Message 112, “Thankfulness in Action: Loving Yourself”, 11-11-12

(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved

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How many of us have ever told ourselves: “I am bad”, “I’m not good enough”, “I’m not attractive, smart, skilled, rich”, “I should have done ….(you fill in the blank)”, “I’ve made too many mistakes in life”, OR “I have no future that is good”?  On a much deeper level, how many of us have ever believed we don’t deserve to be happy or loved?  In answering those lies we tell ourselves, what’s been our response?  How many of us have retreated inward – feeling unloved and thus never reaching out and never finding true love or friendship?  How many of us have become self-mutilators – people who act out all of the inner shame they feel through substance abuse or other unhealthy actions and addictions?  How many of us have become overly judgmental of others while telling ourselves that we have it all together?  How many of us have become arrogant and false as a way to cover up our own feelings of inadequacy?

Perhaps the greatest failure some of us have is NOT that we don’t always extend love and compassion to others, but that ultimately we don’t extend such feelings to ourselves. As I often note in my messages, the single best rule to guide our actions in life is the so-called Golden Rule.  Nearly every world religion believes in a version of it.  We are to love others as we love ourselves.  We are to treat others as we treat ourselves.  The implicit assumption in that concept, famously stated by Jesus, is that humans are selfish and love themselves too much.  While this might be true in how many people ACT, it is often NOT true in how many people FEEL.  They do not genuinely and authentically love themselves.  They are not deeply thankful for who they are, what they offer the world and the value they provide to those around them.

If we take someone’s negative feelings about themselves to their logical conclusion, we realize it is impossible for people who do not really love themselves to fully and authentically love others.  If we believe in the Golden Rule, then we will likely treat others as good or as bad as we treat ourselves.  How can we love someone else, how can we honestly show compassion, how can we be authentic, whole and complete people if we do not have a core respect for who we are as individuals?  If we do not deeply know love for the self, we will not know it and be able to honestly show it to someone else.  The single greatest goal in life, therefore, ought to be a complete and honest feeling of self-respect.

To continue our November series on “Thankfulness in Action”, I hope each of us will ponder in the weeks ahead what it means to be truly thankful for oneself.  In a faith community that believes in selflessness, and as a part of a congregation that believes our greater purpose in life is to serve others, it is almost a contradiction to talk about loving oneself.  It’s easy for us to assume the role of givers and of martyrs – those who are constantly helping and giving to others.  Being thankful for all that we have in life is, indeed, shown by our willingness to give back.

But, fundamental to having an attitude of gratitude, is to be appropriately thankful for who we are – the amalgamation of abilities and flaws in us.  Indeed, can we really be thankful people if we are not thankful for ourselves – for the unique, amazing and wonderful gift that we are to our families, friends and the world at large?  Our prayers at our upcoming Thanksgiving meals must include a thought or prayer of gratitude for the innate beauty, goodness and accomplishment of ourselves as individuals.

Oscar Wilde once said that, “To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance.”  And Walt Whitman famously wrote in his Leaves of Grass anthology of poems that, “I celebrate myself.  I sing myself.”  It’s interesting to note that these two gay men of the nineteenth century, a time when same-sex love was unmentionable and considered a grave sin worthy of imprisonment, these two men believed it imperative that they accept and love themselves.  Such self-respect on their part likely enabled their ability to confront the forces of intolerance set against them.  Self-love empowered them to live true to their inner selves, to find pride in who they were and to celebrate such feelings in their poetry and writing.

But their journey to such personal revelations was likely not easy or simple.  Carl Jung, the famous psychoanalyst, noted that, “The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.”  If we rigorously and honestly examine who we are as a person, we embark on a journey into unknown and frightening areas of the self.  We reveal past hurts inflicted upon us by parents or other loved ones.  We remember our past mistakes.  We discover our innermost fears and doubts about life and ourselves.  We see our inherent flaws and even hypocrisies.  That is truly scary stuff to confront.

But a part of that journey will also be a discovery of our uniqueness, our intrinsic beauty of soul and spirit, our love for others, our skills, our accomplishments, and our reason and purpose in life.  If we believe in some higher creative power, whatever form that might be – god, goddess, evolution, the universe, the power of love – then we should understand that we exist and were created for a reason.  We are not random beings who simply live to suck up air, water and food.  We each serve a purpose.  We were each created from millennia of past ancestors to be the one distinctive person that we are – an artist, a writer, a teacher, a lover, a caregiver, a mother, father, son, daughter, friend, encourager, giver, activist – whatever it is that is uniquely us and our passion.  Our distinctive purpose in life is our manifest gift to the world.  It is our legacy to leave behind.  We are each wondrously good and it is our right and, indeed, our duty to find and live true to our purpose.

