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“Why don’t I love him?”
I sat across from my friend at a gelato joint, cross-legged on tall stool that was not big or sturdy enough to carry the weight of my heavy, burdensome heart. I sought answers in her piercing eyes, the dark circles under them testaments to the years and experiences of a well-lived life. Hand pressed against my forehead, I demanded that she explain to me exactly why the love department was not bearing any fruit.
“You can’t really love him, or anyone for that matter, if you don’t love yourself first,” she explained to me, warming my hand with the friction of hers.
We were talking about this bright-eyed boy I was seeing. He was kind to me; really, it was too much sometimes. He checked every box on my checklist of desirable qualities in a future partner, loving and respecting me wholeheartedly. But all the same, my heart did not reciprocate his warmth and tenderness. For that, I was at war with myself; my heart and mind like Sparta and Athens in battle.
I feared dying alone. I feared not being capable of loving someone, no matter how much that person loved me. I feared living my life with a burning, gaping hole in my heart that no amount of kisses or bouquets of flowers could ever fill. Maybe she was right. I had convinced myself that maybe I was the sole answer, the only solution to my problem. To produce the fruit of love, I needed to fix myself.
I needed to love myself before I loved anyone else.
So I took matter into my own hands, adopting a Davidian narrative of redemption in which I would slay my own Goliath of insecurity. My closet became a mountain piled with the trendiest clothes, my medicine cabinet finally put to use as I religiously hoarded makeup palettes and facial products to “enhance my facial features.” As I accumulated possessions — material things that would make me feel prettier and more comfortable in my skin — my wallet was hollowing out, one endorsement of idolatry at a time. But soon, clothes and makeup weren’t enough to satisfy my reflection in the mirror. No frilly blouse could make me skinnier. No amount of concealer or eyeshadow could make me feel better about myself.
I needed more.
I found homely refuge at the gym, lifting and running the spirit out of myself. I traded in restaurant shops and grocery runs for locker room showers and painful nights of icing my shins from pushing my body beyond its limit. Amid the suffering, amid the faintness, I recalled the celebrities with porcelain skin and flat bellies on television saying: beauty hurts. You have to work hard for what you want.
Beauty hurts, I reminded myself.
I cried that night, having succumbed to the “love yourself first” mentality. I put my faith in all the wrong places and in doing so, I imposed a conditional burden on the notion of love, as if feeling confident in my own skin would somehow magically erase all my relational problems and reprogram my heart to feel, or more importantly, to love. It backfired.
My self-confidence, in the absence of deeper spiritual truths undergirding it, became vanity; deceptive, inherently selfish. Sure, self-confidence made me feel beautiful at times, stoked even more by compliments, but it did not make me more or less lovable, did not give me the ability to love others, did not bring me any closer to God.
A year later, I found myself sitting in the same tall stool at the gelato shop that had witnessed my waywardness, assessing whether or not my tireless efforts at learning to “love myself” had finally bore fruit.
I felt a cosmic loneliness from which I could not escape, no matter how many beautiful selfies I had posted on my perfectly curated Instagram feed to convince myself otherwise. With the childlike curiosity of a toddler tugging the pants of a schoolteacher, begging for answers to larger-than-life questions, my hands met out of a desperate plea for clarity. “Hey God, I’ve been terrible recently, but I need you more than ever right now,” I humbly professed, hoping to cut loose the cord trying me to an emotional apathy that was eating me alive. I wanted the capacity to love even the slightest fraction of what He does. I begged for mercy. I begged not for self-love, but for His loving-kindness to fully envelop me.
That weekend, my body nestled between the pews at church, my pastor read from Matthew 6: “So do not worry, saying ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘what shall we drink?’ or ‘what shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
There it was — the spiritual t-word, truth. God heard me. He interceded. His words, spoken through the pastor, my Isaiah, were like a slap to the face — a painful but rude awakening of my own making. I knew his mercy had penetrated the depths of my soul, redirecting all misplaced thoughts and actions to Him, the heart of my heart, the real solution to my problems.
Could it be that this was the answer — the simple and cold-hearted truth that earthly love, like Heavenly love, is unconditional? That absolutely nothing in Scripture commands us to love ourselves, but everything in it tells us to love Him, to love others?
I ran as far and fast as my sore, overworked body would take me until I reached the doorsteps of my home. I sprinted to my room, trashbags in tow, and dumped all the frivolous things, these idolatries, that had held me prisoner to the sin of vanity for too long. I wanted to climb the highest mountain of all mountains to reclaim my stake in this superficial world; to redefine what it was to truly love oneself. The answer isn’t and never has been as vague and selfish as “love yourself first.”
The answer is unambiguous and quite simple.
Love is beholden to nothing and does not come wrapped in pretty paper with a some conditions may apply label. “Loving yourself to love others” is a poorly-conceived social construct, an escape from the narrow path of righteousness that stresses unconditional love, that demands accountability even if (and especially when) you don’t love yourself; even if you’re feeling down, unattractive, ashamed or flat-out antisocial. We are called to exude love not from a place of personal affinity or relational closeness, but out of a brotherly duty that calls us to places far and beyond our own self-perception.
I’m convinced that to love oneself, to love others, to love in the simplest form is rooted in loving God. His loving-kindness is not conditional on our ability to love ourselves or discern in ourselves the beauty — the masterpiece — that He sees in us; it knows no reference point, no start or end. It is bountiful and indiscriminate. His love is the place of the Cross in our lives.
We don’t love people simply because they’re familiar to us or share our last name and bloodline (we shouldn’t). We don’t love our partners because we love ourselves first. Jesus did not bear the weight of our sins because we were his friendly neighbors nor because He loved himself. No, we love because He first loved us, his abominable executioners, in all our unworthiness and brokenness. Out of the trenches of darkness came the light of hope, the fruitful promise of a love that transcends human faculties. As followers of Christ, we were fearfully and wonderfully made in His image.
And what better image is there to emulate than Him whom we call Love?
I am able to love others now not because I feel confident in myself; not because I am at a place in my life where I feel content with my situational circumstances or who I am; not because I now have an amazing boyfriend who loves me with all his heart. To the contrary, I am a lost sheep a majority of the time, doubtful of my own capacities, the polar opposite of the quintessential millennial woman who “loves herself.”
I am able to love, and to love indiscriminately, because I love and seek God through his son Jesus. His never-ending fountain of lovingkindness compels me to fill buckets of water and pour it on the heads of every single person who believes that loving others is merited or conditional on looking in the mirror and saying “I like myself today.”
It takes more courage, more discipline, more Godliness to take your insecurities and worries and actively choose to love your friend who complains about her problems, your neighbor whose tree leaves constantly land in your yard, the homeless person asking for money, the barista who gets your coffee order wrong. It’s the narrow path, surely, but it’s the loving path that will lead us to eternal joy.
I want to be the old news-bearer, running through every village to inform others that they are beautiful in the eyes of the only One whose opinion matters, and that is what makes us loved. I want to proselytize the gospel of blind love, not self-righteous love, even when this small and broken girl with a big and perfect Father does not love herself.