On Loving Yourself Too Little

People need loving the most when they deserve it the least. ~ John Harrigan

I told a friend at work recently that I was planning to be simply darling when I did a presentation at church. “Well,” I added, “perhaps spiritual AND darling.”

She said, “You are just so in love with yourself, aren’t you, Ben?” Hey, who wouldn’t be?

While I admit that I am one of my favorite topics of discussion, I am unfortunately also one of my favorite targets. Where does that come from? Oh, yes, now I remember. People who know me also know that behind the “it’s all about Ben” theme lies a lot of sadness. Thankfully, behind that sadness there’s now also some laughter where once there was only more sadness, then even more sadness beyond that. Eldridge Cleaver said, “The price of hating other human beings is loving oneself less.” Surely, the price of hating yourself is an inability to love others fully.

None of us escapes sadness in our lives. But I’m learning we do get to decide what to do with that sadness. Apparently I didn’t know that for a good part of my life. I know I’ve held on to much of that sadness for too long. On the other hand, the sadness has stayed long enough for me to try to learn what it was trying so long to show me. It turns out sadness and pain can be great teachers if only we will allow it.

Too often we’ve forgotten these two crucial teachers in our there’s-a-pill-for-everything society. The tendency is to reach for the pill bottle at even the hint of a problem and for any kind of pain – physical as well as emotional. When we do, though, we place ourselves in danger of failing to recognize even bigger problems. There’s no need in suffer unnecessarily, but it’s equally important to recognize that some suffering really is necessary. If we never suffered, we’d never move forward. We’d never take the risks needed to convince us to move from comfortable point A to unknown, probably scary, point B. Comfortable point A may not even be particularly comfortable. It’s familiar, though, and still our tendency can be to stay with what we know.

I don’t talk about the sadness and pain just for the sake of talking about it. I’ve found it’s been very instructive for me each time I decide it’s time, once again, for me to get into panic mode. I spent years attempting to stave off the pain with an ocean of alcohol. All that really accomplished was to set the pain ever more firmly in my life. But the absence of alcohol didn’t fix the pain – it only fixed the drunkenness. In fact, for quite some time the pain actually intensified – or at least my awareness of it intensified.

When nothing changes, nothing changes. Something had changed, of course – I stopped drinking – but in the beginning that was the only thing that seemed different. Please don’t try this at home, kids. I was what you might call an expert. Or at least I should have been an expert after all those years drinking. But when you remove the painkiller and suddenly expose the full scope of what the alcohol has been hiding, it’s probably not going to be very pleasant sight – at first. Thankfully, I was told more would be revealed. Had it all been revealed at once, I’m afraid, I’m not certain I would have survived it.

I know I’ve written about some of this before, so bear with me, okay? Just think of me as you would that beloved grandparent, parent, or friend who starts to tell you a story you’ve heard a hundred times before. When I say something like, “Did I ever tell you about how I had to walk uphill to school every day five miles in the snow – both ways?” just shake your head “no” and let me continue. I’m told it builds character.

Life, I’ve discovered, is an engraved invitation complete with an R.S.V.P. attached. Roughly translated into C.B. radio jargon, R.S.V.P. is French for “come back, good buddy.” Too often we simply send our regrets, though we may not fully realize it at the time. We find ourselves too busy with the necessities of life to remember to also attend to the necessities of the soul. That’s how it seems to have happened for me. I tried to distract myself enough never to allow the sadness to completely take over. The unintended result was that the sadness completely took over. It directed everything I did while I tried to pretend it did not.

What’s happened, gradually, is that I’ve become willing to accept that I won’t always know immediately where I’m headed, but I’m heading there anyway. The most stunning of these events to me was my return to church. I was torn suddenly about a desire to go back after believing I’d been quite content for many years not to be there. Surprisingly, it was time for me to allow the feeling to lead me someplace I thought could be good. I realize now that every change in my life has started with some, if not a great deal, of fear. It was time to stop trying to protect myself and see where my path less traveled would take me.

Part of where that path lead me was to an awareness of even more sadness. I guess I’d thought I already knew about it all. It had become so much a part of my everyday life I no longer recognized it as sadness. And while that initially frightened me, I decided to follow the sadness wherever it was supposed to take me. It was the sadness that allowed my body to remember the things I wanted to forget and would never forget as long as I tried to hide it from myself. It was the sadness that continued to try over the years to nudge me to stop and deal with it. Thankfully, the sadness finally won out.

The sadness showed me where my anger was really covering pain. There was simply no way that was going to change as long as I refused to look at it. And that meant also looking at my part in it all. It’s so much easier to get caught up in self-righteous anger at what others have done to us, isn’t it? It’s also a lie every single time. We always have a part in it, even if it’s just that we were there and now refuse to let it go. The residue, however, is ours to carry – either as knowledge or self-destructive hurt. But, one way or another, we’ll carry it.

So I carried the hurt, believing I was able to ignore it and go on. That’s what we’re supposed to do, right? Put on a happy face and move along, please. No loitering around the house of pain and sadness. It’s one of the things we’re told by what Richard Rohr calls “happy-clappy religion.” God wants only what’s best for us (we even get to decide what best means) and will give it to us if only we believe the right things, say the right things, and ignore any and everything that might be a negative because that would show we have too little faith. Personally, I’ve always had a little trouble with the idea of God as game show host.

The problem with this approach is that it assumes we are ever capable of knowing for certain what’s right. The problem is that, when we ignore our own pain, we’re likely to shove the pain off on others. And that’s exactly what happens when sad, pained people try to protect themselves by circling the wagons around their group, defiantly insisting their way is the only way.

There’s a lot of need everywhere in the world. But there’s also a lot of need right in our own home – our body. Ignore it at your own peril. But don’t begin to believe that your own need outweighs the needs of others. When that’s done, other people become less in your sight. The smaller my own world got, there was a corresponding shrinkage in my ability to care for others. It was necessary, you see, in order for me to go on ignoring the rest of the world.

So, sadness can be a great teacher in the ways of loving yourself. The mistake I’ve made is in tarrying there too long without using it to move past. If I’m unwilling to learn what the sadness has to tell me, I simply end up becoming even more sad. I’ve been there and done that. George Eliot said, “It’s never too late to be who you might have been.” That, however, requires some faith and, even more than that, some action. I have to make certain I’m looking at the sadness for what I need to see in order to move past it to the next thing needed in my life. No amount of faith or wishing will change what has already been. I have the choice today, though, to look beyond the sadness to something better.

For me, that’s meant looking inward in order that I might see how better to look outward. What more do I need to release in order to be able to see how much I have already and how much more I never really needed. While it’s tempting to say I’ve had enough sadness in my life, I now feel certain there will be more. The difference, when I’m willing to see it, is that I now know the sadness can be my springboard to a greater happiness — contentment, even. As I become willing to see myself, as the old hymn says, “just as I am, without one plea,” I also become willing to allow some of my own self-resentment fall away.

I think it’s time I begin to believe, “People need loving the most when they deserve it the least,” or, in my case, “when I believe I deserve it the least.” Maybe then I can start affording myself a little of that love. After all, I have been surrounded by love my entire life, deserved or not. It’s called grace, I believe.

And when I consider the vast possibilities for grace, how could you possibly fail to love me? How, indeed could I possibly fail to love myself?