My response to Sunday’s sermon — and another event, after church — surprised me, and seemed to affirm that self-love is indeed the beginning of creation.
The sermon text was from Luke 18:
The normal treatment of this text is to focus on the Pharisee and try to figure out his problem. The guest preacher this morning did no different. In fairness, he tied it to a larger human problem that may affect us all.
He went into Martin Buber’s “I-thou” teaching at some length. Buber proposed that the human task is to recognize the full humanity of the Other. (For more about this, see the Wikipedia article, “I and thou.”)
Inwardly, I reacted. This preacher is accustomed to speaking to people who are materially well-off, and it may be, I supposed, that Buber shared such assumptions also. Seeking to embrace the Other may be a luxury the poor man cannot afford. “I’m needy,” I said. “I can’t afford to think about this other guy. I need to take care of me!”
What does love for myself, care for myself, entail? It seemed to me the human task may be instead first to recognize the full divinity (image of God) in oneself, and then the full divinity (image of God) of the Other.
Given current circumstances at the shelter, I no longer go downtown to McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts after church, but Burger King. Angela had given me $10 during worship. I used that bill to pay for my first coffee: $1.54. I put the coins in my pocket, and also had three $1 bills and a $5.
An hour later, when I went to buy my second coffee, the $8 was nowhere to be found. Someone I never noticed had taken it without my seeing. This did not feel good.
Normal thinking about self-love misunderstands this event. It supposes that the person who robbed me loves himself or herself too much; that’s why the person did it. In fact, just the opposite is true: selfishness reflects inadequate self-love. It was out of a sense of inadequacy that that person took my money. Regardless of material need, with adequate self-love that person would have been satisfied to leave my money where it was.
I would recall Alice Bailey’s theory of soul evolution, wherein one begins in a state of utter selfishness and may not grow out of it in any single life. Different tasks are appropriate for different levels of maturity. But the Gospel must be the same for everyone.
How focal is self-love?
I have otherwise lately been struggling to understand why people, myself included, cling to presumptions of powerlessness, and engage in self-sabotaging behaviors, rather than owning the freedom and personal power they do have. It appears to me to boil down to fear of uncertainty, fear of risk, ultimately fear of disappointment, of grief.
Self-love empowers me to overcome adversity. It would have empowered the thief not to rob me Sunday. The better I feel about myself, the less fear I have of disappointment, and thus fear of uncertainty and risk.
Self-love is at the center of it all.