The Greatest Love of All?

In 1985, if you happened to be alive back then, you might remember the number one hit that informed us all that to love oneself was the “Greatest Love of All.”

The song was never on my top forty list. Even as a self-absorbed thirteen-year-old, I had a shaky grasp but a grasp nonetheless on the falsity of the sentiment.

Still, it was the sentiment pervading the airwaves. Both the top forty airwaves and the airwaves of our general cultural atmosphere. “Self-esteem” was the goal to be attained that would fix all our problems. “Poor self-esteem” was the original sin. It lay at the root of so many of the ills in the world. If we all just felt better about ourselves, what a better place the world would be!

Well, that was a few years ago. The experiment has been tried. My generation was the self-love generation who went on to raise the participation-trophy generation. We went from accepting that self-love is the greatest love of all to demanding that everyone love Self just as much as Self loved Self. At least, if everyone didn’t, Self had better not find out about it. Now, self-esteem isn’t enough. Everyone has to esteem everyone else. To the point where hurt feelings must be eradicated.

How’s it working out for us as a society? How’s it working out for us as individuals? With all the pressure on us to love ourselves and then never to utter a hint of a word to anyone else that could damage his or her self-love, how are we doing? Are we much better off than we were before the self-love emphasis hit our cultural airwaves? Do we love even ourselves so much better, not to mention each other, than we did before? I would say our self-love emphasis has made us love both less wisely and also less well. If the present-day self-esteem is so fragile as to need wrapping up in cotton wool and participation trophies, I would say our self-esteems are worse off than they were before all the hyper-focus. Not better.

Many Christians fell into the self-esteem thinking that possessed us in the eighties. “After all,” they said, “we’re commanded to love our neighbour as ourselves. You have to love yourself in order to love your neighbour as yourself. The Apostle Paul wrote that no man hates his own flesh but nourishes and cherishes it.”

Yeah. I think the Apostle Paul offered the answer to the Christian perspective on self-love. We’re commanded to love our neighbours as ourselves because we already do love ourselves. We can’t help it.

The fact is I care about myself. I care because I should care. I’m created to do so. I will do so automatically. It matters to me what happens to me. I value myself and my experiences and my pain and pleasure levels. I have no one else’s experience to live through. I have only my own. And so I unavoidably care about that experience.

We could look at ending one’s own life as the ultimate act of self-hatred, but it’s not. We could also look at it as the ultimate act of selfishness—unwise self-love. Self-firstness. When the pain of one’s experience becomes (apparently) too much to be borne, it’s (unwise) love of Self that prompts a person to find an out one way or the other. It’s because a person cares highly about his or her own experience that one chooses an end to it when the bad seemingly outweighs the good.

All the examples we could choose to demonstrate hatred of self really aren’t. Those who consistently feel badly about themselves and have “poor self-image” feel so badly because they care so much about themselves. The pain comes from the caring.

As a self-absorbed teenager, I rejected the philosophy behind the “Greatest Love of All.” As a self-absorbed adult with almost a decade of serious depression under her belt, I have greater perspective on it. (I’m sorry to be forever dragging my battles with depression into every blog post. I know it gets old. But it has been a large part of my recent experience and insights.)

I still can clearly see that a lack of self-love is no one’s problem. I know for a fact I love myself. But I have a greater understanding now of the difference between loving oneself and liking oneself. The first is a given. The second is grown. I now understand a little more about the damage not liking oneself can do. Was there something to the ol’ self-esteem cant of the eighties after all?

It’s a tricky one. It’s legitimate to dislike characteristics I exhibit. Because I love myself, I want to be better. Because I love myself, I dislike quite a lot of things about me.

But there’s a difference between disliking aspects of oneself out of love for oneself and disliking oneself generally. Disliking oneself generally is not the ideal state. And getting out of that state can be a very uphill battle. But all the emphasis on self-love and self-liking hasn’t made us love or like ourselves any better. A healthier sense of self is not conspicuous by its presence in all the problems plaguing the participation-trophy generation. The wrapping of the fragile self-esteem in cotton wool hasn’t produced less fragile self-esteems. That much seems plain.

But the pendulum can also swing too far the other direction. We’ve all known those who think a little too well of themselves. These are the ones the self-esteem treatment seemed to work on. They love Self not too wisely and also too well. They have no apparent problem liking themselves. But the rest of us have problems liking them. Arrogance (even if it is just insecurity trying to compensate) is not an attractive characteristic.

As in most things in life, balance is key. The middle road gets a bad name, but it’s almost always where we’d do well to find ourselves. Arrogance is not the ideal state. Nor is crippling insecurity and self-loathing. Where is that happy middle ground?

Back to the Apostle Paul: He also wrote, “For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith” (Romans 12:3).

So the attempt should be (when one has to think about oneself) to evaluate oneself honestly. “Soberly.” Properly.

Then he also wrote, “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4)

This is beyond loving one’s neighbour as oneself. Now we learn that the attempt should be made to prioritize others’ experiences over one’s own; to strive to care more about the well-being of another than one’s own.

It’s a hard way to live (I would imagine). But I can also imagine what a better place the world would be if more people made the attempt.

I’ve found that I can’t seem to get off the ground with evaluating myself properly. The pendulum swings wildly back and forth in self-evaluation. I’m also not so hot at esteeming others higher than myself. My best bet looks like evaluating and consciously esteeming myself as seldom as possible. I’ve found from personal experience that the less and less I think about myself and my ratings, the healthier my sense of self is.

Because I’ve never seemed to be capable for very long of following Paul’s instructions not to think of myself more highly than I ought but to think soberly (also not more lowly than I ought), that healthy middle ground for me seems to lie in thinking about myself as little as possible. That’s always where I can be found when I’m doing the best mentally.

A view of oneself (a self-image) is as unavoidable as the self-love we will all naturally carry. Thinking about oneself is not an activity it’s possible to give up entirely. But one of the symptoms and also the causes of mental ill-health is self-obsession. It’s a vicious cycle. The unhappier I am, the more I can’t help thinking about myself. The more I can’t help thinking about myself, the unhappier I am.

However, the more mentally healthy I find myself becoming, the more I notice that I’ve been thinking about myself less. The more outward-looking I become, the healthier I become, and the healthier I become, the more outward-looking I become. The downward cycle can eventually be turned around into an upward cycle.

For those who haven’t already entered into the vicious, downward cycle, the more outward-focused and less self-focused we can encourage ourselves to be and encourage those we may have some influence over to be, the better off we’ll all be. And the more we succeed in these efforts, the healthier our society could become. We can see the visible effects all around us of the encouragement to more and more self-focus. And they’re not pretty.