Such positive abilities and qualities about ourselves define who we are.  Personally, I am a thinker, an introspective person, one who feels the pain of others, one who has abilities to write and express myself in meaningful ways, one who listens and deeply wants to connect with and affirm other people.  That’s me.  Those are some of my unique gifts to the world and to eternity.  And, I must confess, those are extremely difficult words for me to say to you and to myself.  Many of my flaws and my shortcomings derive from my inability to feel such good things about myself.  I heard at an early age all of the ways that I did not measure up – as a male, as a person, as someone of value.  I internalized those messages and they became a negative voice that took control of my thinking.  Since I could not find love inside myself, I looked for it from other people.  Since then, I’ve discovered that is an impossible goal without self-respect.  I cannot feel the love of another unless I feel it for myself.  And, I cannot fully love another unless I intuitively know what self-love is and what it feels like.  I can feel variations of love and I can sense the care and concern of others but, how can I expect someone else to truly care for me if I cannot do so myself?

What we find in too many of our relationships is that we expect the other to fill the void or lack of self-respect we feel.  Instead, our purpose in any relationship is to express to the other the love we ALREADY feel and have inside our hearts and souls.  That is the unconditional love we have for ourselves – a form of respect, joy, happiness and celebration for who we are no matter what.  If we have it, we will have it to give away.

This is the self-love that knows our flaws and knows our inadequacies but transcends them.  No longer do we hear the voices of shame and blame – “I’m no good, I’m a failure, I don’t measure up, I’m inadequate, I should be like someone who is better than me, etc, etc.”  Instead, we hear a voice of praise – “I am strong, I am good, I am worthy of love, I am capable, I have gifts and abilities to offer the world, I am defined by all that is decent within me, nobody has the right or the knowledge to define who I am.”

This attitude of gratitude for the self, this way of being thankful for the self is ironically not arrogant or selfish.  Indeed, arrogance, attitudes of superiority and judgmental thoughts toward others are false masks for our own sense of inadequacy.  We project power, perfection, superficial beauty and assumed intelligence in order to hide our lack of self-respect.  We feel we must say the right things, have the best possessions, dress the right way, have the most friends, live in the most beautiful homes, etc, etc – all as ways to cover up for how we believe we fall short.  If we have genuine love for the self, the kind that is unconditional, we know who we are, we accept that as good and we have no need to try and be anything but who we deeply are.  We already feel our innate goodness and know our abilities.  We have no need to wear a mask of false love, arrogant attitudes or judgmental thoughts.  As Jesus said, we know the truth of ourselves and that has set us free.  Vanity and arrogance are loud cries for others to love us.  Humility and inner peace are gentle voices of genuine self-respect.

In order to encourage thankfulness for ourselves, we must work to banish the negative forces that are working against us.  Christians call Satan the father of all lies and indeed that is true.  Whether or not we believe in a literal devil, the fact remains that there is good and evil at work within us – that which works to pull us down and that which elevates and inspires us.  The father of lies tells our inner souls that there is no hope, that we should give in to our fears, that we are not loved, that we are weak, no good and our past mistakes define who and what we are.  For many of us, this father of lies began talking to us when we were young and impressionable, not having fully formed our sense of self.  We then travel through life trying to shut out that voice – dulling it with unhealthy habits, attitudes, fears, food, drugs or alcohol.  We might also become doormats, believing ourselves unworthy of love.  We might, on the other hand, judge others or we might live with deep shame and an inability to forgive ourselves and others.   As the Buddha once noted, we fall out of balance in our thinking about the self – we either love ourselves too much or we love ourselves too little.  We have failed to see the good and the weak in us and then live in contentment and appreciation of both.  As Gandhi once said, we must acknowledge that both our successes and our failures are blessings to us.  Each comprises who we are.

Ultimately, however, we know that it is the good that must define our lives – how we give, how we love and how we serve.  Do we listen to the father of lies or do we fly with our better angels?  Firmly and consistently, we must tell the father of lies to literally shut up.  When we hear his voice, when his seductive words of defeat, shame and guilt echo in our minds, we must tell him to literally “f-off!”

My friends, self-hate is a downward spiral in so many ways.  While many of you have mostly learned and internalized an authentic form of self-acceptance and respect, others of you – including me – have not.   I’m growing and learning in this respect and I feel I’m getting better.  Spirituality and an exploration of all that is good in us and in our universe is a huge help to me.

This space, for me and for many of you, is a place of healing – a hospital for our souls – where we mutually support and celebrate one another.  It’s also one place where we can live out our greater reason for existence – to serve and love others.  That is the reason why we support, attend, serve and cherish this idea we call the Gathering and why our financial gifts to the church are so essential and so important.

What I have come to realize is that by not finding an authentic form of inner peace, by not feeling a deep respect for who and what I am, by listening to the father of lies, I am saying “no” to life.  I am saying to myself, “Die!”  I have no worth.  I am a hindrance to the betterment of this world – something which none of us want to have as our legacy.  What we need to find in our hearts and our in spirits is the call to “Live.  Live.  Live!”  When we see all that we have in us, when we perceive all of the contributions we offer the world, when we see our strength, our decency, our many abilities………we see our greatness.  Absent any one of us, the world is a diminished place.  But when we find a way, this Thanksgiving and all of the Thanksgivings of our futures, to give thanks for ourselves and our lives, we can then go out, spread our wings and fulfill our purpose to help build heaven on earth for all humanity.

I wish you all the inner peace and joy that comes from loving yourself.