Love Your Neighbor as Yourself
I want to ask you all to do something before reading this article. I want you to sit down in a comfortable chair—the ones in Underhill Library are the first to come to mind—place all of your books and notebooks on the table next to you, sit with your legs crossed or folded up under you, and breathe. For fifteen minutes, I want you to sit and breathe and feel the air coming in and out of your body. Whether it’s in the quiet of your dorm room or the loudness of McCabe first floor in the evening, I want you to be still for fifteen minutes. I want you to take some time to just love yourself.
Now that you are hopefully a little calmer, a little more at peace than you were at the beginning of this article, I would like to share a story with you. Last fall, for a period of about two months, I thought I was worthless. Has that thought ever occurred to you? It’s a thought that comes creeping into your head when you least expect it: maybe you don’t matter that much, your life doesn’t amount to much, and nobody would really miss you if you were gone. I thought that thought countless times last fall as I watched everyone look like they were doing life so much better than I was doing it. My grandmother died in September, and at first, I thought I was just sad because I missed her. But as weeks passed and I began to find it hard to get out of bed, I realized maybe there was something more going on in my head. I went to a counselor and talked to her about the problems I had with my family, how I was so overwhelmed by all of the work I had at Swat and was struggling to cope with everything. While she was a wonderful listener, I still felt weighted down and inadequate.
I have always been a Christian. My father is a Lutheran pastor in Minnesota, and before my older sister was born my mom was as well. I grew up going to church every Sunday, to choir practice, and later on, confirmation, every Wednesday. Eventually, I went to and graduated from a Christian high school. My life was steeped in the discourse and culture of American Protestant Christianity. However, what drew me personally to Christ and to identifying myself as a Christian was not peer pressure or the pressure from my family, but rather the beauty of following a man who said over and over in the Gospels that the two greatest commands are to: 1) Love God and 2) Love Your Neighbor as Yourself1. I was drawn to a religion based around love and a God who says that heaven belongs to those who serve and love those who are hungry, naked, thirsty, or in prison2. I wanted to serve a man who said, ever so clearly, that the first shall be last and the last shall be first3. At the core of my faith was the idea that life is made for serving and loving others, and that by serving and loving others, I was serving and loving God.
Thus, when it came time to apply to college I looked for an institution that was not necessarily Christian, but at the very least grounded in the belief that social justice matters. I looked for a school where I would have plenty of opportunities to serve others and possibly apply this service to my studies. I decided to apply to Swarthmore early decision because in every guidebook and admissions pamphlet I read I saw that social justice was a concept that really mattered to students, and that the school provided plenty of funding for service and activist groups on campus, as well as internships and projects. I felt that I would be able to pursue a life centered around loving my neighbor, even if such love was not explicitly labeled “Christian.”
Flash forward to this past fall. By this time, I had become very much immersed in the culture of social justice, service, and activism at Swat. I was tutoring twice a week in Chester, volunteering at the Student Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia (SREHUP) overnight once a week, helping organize service activities through Swarthmore Christian Fellowship (SCF) and Swarthmore Progressive Christians (SPC), and working at Chester’s Co-op. Every second I wasn’t spending on classes or work-study, I was trying to spend on serving others as best as I could. I was trying, even when I felt worthless and inadequate, to love my neighbor.
But what I missed through all of these formalized roles and responsibilities of serving was the second part of Jesus’ command for our lives. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I was loving my neighbor as best as I could, but I was hardly loving them as I loved myself. In fact, I wasn’t really loving myself at all. I wasn’t eating well, getting enough sleep, taking breaks, going out, or even forgiving myself for mistakes. Rather I was verbally beating myself up, feeling like nothing I ever did was good enough. I was never truly open or present to anyone because I was too caught up with disliking myself. Such thoughts and attitudes toward myself in a sense consumed me. While I was helping my neighbor, I wasn’t truly loving them with my whole heart: I was too busy hating myself. It wasn’t until I left the Swat bubble and went abroad this semester that I realized how far I was from understanding Jesus’ instruction.
