MY RELATIONSHIP WITH MYSELF
The blurb says that Dr. Nathaniel J. Williams is a “success expert.” If there really is such a profession, I say that we need more of them! This is a quote from Dr. Williams:
The most important relationship in your life is the one you have with yourself. And if you let those negative thoughts affect how you think, feel and act, how can you expect to build healthy relationships with anyone else? You must put yourself first when it comes to maintaining positive relationships.
Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, said much about the self; here is one of his quotes that has always stood out to me: “Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.”
Therapist Virginia Satir wrote for her clients a kind of declaration of self:
In all the world there is no one else exactly like me.
Everything that comes out of me is authentically mine because I alone chose it.
I own everything about me; my body, my feelings, my mouth, my voice, all my actions, whether they be to others or to myself. I own all my triumphs and successes, all my failures and mistakes, because I own all of me.
I can become intimately acquainted with me. By so doing I can love me and be friendly with me in all my parts. I know there are aspects about myself that puzzle me and other aspects that I do not know, but as long as I am friendly and loving to myself, I can courageously and hopefully look for solutions to the puzzles and for ways to find out more about me.
However I look and sound, whatever I say and do, and whatever I think and feel at a given moment in time is authentically me. If later some parts of how I looked, sounded, thought and felt turn out to be unfitting, I can discard that which is unfitting, keep the rest, and invent something new for that which I discarded. I can see, hear, feel, think, say and do--I have the tools to survive, to be close to others, to be productive, and to make sense and order out of the world of people and things outside of me.
I own me, and therefore I can engineer me. I am me and I am okay.
Writer Nathanial Hawthorne wrote about the self that is opposite Satir’s liberated self; he asked: “What other dungeon is so dark as one’s own heart! What jailer so inexorable as one’s self!”
In this new sermon series on “Life’s Pivotal Relationships,” the place to begin has to be with self. The degree to which we know or fail to know ourselves, the degree to which we love or fail to love ourselves, the degree to which we believe in or fail to believe in ourselves has everything to do with all other relationships that we try to manage. Almost always, if we have a problem or problems with ourselves, there’s a spill over into all other relationships. Thus, a healthy relationship with self is foundational to all other healthy relationships in so far as our contribution to the relationship goes.
Certainly, we can be good with ourselves and be trying to manage a relationship with someone who hates her- or himself, and there will be nothing you can do to salvage that relationship. You can even love the other person, but someone who doesn’t love self can’t understand what being loved feels like so, in effect, she or he never feels the love you offer. One of the painful lessons of maturing for many of us is the discovery that love alone cannot make or sustain a long-term, involved relationship; this is because love may change a few undesirable characteristics about someone we envision ourselves married to or partnered with, but even the greatest love on your part can’t do an overhaul on someone else. Honestly, complete overhauls initiated by someone who loves us and not by ourselves will probably not work.
If you are familiar with the general ebb and flow of how life worked for Jesus of Nazareth during his public ministry, you will know that his nemeses were the legalistic Pharisees. They were often trying to trip him up with questions that would drive him inevitably, they believed, to answers that would make him look bad to his fellow Jews and/or to the Romans who ruled over the Jews. On one of those occasions, the Pharisees were trying to get Jesus in hot water with the Jewish authorities by getting him to say outright that not all the ancient laws, which the Pharisees claimed to keep to a tee, were important or, at least, of equal importance. So the question came up in a public setting, “Which of our ancient laws is most important?” Remember, now, there were hundreds of these laws by the time of Jesus. If Jesus didn’t answer, “They’re all sacred and important; one could not be more important than another.”
He didn’t say that, though. What he did do was to tell one of his most important parables, the parable of the Good Samaritan, and then he summarized. The most foundational principle for living is to love God with everything we are or have; a close second rule or law, he said, is that we have to love our neighbors like the guy who helped in the story, the guy whose people hate our people; despite that he loved one of us.
