Before you can love others, you must love yourself

As a human being, should my primary concern be with myself or my fellow human beings? I’m not suggesting there isn’t a balance between them, but at certain critical points one has to take precedence over the other.

— P.T., North Carolina

A paradox is like a hammock: The only way to rest comfortably is to hang each end of the hammock on irreconcilable opposites (see note). And the difference between a contradiction and a paradox is that with a paradox, the irreconcilable opposites are always true.

I’m saying the answer to your question is "yes." Your primary concern should be with human beings. But, equally certain is that you are one of those human beings.

Biologically, homo sapiens are and always have been animals built for and thriving in troops. More politely, community! No life form is more vulnerable than a human being alone — environmentally, psychologically, spiritually. Yes, I’m aware that some individuals spend much of their adult lives in radical seclusion. But I have yet to meet the individual living thusly who freely chooses this life from a place of thriving mental health.

Now a theological observation: Every significant world religion has in common the foundational worldview that we are created for relationship, and from this worldview their driving ethos: Learn to love! Learn to be faithful and constant in relationship! For such is the measure of any significant spiritual path. "It is not good for the Man to be alone." (Judaism) "Where two or more would gather in My name, there I will be in your midst." (Christianity) The Hindus, the Buddhists, the Muslims, the premodern animists — all of these ways of life come down to the discipline of bridling the human ego in service to love and faithfulness in relationship.

But, as I’ve said, and as your own question concludes, you are one of the folks with whom you are obliged in relationship. The Golden Rule — "Love your neighbor as yourself" — presupposes this. In fact, The Golden Rule makes a huge presumptive leap that you do have a relationship of regard with self. Have you ever been "loved" by someone who despises him/herself? You won’t like it in the long run.

It has been said that our lives are wasted until we can love something or someone more than ourselves. I completely agree. My insistence remains, however, that selfless love finds its nexus, paradoxically, in regard for self! Self-respect. Self-love. People without regard for self can love, yes, but there is always a thread of brokenness in that love. Or, as my friend says, when co-dependents are about to die, someone else’s life flashes before their eyes!

So, taken as an existential inquiry, I think your question becomes a dog chasing its tail. Taken sentimentally, we become ruled by sentiment. But, taken objectively, as "personal economy," if you will, I think your question lies at the very heart of learning anything about love and relationship at all! Because love — "primary concern," as you say — is not a feeling. Love is an act. It is possible to exercise a "primary concern" for someone about whom you harbor hateful feelings. Some folks would say this is the very zenith of human love.

Objectively, your question pushes us toward the necessity of two psychological maturities: discernment (the ability to understand what’s going on) and stewardship (the ability to weigh and measure what you have and don’t have to give, and, if you do have it, whether you should). These two things lie at the heart of all ethical deliberation and, in any given moment, shape the answer to your question regarding where your primary concern should be.

Here’s a banal illustration: I’m on an airplane as I type this. Before takeoff, the attendant gave us the safety lecture. She said that, while they never anticipate a sudden loss of cabin pressure, should it occur, oxygen masks would drop down from overhead. She said that, if I was traveling with a small child who needed assistance with the mask, that I should put mine on first.

In short, as a function of discernment and stewardship of my "concern economy," I should in this case make myself my primary concern. I assume because, were I to lose consciousness, my primary concern for my child would immediately become a moot point.

No primary concern for self matters unless it obliges us in relationship with others. No primary concern for others is completely healthy unless it reflects a healthy regard for self.

Note: This analogy is not original with me, though for the life of me I cannot remember when or from whom I first heard it.

Originally published in View News, Aug. 24, 2010.

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