I was having a conversation the other day with Anne, one of my graduate students, about the relationship between self-esteem, love and the second Greatest Commandment--love your neighbor as you love yourself.
Specifically, one of the things you often hear in churches is this: you have to love yourself first, and then, once you love yourself, you can love your neighbor. In this formulation, self-love functions as a prerequisite for the love of others. And you often hear it described as a two-stage process:
Stage One: Love yourselfIn one sense, I agree with this. It's hard to really love others if you've got a catastrophically bad self-esteem. In those cases what looks like love might actually be, underneath, a fearful, servile dependency. So in that sense, I get it.
Stage Two: Love others
But actually don't think Jesus has this very recent, Western psychotherapeutic situation in mind. I don't Jesus is saying anything at all about self-esteem in the second Greatest Commandment. And it worries me a lot that churches are leading with messages of self-love. I don't think Americans need to hear a message that starts like this: "The first thing you need to do is work on loving yourself. And when you've got that down then you can turn to loving others." Because, as best I can tell, a lot of Christians are spending their whole lives just working away on the first part of that equation. Year after year American Christians are spending all their spiritual formation energy on learning to love themselves. And that seems a bit screwy.
What I actually think Jesus is trying to say in the second Greatest Commandment is that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. As I argue in Unclean, Jesus is trying to blur the boundary between Self and Other. Jesus is trying in the second Greatest Commandment to form an identity relationship between Self and Other, to see our lives as intertwined. The hallmark of this fusion is empathy, the ability to stand in another person's shoes and ask a simple question: "If this were me, what would I want?" Basically, "love your neighbor as you love yourself" is just another version of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Later in the conversation, Anne came back to the issue of self-esteem. She asked, "But don't you think self-esteem is important in learning to love others?"
Again, in really bad situations, as with chronic depression, I do think enhancing self-esteem should be a therapeutic focus. But for most of us, I don't think we need to spend a lot of time working on self-esteem. What I told Anne was that I think we should be working on self-forgetfulness.
I think the key, and this seems to me both very Christian and very Buddhist, is to just stop with the evaluative self-rumination. The secret, I think, isn't to try to go from a low self-esteem to a high self-esteem. The secret is to just stop playing the self-esteem game altogether. The key is to get out of your head.
Unfortunately, I don't have any great tips on how to accomplish this. Just the recommendation that perhaps we shouldn't take our self-assessments too seriously. I tell my students that I don't really believe in positive self-regard. Rather, I believe in ironic self-regard. Stop taking your internal monologue so seriously.
I think is path toward self-forgetfulness is a form of kenosis, of self-emptying. And perhaps that is what should really be the target, a kenostic self-esteem. A self that "dies" so that we can become available to others.