In the story of the Good Samaritan, there are several options for showing love; some are ignored, and some are acted on. I agree with the scholarly consensus that says Jesus was trying to make one main point when he told a parable, and the parables shouldn’t be dissected in an effort to find multiple meanings. I do think, however, that there are sub-points worth noticing, in any case. For example, have you ever stopped to think when you’ve heard this parable told how the helpless Jew beaten up and left for dead by the side of the road is unable to resist or reject the acts of love being shown to him by this unusual Samaritan, given that by custom all Jews and all Samaritans were supposed to hate each other.
That teaching from Jesus presupposes self-love, self-respect, self-care, self-affirmation on the part of the Samaritan, not the two Jews too busy to help their countryman. It is not possible to love someone else unless we love ourselves.
Let me remind you that “love” as Jesus used the word here has little or nothing to do with emotions. It’s not like having the proclivity every time you pass a mirror to ask, “Mirror, mirror, on the way, whose the fairest of them all?” “Love” as Jesus typically used any of the Greek options for “love” was much more about actions than gushy feelings. As I’ve said in other contexts, “love” for Jesus is usually an action word meaning that I will take steps for the well-being of the other person regardless of how I feel about her or him and regardless of how she or he feels toward me.
Let’s not lose sight of the context in which Jesus offered this wisdom. He’s saying to a hostile, right-winger in a way that left him unable to diminish Jesus or get him into trouble with any of the power people with whom he had to contend that any religious regulation that matters is connected to one of three kinds of love, which all happened to be intertwined in various ways: love of self, love of God, love of others--those we like and those we don’t like.
We’re having our first sermon talk back of the summer season today so you can challenge me on this if you wish. I think we can’t receive God’s love until we love ourselves. Self-love is the foundation to all other expressions of love--both the giving and receiving of love. This, I think, especially makes sense when we realize that the part of God to which we most easily and readily relate is God within us--not the God out there somewhere.
Many of us are still reeling from the loss of the Shaw family. I have loved having them in our church, and we’ve benefitted from their gifts. Some Georgia church is going to be very lucky to get them.
If you’re on the eblast list, you also know that this past week as they were driving to Milledgeville, Georgia, which is where they are living for the time being, their moving van had an axle break, throwing the van into a wooded area off the highway where it immediately burst into flames, killing the driver and his son who was with him and destroying all the possessions of the family--including irreplaceable items like sentimental trinkets and Steve’s several military decorations.
This tragic situation led me to speak to Steve by phone, and he assured me that their insurance was johnny-on-the-spot and that they were in need of nothing. He’s trying to find out about the family of the driver and his son--to see if they have needs, and if so Steve wants us to send what we’d have sent the Shaws to the family that has suffered this extraordinary loss. That kind of concern sounds exactly like Kasia and Steve, doesn’t it?
In the course of our phone chat, he told me that the slower pace of life there in Flannery O’Conner’s hometown was beneficial as he confronts his severe case of post traumatic stress disorder. I want to make sure you know right at this point that I have Steve’s permission to share this personal information with you.
His several tours of duty to the front lines brought him into the presence of danger and gruesome death beyond what most people could bear. When he got back to Wilmington after discharge he began to have hints that PTSD had come to stay with him, and it has gradually worsened.
As this relates to today’s sermon on self, Steve said that PTSD not only causes him to relive time and again the horrors he saw first hand--many of them coming about as a result of orders he gave because his superiors ordered him to do so--but also a sense that his life is out of his control. He said he feels like people who believe they’re possessed must feel. He feels that there is a power overtaking him from time to time without warning that leaves him feeling out of control of himself. He knows who he is. He understands what happened to him and his colleagues and why, but there are moments when the worst he lived through comes back and overtakes him as if it’s all happening to him again--and all at once.
By the way, in giving me permission to share this very personal part of his story, Steve said that letting people who care about him know what he struggles with makes him feel less isolated and weak in the face of this monstrous syndrome. I know you will join me in continuing to hold Steve and Kasia and Bryant and Ashley in your prayers and positive thoughts--along with the family of their moving van drivers.
