My sister and I went to see the movie Isn’t It Romantic over the weekend, which I thoroughly enjoyed. (I’ll pretty much watch Rebel Wilson in anything.) In fact, I actually found the film to be somewhat thought provoking. Light spoiler: at the end of the movie Wilson’s character discovers that she doesn’t need a guy to love her, she needs to love herself. Once she comes to a place of loving and accepting herself as is, she can move forward in the rest of her life.
This message has a lot of good in it. As someone who has often used the love and affirmation of others to cover my own insecurity, I resonate deeply with the idea of needing to come to terms with myself before being able to truly love others. But I’ve been thinking through the idea of loving oneself, and how important it is in culture today, and how this message is far more complicated than it may at first seem.
I do love myself. I can unashamedly say that. Yet the way I arrived at that statement is somewhat counterintuitive, especially with respect to the way self-love is often expressed. In general, there are two kinds of people: those who believe that people are primarily good and can improve themselves (with the exception of the big ticket offenders like Adolf Hitler and Christopher Columbus) and those who believe that all people are bad. For me, the only reason I love myself is because I fall into the latter category.
I know that sounds absurd. How can I love myself while acknowledging that within me resides the ability to do terrible things? More than that, I agree with the Christian belief that people are not only capable of sinning, but inherently bent on sinning from birth. According to the words of Jesus, it’s not just actions that matter but also intentions. He said: "You have heard it said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Matthew 5:27-28)
Nobody likes to talk about sin, and for those unfamiliar with the Judeo-Christian worldview, it seems shocking to say that people (including myself and everyone I love) are bad. But I am strongly convicted that it’s not just about outward actions (social rules) but also about heart and mind orientation relative to God’s intended design for the world, and I think this is something a lot of people inherently understand. Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of The Good Place, and the writers of that show have picked up on this same idea by (mild spoiler) placing some of the characters in the bad place despite the outward social “good” they accomplished in life. By revealing that their motives were actually greed, revenge, and selfishness they communicate that these characters’ hearts were corrupt.
How can this crushing weight of intentional and unintentional misery possibly lead anywhere near love? For me it began with the freedom and relief of honesty--honesty I don’t prescribe to anyone. If you believe humans are good, you are free to believe it. But the first step toward loving myself was being truthful about how shitty I am on a profound, core level. Not just the actions I’ve taken, but the murmurs of my heart and the constant self-focus that plagues me every single day. The first step for me was not ignoring my feelings of self-judgment and giving myself a platitude about how good my heart is, but actually recognizing my need for help.
This is the great divide. Once I was in the camp of please-God-let-there-be-someone-who-can-help-me, things fell quickly into place. Rather than continuing to try my hardest to be a better person, as I did through middle school, I was given the chance to look at myself and wait. I’ve been given this chance many times throughout the years, and there are seasons where the painfulness of this honesty is very sharp. Weeks or months when I watch myself doing or feeling something while knowing it’s destructiveness, no longer able to hide behind a false sense of being okay. And yet the truth that comes out of this pain is even more profound than the pain itself.
It’s very easy to say “It’s not about me.” I don’t think I’ll ever truly internalize it in this lifetime. Yet the first thing that happened after the lowness of my self-honesty was the realization that it must not be about me. It can’t be about me if I need someone to help me. Though I continually go back to trying to make it about me, I know at my core that it just isn’t. One of my favorite poems is called “Suspended,” by Denise Levertov:
I had grasped God's garment in the void
But my hand slipped
On the rich silk of it.
The 'everlasting arms' my sister loved to remember
Must have upheld my leaden weight
From falling, even so,
For though I claw at empty air and feel
Nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.
Levertov eloquently reveals the profound truth that it is not I who am in charge of my journey, nor I who am upholding myself. Though I often don’t feel it, God is sustaining me nonetheless. My second glimpse of freedom was just this: that not only am I profoundly flawed, I am profoundly small. My lifespan in comparison to the universe is beyond miniscule. Even if I were to change the course of human history, I am but a blink. And yet, if the Bible is to be believed, I am also known intimately and treasured uniquely by the Creator of all things.
It’s a strange thing to come to terms with--the twin ideas that I both don’t matter and yet matter so much. This is where I arrive at loving myself. Though I don’t always want to love myself--and what it means to love myself is very different than what Rebel Wilson’s character felt in Isn’t It Romantic--I do love myself because I am convinced that God loves me. I have value because he has breathed life into me and chosen to make me exactly who I am.
This doesn’t mean some kind of shameful acceptance of myself--it doesn’t mean cringing and crawling in deference to a merciful God who plucked me out of the fires of hell despite my ugliness. There is a beautiful dignity in the way God allows us to stand on our feet and acknowledge our utter helplessness and his great mercy, while still seeing the value he gives to us. It allows me to begin to get to know myself and others--personality, likes and dislikes, skills and passions--in a way that marvels not at our inherent awesomeness, but at the unique craftsmanship and mystery of personhood God placed in each of us. It allows me to genuinely like who I am, and acknowledge that we as humans are beautiful creatures.
The largeness of the story is what affects me most: that the God who spans time created each of us with loving care, and placed us in time for his purpose. And though, as I’ve already mentioned, it’s not about me, it’s the love of him and his purpose that allows me to love myself, to marvel at the way he loves me when I don’t feel lovable. Rather than gritting my teeth and forcing myself to ignore or endlessly try to improve the things I know are ugly, I am free to honestly confess my sin and rest securely and joyfully in the knowledge that it will not be with me forever, because of the work of Jesus Christ, who loves me. He loves me more than I am able to love myself--a profound thought, indeed.
(Artwork by Bruce Buescher)
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard