sworn an oath! As the frog felt the numbness permeate limbs and his body, the frog croaked out, to the scorpion, “you fool! What did you do? Now we will both die! And for what?!?”

 The scorpion shrugged and said, “It’s my nature, I just couldn’t help myself” even as they both sank to the river bottom.

 Just one’s nature! Do we have an immutable nature?

 Is change possible?

 Should we trust? Who? When?

 Is altruism foolish?

 Does no good deed go unpunished?

 There are no answers here today, just questions. But, maybe wisdom is knowing the right questions?