Self-control is a key part of knowing and being comfortable with oneself. Some cultures and some families and some religious movements discourage or discredit self-knowledge and depth self-understanding. Those entities that favor the blind following of a leader or of tradition push members not to get to know themselves in depth; there are several reasons for this, but the main one is that those who search within too intently may find something that causes them to question what the group stands for or what the dictatorial leader wants them to believe, to accept, without question, without debate, without analysis.
People who know themselves well tend to be, to some degree, free spirits. They think for themselves and know their real needs, their true goals, and their limitations, if any. When I talk about a free spirit I’m not talking about someone with no boundaries. Those who say, “Anything goes,” are much more likely people who don’t know themselves well. Or those who fail to know themselves may not think they need any limits on life because they’re only going to do what some authority figure and/or the community to which they belong tell them to do. If you only follow orders, you don’t need to know yourself or to do much thinking period--just enough to accomplish what the authority source commands.
As with most skills and tendencies, the earlier one begins getting to know herself or himself, the easier it is to continue so adults who grew up in environments in which they were encouraged to know themselves find it natural to continue that process throughout life. The ease with which many children learn a language not native to them is amazing to behold. The semester I taught in Switzerland, my older son was three years old. Within the four months we were there, he could carry on conversations with Swiss folks. In contrast, his mother and I mastered about twenty Swiss-German words and maybe five key questions such as, “Where is the bathroom?”, and, “May I have a hundred grams of whatever it is I’m pointing to here?”
To start peering deeply within, in middle or late life is tough, and for some people it’s impossible. There may be a cracker jack therapist here or there who can see into the soul of someone who is unwilling or unable to do that for herself or himself, but that will not ensure that the person will be able to look where the therapist looks or accept what she or he sees that the therapist takes to be blatantly obvious.
There’s another group of people who don’t get to know themselves, and they are the ones among us who have been taught by their families or their communities or the religious movements with which they identify that if they look too deeply within they’re only going to see such darkness and depravity that they don’t really want to and shouldn’t want to put themselves through that.
I think that Jesus knew himself well and loved himself. In contrast, the Apostle Paul knew himself a bit, and he lived with a load of self-loathing. Having joined up with the Jesus Movement, he hated that he’d been a part of the small group of Jews who conceived of themselves as ultra-devout and who saw themselves as defenders of their faith who had no real choice other than to persecute their fellow Jews who thought that Jesus’ take on Judaism made much more sense than a worn out tradition.
There were other reasons, perhaps, that Paul seems to have hated himself, and those might be interesting to explore some time; but it’s sad for us that the person most responsible for the development of Christianity as an institution, naturally passing on a great deal of himself to those of us who would join ourselves to the movement he began. Interwoven in much of Paul’s reflections is an indication of how much he disliked himself; a number of people, those who tend to learn by example let’s say, begin to think at least subconsciously that it’s meritorious, a sign of humility and deep faith to dislike themselves as Paul did.
There’s the possibility that if Paul had looked more deeply into his inner self, he might have liked himself or, at least, have liked much more of himself. Getting to know oneself only a little bit may be no better than the absence of self-knowledge altogether.
Certainly there is no guarantee that as we take our inner journeys we will like everything we see. Aside from criminal behavior, therapists like the late Virginia Satir whom I quoted earlier believed that one shouldn’t assign moral values to what one sees within oneself. What I see is what is there; some of it is pleasing to the inner eye, and some of it isn’t. It’s like taking a walk on the beach or taking a drive through the mountains. Part of the landscape may be pleasing to us and other parts not so much; this doesn’t mean that every eye would see it just the way ours does.
You may agree with Satir or not, but she’s surely closer to the truth than those, especially those who claim be honoring the God of monotheism, when they teach adherents to detest themselves. It is beyond ironic to preach that God is love on the one hand, and on the other hand teach that people should hate themselves to the glory of God.
Paul blamed his self-hatred on his humanity. Originally, in Judaism he had been a Pharisee, and the Pharisees, from all indications, believed in human perfection, demonstrated in the keeping of all the laws. Though he didn’t know Jesus, he learned his teachings, and he came to concur with Jesus on the issue of the place of laws in the religion they shared. One could keep all the laws and still not be a good person, much less a godly person. This had seemed incomprehensible to him as he lived in the thick of Pharisaism, but as Jesus’ perspective began to make more and more sense to him, he knew Jesus was right about it. Sad to say, he still had tendency to create rules as proofs of devotion to God and the Christian religion.
