‘Be kind to yourself’ . It’s a phrase we hear a lot these days but I think it’s relatively recent currency in our language. I don’t think that 20 years ago we were telling ourselves this but maybe I just don’t remember.
So is it another self absorbed, slightly Buddhist, modern mantra or is it an ancient truth?
Actually it’s both.
Both Judaism and Christianity contain the same concept; but when Jesus summed up the entire Jewish law into two ‘simple’ commandments (Love God and Love Other People) he at least gave a reason why we should “be kind to ourselves”. He said we should “love our neighbour as we love ourselves”.
So in these two great faiths the idea of being kind to yourself is assumed and a reason is supplied: if you cannot be kind and compassionate to yourself then your capacity to be kind and compassionate to other people will also be limited. There is a link between loving in these two directions: the degree to which you love yourself should be the degree to which you love your neighbour. If you want good for yourself (to prosper, to be safe, to have opportunities) then you should desire that same good for your neighbour.
But of all the kinds of love there are, nurturing and loving ourselves seems to be something at which Christians are uniquely bad. I think it’s because we understand Christianity to be about ‘putting others first’.
For example, how does ‘Being Kind to Yourself’ stack up with St Francis of Assisi’s “O master grant that I may never seek, so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love with all my soul”?
It feels as if there is a slight mismatch between these two ways of thinking.
But in fact there isn’t, St Francis was praying that he would not seek to be consoled, understood, or loved by other people and we can only join him in that prayer if we fully know that we ARE consoled, understood and fully loved by God who loves us perfectly and on who’s love we can rely.
If we rely on other people as the only external source of validation in our life, if we need their approval or their understanding we will find ourselves slavishly driven to impress them, please them or somehow keep them on our sides. Other people can be a rich source of unconditional love in our life, it is not wrong to seek to have such relationships. But no human relationship will be an an fallible source of unconditional love and that was what St Francis was getting at: that we should kill off our need/desire for other people’s approval, especially when we rate that approval more highly than God’s approval of us.
I do know of some people who seem to be incredibly selfless and never seem to put themselves first and yet do seem to love other people generously and compassionately. If you dig below the surface invariably these are the people who have understood themselves to be loved by God.
It was Bernard of Clairvaux (born in 1090 in France, got some other stuff drastically wrong eg the crusades, but hey, we all mess up somewhere). Bernard said something very profound about this journey towards loving ourselves. He said it comes in four stages:
To begin with there is “loving oneself for self’s sake”-in modern parlance this is the equivalent of the L’Oreal strapline “because you’re worth it”, to which I’m always tempted to reply “says who?”
The second stage is “loving God for self’s sake” in other words loving God but only for what we can get out of the relationship. An awful lot of Christians I know get to this stage and never make any further progress.
The third stage is “Loving God for God’s Sake” this doesn’t mean that God is “needy”, what it means is that we have got to know God’s beauty, compassion, faithfulness, trustworthiness to the extent where we love him for who he is and not for what he does for us.
The final stage is “Loving Self for God’s Sake”. This is the highest stage in terms of progression, not the last in the sense that it’s unimportant or some kind of add-on. We love ourselves because of the value that God has placed on us: that each of us are unique, called, chosen, gifted differently, Each of us are valued to the extent that God himself would come and lay down his own life to demonstrate the extent and power of unconditional love over all that is dark and self-destructive in our lives.
‘Self care is NOT selfish’– this is a mantra I have been saying to myself and to many others for some years now. You will only be able to give away that part of yourself that you have nurtured, your life and your gifts are your own unique gift to the world and it is your responsibility to protect and nurture them.