Wednesday, May 4, 2011


Self Love tattooImage by artnoose via Flickr
I recently reviewed a book written by a man with a background similar to mine.  He's a black man who was raised in a traditional Christian home and somewhere along the way, he was drawn to Eastern philosophy.  One of the many discoveries we share is the concept of self-love late in our lives.  One of the reasons Christianity was never satisfying to me was not just a passive lack of teaching of loving myself, but an active teaching that I was unworthy of love.  The concept of self-love was unheard of.  If it was ever mentioned, it wasn't termed "self-love" but "pride" or "selfishness".

I distinctly remember a Sunday school lesson about joy.  Joy, we were taught, was an acronym- Jesus-Others-You. In that order.  You served Jesus (God) first, then you took care of others. And, whatever was left, well maybe you could do something for yourself.  I was taught that I was a creature G-d had made a horrible mistake on.  G-d had created Adam and placed him in a garden where Adam screwed up, condemning the rest of humanity to be born in a state deserving eternal punishment.  I was taught that (for who knows what reason), Jesus loved me and died to protect me from a G-d who was otherwise bent on seeing that I paid for being born in this state. I was covered in Jesus' blood so that G-d could not see my true nature, my true filth that was to vile to even look upon.  I was supposed to rejoice that G-d accepted Jesus. But, the real teaching was that G-d could never accept me.

Then, there was the fact that I was a little negro boy growing up in the 60s. In addition to the normal everyday experience of being black in America and what that does to one's self-esteem, I had other issues that ate away at any self-love I might have. My mother never used these words. But, she was ashamed of our race.  She hated any reminder that we were black and I picked up on that.  I spent most of my childhood in an all black middle class neighborhood which was good for my self-esteem. But, at the age of 14 my parents sent me to an all white junior high school across town.  I was the "other" there. I was the only black person many of these kids had ever known. My first year at my junior high I think there were three other black people.  One of them lived in the neighborhood.  The other two of us and I were bussed in.  The white kids there constantly reminded me that I was different.  I was accused of a stealing something by an anonymous white girl who claimed to witness me taking it from the library.  The principal called me into the office and threatened me with expulsion if I didn't return it.  I was an "A" student at the time and had never been in any kind of trouble like that.  When I denied it, I was given the task of find the real culprit or I'd be held accountable.  The situation finally was resolved. Kids used to come up to me in the hallway and touch my hair.  I was a short, skinny kid and extremely shy.  This made it even worse.  I hated my junior high school.

I realize now why many young black men get into trouble.  I actually had a pretty easy childhood.  But, when people judge you before they know you.  When they fear you.  When they think you're a thief just because of the color of your skin, you might go one of two ways.  Some black men say "You're going to fear me?  I'll give you something to fear."  "You think I'm a thief.   Well, I might as well steal.".  For me, I compensated by becoming better.  I was going to be smarter than the white kids.  I was going to speak better than they did.  My mother is from West Virginia.  So, I had a bit of a West Virginia accent when it came to certain words.  I learned to perfect a Midwestern accent.   I poured myself into my grades.  When graduation came around, I left that school as quickly as I could going to a different high school than those kids.  I hated that school, too.  But, at least it was a fresh start.  I had no friends in high school.  I didn't go to the prom or any dances or any social events.  I graduated with a 4.0 average.  But, the compensation of grades wasn't enough to make up for the fact that I pretty much felt worthless.  And, while blacks are a minority in America, I've always been in a super-minority.  Engineering school in college, working for IBM in Lexington, KY, living in all white suburbs (we jokingly call West Chester, White Chester). To this day, I don't have a even one black male friend I can talk to about what it's like to go through this experience. 

Fast forward about 20 years.  I was suffering terribly from panic attacks.  I had to do something.  Out of desperation, I turned to the internet and stumbled across yoga.  Yoga led to meditation.  Then, I came across Eastern philosophy in the forms of Buddhism and Taoism.  I was warned about these false religions about how they elevated the self above G-d and were totally about taking care of oneself instead of being there for others.  But, I was at the point where I didn't care.  I was dying inside. And, I wasn't yet sure that I had enough Jesus covering me to satisfy G-d.  I had to take a chance.  I ignored the warnings about "emptying my mind" and what that could make room for.  I had to get out what had been festering inside there for those many decades.  Nothing could be worse.

Ironically, after I found Buddhism, yoga, meditation and Taoism, I then found a branch of progressive Christianity and authors like Marcus Borg, Thomas Talbott and Daniel Helminiak that salvaged Christianity for me.  I found the United Church of Christ (which I had never heard of) and that saved church for me. 

