My dad was an alcoholic. One night he and my mom were fighting in the kitchen. He was screaming at her, pushing her and throwing things. My brothers and I stood in our pajamas, watching in terror as she begging him to stop. We didn’t know what to do. One of my brothers stepped in, tiny as he was, and stood between them, challenging my dad. He was bold, courageous, and he got hurt that night. I stood staring in horror as the violent rage was turned from Mom to my brother. I felt I should help, like all the heros in all the books I read would surely have done, but I was frozen. I simply could not move. I think that is when I first began to hate myself. I was a coward in my child mind, and nothing could ever change that. I was unacceptable.
For decades after this I hated nothing more than a bully, and in my subconscious I related myself to one because I was the sort that did not stand up, the one who watched and did nothing. I would use words, fists and any other weapon I could find to stop someone from hurting someone else, never realizing that I was fighting not against a bully but against my own self-loathing and despair. I had a bad case of double hatred and was incapable of love.
Self-acceptance is the basis of all lasting love. It took me a long time to get this. When you set out to love someone else, you’ll immediately run into your own fears and insecurities, reflected back at you from the object of your ‘love’. I had to come to terms with myself before I could offer anyone else anything.
Sometimes learning to love yourself has to be a conscious process. I needed to go back to that kitchen in my mind, years later, to finally see the truth. I had to deliberately forgive myself. Not for my lack of action, I see of course there was nothing I could have done, but for my wrong perception of myself, and thus of other people, that led to so much trouble in my life.
Carl Jung wrote that everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves. We all have have very deeply held perceptions of ourselves, often formed in childhood, before we’re even capable of any sort of objectivity. These false conclusions can lead us to be hostile or angry towards people who tend to trigger these perceptions when we meet them. These are the ones we find hard to love. We find love hard because we cannot and have not accepted our own failings, our own humanness which puts us on the same moral level as every other human.
In seeking to fulfill the commandment to love our neighbor, it is essential not to forget the first step. If we cannot accept ourselves, we cannot love anyone else. God has accepted us, who are we to judge what he has done? We’re not on the planet to make sure other people get saved; we’re here to be saved ourselves. We must be saved from all forms of rejection, loathing and comparison beginning right in our own souls.
The outer world is a mirror to our own inner state. People we meet who are difficult to love are often brought in to light up the shadows inside our own hearts, the forgotten places where dark thoughts and anger have been allowed to fester and grow. Courage is not about running into a fight you are not equipped to win, pretending to be what you are not. Courage is learning to love, and it starts with learning to be what we are, without fear or condemnation. What I lacked that night long ago was not what I thought I lacked. As Christian Existentialist philosopher Paul Tillich so poignantly put it, “The courage to be is the courage to accept oneself, in spite of being unacceptable.” When we can do this for ourselves, because it is what God has done for us all, then and only then are we equipped to love the worst neighbor. The courage to be as we are, with all our failures, insufficiencies and doubts, is the courage to love.