“Love thy neighbours as thyself”.
These words are at the root of Christianity. First given as a commandment in the Torah, Jesus and Paul both later include them as the root of all Scripture, and all that we are commanded to do as God’s servants on this earth. As Christians, love becomes the yardstick by which we measure ourselves.
C. S. Lewis viewed love at least in part as an action, and pointed out in Mere Christianity that it wasn’t as scary as many view it. After all, he argued, often we get frustrated and angry at ourselves–sometimes we don’t even particularly like ourselves. So if that is the case, loving our neighbours becomes a lot more achievable.
Yet the parable of the Good Samaritan is told by Jesus in response to the question “Who is our neighbour?”. The parable of the Good Samaritan, given the historical context, paints a picture of very radical love. The person who is attacked is most likely Jewish, and the word for his attackers is the word used for the Jewish revolutionaries fighting for freedom from Roman rule. This person is not helped by the Jewish priest, or the Levites, both of which would have been expected heroes of the story–no, he was helped by the Samaritan. Samaritans were of mixed descent, part Jewish, part other, and were viewed as half-breeds, heretics, and blasphemers because of their worship of other gods and goddesses beside the Abrahamic God. Yet the Samaritan is the hero of the story, the one Christ holds up as an example to be followed. Is such radical love across seemingly stone-hard boundaries captued in Lewis’ view of “Love thy neighbours as thyself”?
Far more common in recent times is the refrain that you cannot love another until you love yourself. I just started reading Undivided: Coming Out, Becoming Whole, and Living Free from Shame by Vicki Beeching and was dismayed to find her express such a view in the preface–especially dismayed given the nature of the book, and the fact that it would be read by people who would very likely struggle to love themselves after a lifetime of repression and oppression.
The truth is that I definitely struggle with loving myself. I often say that, growing up, I never doubted that my parents loved me–but I did doubt that I was worthy of that love. Living as a child and teen with diagnosed anxiety, depression and DCD, and learning later that I was on the autism spectrum, I had plenty of moments to doubt my self-worth and develop a low self-esteem.
Yet despite my struggles with loving myself, I was determined to be as compassionate to others as I could be. My circles of compassion have only grown wider as I’ve grown older, and I remain committed to loving others. Due to my disabilities, I have yet to experience an adult romantic relationship, or physical intimacy, but I still have had romantic feelings and I still aim to love as a friend and family member to the best of my ability.
Loving myself is messy. It’s a struggle, and I’m learning how to better do so each day. I may never reach perfection, but I will always strive for it. I think this would largely describe how loving others is.
If we send the message that you can’t love others until you love yourself, I believe we are setting a goal that will prevent many from loving at all. Maybe, just maybe, “Love thy neighbour as thyself” doesn’t have the implication that you have to love yourself first. Maybe it means loving others, like loving yourself is messy, a process that we’re always striving to improve, a task that will never be complete.
So let’s love as best we’re able, and trust in God to make that love into beautiful things.