In high school I had a friend who was overweight, socially awkward, and insecure. He was in the top five percent of the class, but he never reached the top one percent; he was the second chair trumpet player, but he never made first chair.
My heart went out to him. I befriended him and listened to him in the lunchroom as he told story after story of how students, teachers, and his parents misunderstood him.
He grew discouraged and eventually depressed. His counselor said his problem was self-hatred, and that he needed to grow in self-love.
I thought he loved himself too much.
And I still think so
I don’t mean to be harsh. My heart really did go out to my friend. I just don’t think his problem was self-hatred; and I don’t think his solution was more self-love.
True hatred harbors ill will for a person; it wants rejection, pain, and humiliation for the hated one. My friend didn’t harbor ill will towards himself, and he didn’t long for his own failures. In fact, he was angry because of his failures. He wanted achievements, good looks, and social acceptance, and he was mad at himself for not having them.
He was angry because he loved himself so much.
Someone once said, “The opposite of love is not hatred, it is indifference;” and my friend was not indifferent about himself. In fact, “himself” is all he thought of. “He” was the topic of almost every conversation. He devoured time, emotion, and money with self-improvement: weight loss, trumpet lessons, tutors, and positive self-thinking.
To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, my friend had a “ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration on the self.” And he grew more despondent.
If the solution isn’t self-love, what is it?
Love is not merely a mindset or a feeling. Love always involves action. My friend’s actions were already oriented toward himself. He didn’t need more self-love; he needed a new attitude.
He needed an attitude of self-acceptance. He was dissatisfied with his gifts, looks, body-style, personality, and intelligence (which was actually quite high, just not the highest).
Isak Dinesen said, “Godly pride is faith in the idea God had when He made you.” My friend lacked this “Godly pride.” He was disappointed with how God made him. He envied the gifts of others, their personality, their looks, and their intelligence.
He was angry with himself for lacking those gifts; he was angry with others for having those gifts; and he was angry with God for not giving him those gifts; gifts that he envied in others.
And envy sucks joy from our souls
Augustine said, “Envy is sorrow at another man’s good.” Sir John Gielgud (a famous English actor) revealed a personal example of envy as he admitted, “When Sir Laurence Olivier played Hamlet in 1948, and the critics raved, I wept.”
The cruel double agony of envy is this: we are sorrowful at our failures and we are sorrowful at other’s success. Envy’s sorrows rob our souls of joy.*
So what are we to do?
We probably all know people who suffer the deep ache of self-dissatisfaction or even self-disgust. Many of us have suffered this personally. The throbbing anguish is almost unbearable.
Instead of more self-love, I urge us to consider that we really need self-acceptance, indeed a rejoicing in who God made us.
Scripture says God chose us and made us his most prized treasure (Duet. 7:6) and that we are his joy (Heb. 12:2); he pronounces us his masterpiece (Eph. 2:10).
Imagine the genius Leonardo da Vinci (not DiCaprio!) handing you his masterpiece The Mona Lisa as a gift. If you whipped out a paintbrush saying, “Let me just fix that smile,” da Vinci would shout, “Stop! It’s my masterpiece. Anything you add will subtract.”**
We are God’s masterpiece. Anything we add will subtract.
As we learn to accept –indeed rejoice in—“the idea God had when he made us,” we walk into joy. We no longer sense the sorrowful envy of self-love. We are content as his masterpiece.
We no longer hide the masterpiece behind sheets of shame. We no longer bury our talents in a handkerchief.
What we need most
Perhaps in the end we need something beyond self-love or self-acceptance.
Perhaps what we need most is gratitude, thanking the Master artist for making us who we are.
* Emotional health is a complex issue. Sometimes we need more rest, sometimes better diet and exercise, sometimes counseling to deal with past issues, and sometimes we need to right a chemical imbalance. But we all need gratitude to God for who made us to be, and we all need to guard ourselves against envying the gifts of other.
** (I first heard this metaphor, or something like it, in a Tim Keller sermon.)