Self-Love, Martyrdom & Selfishness

After preaching on self-love, martyrdom and selfishness yesterday, I was grading quizzes last night for my Religion class and one young woman answered the last question by saying: “[Buddhism] focuses on making yourself better for you instead of for the Lord, thus allowing you to be selfish.” Sigh. Apparently I need to preach this sermon to my class, too.

Here’s the essence of my message in a nutshell: to live a balanced, healthy life, one needs to practice self-love. The problem with this concept in Christianity is that we are programmed to believe that doing anything for oneself is selfish (read: sinful). In Paul’s letter to the Philippians 2:3-4, he says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (NIV) Nevermind when Jesus tells us that the greatest commandments are to love God and love your neighbor as yourself.  We tend to just ignore the last part of that sentence as if ignoring our own needs, refusing to forgive ourselves, putting ourselves last would be the most pleasing thing we could do for God. Huh?

In my opinion one has to work really hard at being selfish. Selfishness requires a lack of concern for anyone but yourself. Everything is about you, other people are unimportant unless they benefit you, you lack compassion and empathy, you don’t see anything from anyone else’s perspective other than your own, you are prone to brag about yourself and lack any genuine sense of gratitude or remorse. Taking time to read a book, take a class, exercise, learn to meditate, enjoy a bubble bath… these sorts of things are self-nurturing, not selfish!

We need to nurture ourselves and love ourselves so that we have a well of resources to give from instead of draining ourselves dry. Constantly draining ourselves until there is nothing left is called martyrdom. Sue Monk Kidd calls it the Little Red Hen syndrome.  If you remember the story of the Little Red Hen, she did everything for everyone else all the time, until in the end she liberates herself. Finally she refuses to pander to everyone else’s needs and puts herself first. I’m sure the dyed-in-the-wool martyrs are furious with her. But, truly, martyrs only make themselves and everyone else miserable in the end. They tend to be bitter and unhappy and carry a deep-seated resentment because their own needs were never (it’s really their own fault, but they blame everyone else).

The balance between selfishness and martyrdom is self-love. In that place of balance, you take others into account, you do for others, you care for others, you give to others… but not at the expense of your own wholeness. Not at the expense of your balance and your health. And in that place of balance, you care for yourself, and nurture yourself, but not at the expense of the relationships around you. Not at the cost of losing compassion and empathy for others. Not without complete regard for others.

In the end, Jesus has it right… love God, maintain your spiritual connection to the divine, and love your neighbor as yourself. Which means you have to practice loving yourself first! Be kind and compassionate to yourself so that you can best understand how to love others. We can’t truly give what we haven’t fully experienced. Living this balance is up to each of us.

Peace ~ Kaye