Have you ever found that religious people are sometimes difficult to connect with? That they have some internal barrier that seems impossible to breach? That they are rigid and lack spontaneity? That they don’t seem like they contain the full spectrum of what it means to be human? This DEFINITELY does not apply to every religious person. But it is something that some people observe or think they observe. Most recently and publicly, I remember the discussion of Mitt Romney’s alleged lack of the “human touch,” which some people blamed on his religion.
I would argue that these internal barriers, when they do occur, are primarily the result of one problem: trying to love God while not loving ones’ self. People who love themselves are easy to connect with, because they think that they are worth connecting with. People who love themselves aren’t afraid of being spontaneous, because they aren’t afraid of the natural outflow of their consciousness. People who love themselves are joyful, because they don’t feel like they “deserve punishment.” They believe they are worthy of joy.
In this case the word love doesn’t mean to “prefer.” We sometimes say “I love ice cream,” when we really mean “I prefer ice cream.” Loving yourself doesn’t mean that you put yourself above others.
In this case, the word love means just what it meant when Jesus said it. It is an action word. He said “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Then, he demonstrated this love throughout his life. When others were sick, he healed them. When they needed comfort, he comforted them. When they sinned, he forgave them.
If you find yourself struggling with this “problem,” you might want to ask yourself if you treat yourself the way Jesus treated others. Or even the way you treat others. When others make mistakes, do you easily forgive them but are you slower to forgive yourself? When you see the divine potential in someone who seems “less than” in the eyes of the world, do you turn the same perspective on yourself when you feel small? Are you as gentle with yourself when you sin as Jesus was to the woman who committed adultery?
Sometimes it helps to visualize things. It can help to view yourself in the third person, as it were, before you heap on self-criticism. I sometimes view myself as if I were another man coming to me for help, and think about how Jesus would want me to treat that man.
The second aspect of this problem has to do with pride. Many members of the Church, I think, are afraid they will become prideful if they are too kind to themselves. It was the sin that destroyed the Nephites, and we have been warned that it is the universal sin. Better to be hard on ones’ self, these members think, so as to avoid the possibility of pride entirely. Harsh criticism, they think, creates humility. But does it?
President Benson, in his famous talk on pride, said:
The proud make every man their adversary by pitting their intellects, opinions, works, wealth, talents, or any other worldly measuring device against others. In the words of C. S. Lewis: “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. … It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.” (Mere Christianity, New York: Macmillan, 1952, pp. 109–10.)
Taking this into consideration, it seems clear that loving yourself and pitting yourself against others are two very separate things. Refusing to love yourself because you are afraid of pride is like refusing to give food to a poor, hungry man because you are afraid it will make him conceited. He might choose to be conceited, but that is a separate issue entirely. Ironically, it often seems to be the people that haven’t truly learned to love themselves that end up pitting themselves in competition against others, seeking some form of external recognition to cover up the void in their souls.
And finally, there is the issue of “selflessness.” It is a word often used in church talks to describe people that are full of charity, whose focus is on serving others. It seems like something we should aspire to, a kind of holy denial wherein the self is belittled or ignored. But the word “selfless” is actually never found in the scriptures (according to my search on LDS.org). It seems to me more like a relic of the English language, rather than a sound way to think about spiritual realities. Just to make this difference even more clear, Jesus says, “for whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt 16:25). The key word is life, not self.
The scriptures DO describe charity, however.
7 Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
My argument is that all of these things are actually easier if you are kind to, gentle with, and appreciative of yourself. None of this means that we get to treat ourselves to unrighteous material pleasures that we desire in the moment. The scriptures are clear on that. Jesus said “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matt 16:24). In this verse, I believe Jesus meant “deny himself of ______,” with the blank being anything worldly that gets in the way of our relationship with God. This seems to fit into the context of the passage and Christ’s teachings as a whole. I don’t think it precludes in any way our respect for, enjoyment of, and psychological gentleness with ourselves. It is our beautiful, strong, and infinite self that needs to take up that cross willingly–and learn to do it joyfully.
When we are filled with the love of God, the focus of our actions and conscious thoughts will be on others, but I don’t think we can get to that point in any given moment until we have extended that same love of God to ourselves. If we do, the love can flow out of us to others; if not, it is at least partially blocked because our “self” is the conduit it needs to flow through to reach them.