Though Paul believed fervently in the love of God that Jesus lived and died to proclaim, I suspect that divine love never touched him in his deepest self or even just under the surface where he did manage to look. He was, at least at times, a tortured soul. He couldn’t allow for mistakes made by himself, and not too much for the mistakes of others. What he saw when he tried to look inside himself was a person who couldn’t manage to do what he really wanted to do and a person unable to keep from doing a number of things he thought improper.
See if you can follow this sincere rant, as Paul tries to explain himself to the Christians in Rome:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Rom 7:15-24 NRSV).
My grandmother died recently as many of you know. Had she lived until last week, she’d have been 95 years old. She struggled with complications related to Alzheimer’s Disease for many years, but she never got into the later stages of the horrible disease. She sort of plateaued in the middle stages.
May Pearl Foust was her name; she was an LPN by profession, and she was quite remarkable in many ways. But her accomplishments weren’t enough to help her think well of herself; nor did the love of God she went to Africa to proclaim as a short-term missionary nurse reach her in her depths. We called her Mimi, and she had many good qualities; but she never liked herself, which only became more evident and more pronounced as she aged.
Oddly, she showered her patients with kindness, concern, even love. Her heart went out to strays, which is why she was rarely comfortable in a big church or a fancy church. More typically, by the time I was grown, she’d choose a struggling church, a small church. The pastors she loved most were those who were oddballs and/or rejects; that is to say, other churches had sent them on their way. Down in the hills of Tennessee and Georgia we referred to the firing of a pastor as a “running off.” Mimi generally had a pastor who’d been run off from some church other than the one where she knew him.
So, her patients and the strays, she loved. Her family, however, caught the brunt of her self-hatred. She took it out mostly on her daughter, who is my mother; her son, my uncle Bob; and her husband. They loved her, but there was a price to pay. Those of us who cared about her ached for her, but sometimes we had to keep our distance to be free of her tongue-lashings. We wished she could have gotten to know herself well enough to love herself the way her patients loved her, the way we wanted to love her. Sadly, she never did or never could.
Mimi had outlived most of the people she’d known and served. There was a slightly younger brother, Mom, and Bob. There was no funeral. Twelve or so people gathered around the graveside in the Blueridge Mountains of north Georgia. I couldn’t get down there as quickly as my uncle wanted to get it all overwith, but one of Mimi’s stray preachers showed up to eulogize her. Mom told me the day after the graveside service that the saddest part of the whole event was that after burying Mimi, she and Uncle Bob could think of virtually no happy memories during their growing up years.
In the extreme in the realm of Christian self-hatred, we think of the Roman Catholic group called Opus Dei, founded in 1928 and dedicated to the belief that every person of faith is capable of living lives of holiness. If they fail, they physically punish themselves, through means such as whipping their bare backs until blood flows. If I look into my soul and see what I consider moral failure, I have to beat myself in some way into submission.
Part of what a seeker must seek is self-knowledge. There’s no way to be a liberal or a progressive person of faith and pass, on the getting to know self part. Just can’t be done. But there is nothing in the teaching of Jesus that is going to lead to self-hated no matter how deeply within we are willing to dig and to look. No matter what we see, even if it disappoints us or embarrasses us, God’s love flows through us--unless we block it, and many people have done just that. They have blocked themselves from God’s love because they believe they are not worthy recipients of God’s love; they refuse it.
It is possible to know ourselves in depth--see the good, the bad, and the ugly--and still embrace the reality of divine love. That’s the goal. The process is risky and almost certainly will be painful at some point along the way, but one of the greatest accomplishments in life, and it’s a privilege too, is to get to know ourselves fully, and the opportunity is open to everyone even if there’s someone in their lives telling them otherwise. Remember that there is no hope for any other relationship until this one is embraced and dealt with.