‘Love your neighbour as yourself, I am the Lord,’ thus run perhaps the most famous words in the Hebrew Bible.
I’ve reflected on this brief, profound and poignant sentence many times and led numerous discussions about its many meanings and interpretations. Invariably, someone would ask: ‘But what if you don’t love yourself?’ Usually, I would acknowledge the question, note its importance, and move on.
Then I began to reflect: this wasn’t a matter to avoid or push under the carpet. I began to prepare texts to address the question properly: what did it mean to love oneself? Was it really okay to do so, when selflessness was the ideal? Was there a sort of self-love which was important, even essential, while other kinds remained wrong?
The first time I taught those texts I saw someone get up and leave the synagogue shortly after I began. How we love ourselves is neither a simple nor an insignificant matter.
Of course, for many people on this earth the issue might seem absurd: ‘Love myself? What do you mean! I’m too busy trying to keep alive and feed my family.’
But to many it is a significant matter, whether consciously or unconsciously so. It goes deeper than body image, troubling as that may be in itself. The feeling ‘I hate my body’ (and perhaps many of us have such moments) can express many things. Our self-image, perceived size, imagined lack of grace, may embody our sense of futility, hopelessness at our capacity to meet what we see as others’ expectations of us, or anger at our own ageing. Anorexia is a long, painful, pitiful form of suffering and self-torture, and torment for those who love the person concerned. Suicide may be the result of a life-long process of loneliness and alienation, or the culminating rush of overwhelming feelings of pain or futility in an inner domain of the self which neither the love of others nor objective realities can, in those fatal moments, reach.
One of the most challenging and sorrowful states I encounter is when a person has had stolen from them their natural unself-conscious love of self by the way they have been treated by others. There are people who have been repeatedly told as a child, directly in terms, or through the eloquence of neglect, or through violence, that they are unwanted, unlovable, a nuisance who ought not to exist. It is not just that they haven’t been loved, which is in itself a terrible wrong. It is as if they have had the very capacity to feel lovable punctured inside them, excised from them with verbal or physical knives. Sexual violence, selling children into the sex and slave trade: – these can have similar effect. Wounds can be inflicted which love itself can scarcely know how to heal.
All these matters call for our mercy, understanding, and love. Part, perhaps the most important part, of ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ is to foster in all those with whom we interact in this world the other person’s dignity, self-respect, integrity, and feeling that they are worthy of love and regard.
To return to the text, what then is the ‘love’ with which we should love ourselves? It is obviously not vanity, self-centredness or arrogant pride.
The traditional answer derives from the understanding that we are created in God’s image. Not just our soul or mind, but also our body, is an instrument of God’s sacred will and deserves our attentive care. We are a loved and cherished part of God’s creation and have a responsibility to treat each other, and ourselves, as such.