A question for you, readers: would you ever deprive a random stranger or your best friend of sleep? Would you make them skip meals or tell them it’s a good idea to stress eat? Would you tell them to always do work and never take a break? Would you stop them from exercising or even just taking a shower at night? Would you decide never to forgive them for even the smallest of mistakes? Would you tell them they don’t amount to much, their lives are worthless, and why even bother trying, everyone is better than them anyways? Is that how you would treat a friend or neighbor?
If not, then why is that how we so often treat ourselves? If we wouldn’t deprive a neighbor of sleep, why do we deprive ourselves of it? If we wouldn’t tell our neighbor not to take a break from work and relax, why do we tell ourselves that? If we wouldn’t tell our neighbors to constantly compare their lives to everyone else’s and feel inadequate by doing so, why do we, ourselves, do that? If we would never tell someone, a complete stranger even, that they are worthless, why do even dare tell that to ourselves?
It feels so easy to fall into this kind of pattern at Swarthmore, where you try as hard as you can to love others, but, at the same time, completely fail at loving yourself. It is easy at Swarthmore to get caught up in the stresses and business of everyday life and think that everyone around you is smarter, healthier, or more successful than you are and that maybe you actually were the admissions’ mistake. It is so incredibly easy to not let yourself get enough sleep, to feel guilty for taking a break from doing work, to stress eat ice cream by the gallon or not eat at all, and to put your friends’ or group’s well-being before your own. But to lead such a life does not allow us to fully love others. I think that Jesus said we should love our neighbors as ourselves for a reason. He wants us to love ourselves. He wants us not to necessarily think that our lives are better than that of anyone else’s, but rather to think that our lives our equal to theirs. That our lives and our neighbor’s lives matter just as much as the other. This does not mean we should live selfishly or be conceited about who we are. To love yourself does not mean going out and buying a Ferrari or mansion or telling everyone you’re the best thing ever. It means to treat yourself simply with the same respect you would give to a neighbor, to acknowledge that you, like they, are merely human.
It is through my time in a small town on a mountain in Costa Rica, away from Swarthmore, that I have begun to realize this. Having time to get enough sleep, eat three meals a day, run, shower, and simply breathe has left me with more love and patience for my first grade students than I ever had with any of the kids I tutored in Chester in the past. I find myself more present in what is going on around me, as I am not preoccupied thinking about how much work I have to do or how I am not doing anything well enough. I find myself laughing at more jokes, noticing more birds, and giving more hugs, as I feel like my life has value and that I am not entirely worthless. Granted, everything is not puppies and rainbows (though there are a lot of both here) but my disposition and temperament are much better now that I have truly begun to take time for myself.
My time abroad has made me realize that back at Swarthmore, we decidedly have a culture of social justice and activism that, if embraced, can truly help us to love our neighbors. But having a culture like this isn’t enough. Swarthmore also needs a second kind of culture: a culture of wellness, wholeness, and self-care; a culture that says it’s okay to not do everything, to forgive yourself for mistakes, to take a break from stress and just breathe. As we let go of anxiety and learn to relax, we’ll be better able to love ourselves, and thus love our neighbor. We’ll be full of renewed life and energy that makes helping our best friend late at night or a stranger on the street a welcome opportunity, and not a burden. We’ll have a love welling up inside of us that we can’t help but spread. Rather than being a source of stress, anxiety, and self-doubt, life will become something to share and celebrate. We won’t have any sort of hate hidden in our hearts, only love. Even more importantly, by having a culture that allows us to forgive and love ourselves, our hearts will be open to the radical thought that there’s a Creator who made us just as we are, and who loves us a thousand times more than we could ever love ourselves. And, unlike us, He’s never doubted that once.
1 Matthew 19:19, Matthew 22:39, Luke 10:25-28, Mark 12:31, Mark 12:33
2 Matthew 25
3 Matthew 20:16
Christina is from Shoreview, Minnesota and is special majoring in Education and Sociology/Anthropology. Her dream is to find out how to get to Sesame Street. You can find more of her writing at: http://thequirkinessoftheurbanlandscape.wordpress.com/.
Thumbnail image by Stanko07 from Stock Free Images.Tags: anxiety, Christias, culture, death, God, love, rest, service, social justice, stress, Swarthmore College