Many can instantly recite the two greatest commandments of all. In simplest terms they are: “Love God and love others.” The challenge comes in implementing them in my life. I realize, often unwittingly, that I often leave out the last part of the second greatest commandment: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
Can we love others well, if we don’t love ourselves well? Well, probably not. And I’ll tell you a little secret. After spending the last 10 years counseling and mentoring pastors, many pastors and church leaders struggle with self-hatred. No, not all, but more than you might expect. Many don’t feel good enough to be the kind of pastor they hope to be. Now put that up against the commandment to truly love yourself, and you’ll start understanding the struggle. I particularly see it among the clergy because I spend so much time with them.
How is it that any of us is supposed to love ourselves well, to truly be self-aware and to give ourselves the kind of self-care we need?
For one thing, on this journey of self-awareness there are so many forces fighting against us. New York City Pastor Pete Scazzero who writes at length about self-care and self-awareness says: “Powerful generational forces and spiritual warfare work against us. Yet living faithfully to our true self in Christ represents one the great tasks of discipleship.”
One way to think about this is through the term differentiation. Murray Bowen, who founded modern family systems theory, says differentiation is a person’s capacity to “define his or her own life’s goals and values apart from the pressures of those around them.”
But that self-awareness and presence of mind is really hard. One reason it’s so challenging for me, I’m sure, is because I like to be liked. I can be tempted to morph into whoever you want me to be, to not be my true self and to sweep my desire to be more self-aware under the carpet. If I do that, I guess I figure you’ll like me more. I know — that’s crazy.
The family systems theory idea here is that despite our feelings, despite the family we grew up in, even despite how we are tempted to react to our circumstances, we somehow (With God’s help, I hope) can still hold on to who we are and to who we aren’t.
Bowen says that people with high levels of differentiation retain their own beliefs, goals and values apart from the pressures around them. They still chose how they want to be, and how they will carry on in life, without being controlled by the approval or disapproval of others. In spite of the intensity of their feelings, the high stress they are under and the anxiety of those around them, they are not overcome. They are able to think rationally.
I admire people who live like this.
I love it when people say, in effect: “Though we may not agree, I can remain in relationship with you.” To me, that’s truly loving yourself in the best sense of the word. And yes, I realize we can’t always be in relationship with others when we live like that. That’s because it doesn’t all depend on us. The Apostle Paul said, “As far as it depends on you, live it peace with all people.”
Thinking about differentiation reminds me of when Jesus started his ministry at about age 30. Early on, Jesus’ mother and his siblings were so bothered and confused by what Jesus was doing, they literally traveled to where he was teaching and asserted their will and basically tried to retrieve Jesus and take him back home. They feared he was out of his mind. (Mark 3)
But Jesus would not be dissuaded. I’m sure Jesus’ family was disappointed in the direction he went — they were at least confused by it — but Jesus knew who he was and he didn’t let his own family get in the way of his God-directed mission. That’s healthy differentiation!
Here’s the truth: I am not what I do in this life. I am not what I have. And I am not what others think I should be. I am who God says I am. And thank goodness, the Lord keeps saying to me, “You are my son, Don. I love you. That never will change. Keep listening for my voice. I will not leave you.“
And so again today, like every day, I am on the journey of discovering my true self. It’s a journey of being God’s son, a journey of fighting the temptation to simply live how others want me to live and a journey of struggling with my own stubborn self-will, which is deeper and more insidious that I think.
Even though there always are consequences when we stay true to who we are and to what we are called to do, keep making the changes that you know, deep down, God wants you to make. You will discover your true self. You will discover your deepest joy and contentment.
As you become more and more the true daughter and son that Jesus loves and adores, keep praying the prayer of St. Augustine: “Grant, dear Lord, that I may know myself, that I may know you.”