RECONCILING ANCIENT RELIGION AND MODERN SELF-HELP
All world religions would agree with St. Catherine of Sienna who said “Every evil is founded in self-love.” So how do we put ancient religion together with the modern self-help doctrine that you cannot love others if you don’t love yourself?
When we are born, we are unitive thinkers: we sense our oneness with everything. However, as we develop we learn the word “no” from our parents trying to curtail our behaviour. We start to separate from our parents and others and develop our own identity. We learn we are a boy or girl and a human being not a dog or cat. Later we learn our race, nationality and everything else that separates us from others.
Developing a sense of identity or ego is natural, healthy, and necessary to function in the world. However, if you think your ego, what separates you from everything, is all you are, it creates individualism, the source of all our problems. The illusion of separation transforms your ego into your false self, and life becomes every one for himself/herself.
Separation from others causes all social problems, and separation from nature is the root of all environmental problems. If you are really separate from others and the planet, what happens to them is not your concern. You can misuse them without any consequences. However, what happens to others and nature does impact us.
I was pondering why, in indigenous paintings, there are fish, bears, and birds inside peoples’ bodies? Suddenly I got it: indigenous people are unitive thinkers – fish, bears, and birds are part of who they are. They and the environment are one.
This is the solution to our environmental problems: the earth is us and we are the earth. Until we get that, we will continue to abuse the earth we depend on.
Jesus was also a unitive thinker. He said “God and I are one,” and what we do to the least among us – people who are starving, naked, or homeless – we do to him.
He also said the second greatest commandment, after loving God, is to love others as yourself. Perhaps he didn’t mean, as contemporary self-help would have it. “love others by first loving yourself,” but rather “love others because they are yourself.”
God is everywhere and that includes inside you, in your depths. As Thomas Merton, a Catholic monk, frequently said “When you meet your deepest self you meet God.”
God is not only love, God is peace, goodness, wisdom, forgiveness, patience, and kindness, and so are you. Your true essence, your true self, is all these things. In this sense you and God are one. This is what being the “imago dei,” the image of God, means. You are not God, God is greater than you, but you and God are one in spirit.
That is why it is good to love your true self, your soul, the self that is love, peace, and goodness. When you love your true self, you are loving God within you, and since God is in everything, you are loving everything through God. When you love all the virtues of your true self, you are doing exactly what others and the earth need: people who love peace, goodness, and love.
It is necessary to develop an ego, but it is also necessary to transcend the ego and realize that you have a larger, truer self. It is not healthy or wise to just love your ego, your false, illusory self. Loving just your ego is the root of all evil as St. Catherine said. She was thinking of love of the false self; contemporary self-help is presumably thinking of love of the true self, which is the foundation of all good.
What we need now is a civilization built on love of the true self, the soul, our best self, our “better angels,” not one based on love of ego, our “worst demons.” This would solve many of our problems.
As another holy woman, Mechthild of Magdeburg said:
“The soul is made of love and must ever strive to return to love. Therefore, it can never find rest or happiness in other things. It must lose itself in love. By its very nature it must seek God, who is love.”
Bruce Tallman is a London spiritual director, marriage coach, and religious educator of adults. www.brucetallman.com. For his weekly reflections on spirituality, see “The Big Picture” at https://brucetallmanblog.wordpress.com