So, that's my story when it comes to self-love.  I'm not condemning Christianity, as a whole, when it comes to teaching one to love oneself.  The pastor of our church now does a great job of emphasizing this aspect of Christianity.  But, the Christianity that was taught to me taught me just the opposite of self-love.  Jesus says to love our neighbor as our self, not to love our neighbor and hate our selves.  For me, Christianity was a religion of self-hatred and it wasn't until I discovered other traditions that I was given permission to show myself a little tenderness.

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Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

I wish more Bible teachers would figure out that in order to love your neighbor as yourself, you first have to love yourself.

Great post, Brian. Thank you for sharing.

Ulf said...

I hear what you're saying.
Loving oneself is very important... but isn't the real problem the fact that we compartmentalize love for God, others and self, causing a seperation that wasn't meant to be there? What is helping me to love others, myself and God is recognising that I'm one with others, myself and God. There's a union, instead of a seperation; rest instead of strife; a home instead of being lost. I reckon when Jesus was talking about loving God and neighbor, he wasn't giving us a new to-do list, but rather he was describing what salvation (true healing/restoration) looks like.

Brian said...

I agree, Ulf. I think Jesus actually taught a holistic type of faith that started with, and maybe even assumed one already had, love for self.

@Mike- in my experience, Christians are so busy trying to kill the ego and eliminate any pride that the teaching of love for the world actually beginning with love for self is lost.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

@Brian: The way I used to rationalize it, was that God loved me, so it was ok to love myself, plus I was raised in a non-fundie household, so I was taught to love myself.

I didn't get into the more fundiesque aspects of Christianity until I was around 19.

Ulf said...

Maybe I'm just splitting hairs here, Brian, but for me it starts with the knowledge that I'm loved/worth being loved. If that's the type of love of self you're talking about, I agree with you.

I see a big difference there, because to me the sickness that humanity suffers from is a distorted self-love, that says: "I'm the center of the universe." Even people with low selfesteem suffer from that, because they also just focus on themselves, saying: "I'm no good, woe is me. Nobody loves me..."

Knowing that I'm loved and accepted, frees me to truely love myself, others and God.

By the way, thanks for introducing me to these guys: Marcus Borg, Thomas Talbott and Daniel Helminiak
I'm very keen to get my hands on some of their writings.

Brian said...

I think we mostly agree, Ulf. I don't know about this distorted self-love though. I agree that love for everyone starts with knowing I have inherent worth and am worthy of love. If anything I think humanity suffers from not understanding that. Selfishness is not the same thing as self love. The problem with the way I was taught is that it can easily be interpreted that any compassion for oneself is "pride" (and pride is a bad thing). To this day, I find it much easier to show compassion for just about anyone other than me.

kc bob said...

Absolutely one of your best posts Brian. Thanks so much for sharing these parts of your journey. I feel that I know you a bit better. And I so resonate with your self-love perspective.

Sammy said...

Like you, I grew up in a church environment where self-love was considered selfish. For that reason, self-love is still something I struggle with greatly. Even though I've considered myself a universalist for almost 3 years now, focusing on a God who is unconditional love and acceptance, there are days were it is still challenging to believe that God could ever love me. Self-love still often feels selfish or prideful.

Brian said...

I know exactly what you mean, Sammy. When I was in counseling, my counselor talked to me about giving myself a break. I never really felt loved and I always dismissed the fact that I needed to feel that. She gave me permission to work through those emotions. I knew in my head that I was supposed to be loved. But, I didn't feel it in my heart.

It's still a struggle and I think always will be. There's always that little piece of me that thinks "What if my Sunday school teachers were right?" But, I have to keep working to set that aside.

Don said...

Your honesty, as always, is so appreciated. It helps me to see better your POV. We have been "blogging friends" for quite a while now. Yet, each post helps me to better know you. That is a good thing. People are drawn closer by shared suffering and shared joy. Thanks for being a friend and educating me on many occasions.

Brian said...

It's good to hear from you, Don. How are you doing?

Sammy said...

@brian- There's still a little piece of me that thinks "What if my Sunday school teachers were right?" too. The fact that my biological father left before I was born didn't help either. How could I expect God to love me when my own parent wanted nothing to do with me? And, if God didn't love me, I was obviously worthless, so how could I ever love myself? There might not be much logic behind those questions, but the emotional power they held, and still do hold, was great.

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