“Loving ourselves” should be entirely natural. It should also lead us away from anxious self-obsession and certainly far away from debilitating self-pity. In fact, self-love – when we understand it – should lead us towards an easy acceptance of our gifts, gratitude for our strengths, as well as a willingness to learn from our inevitable foolishness, errors and misjudgements. Best of all, it should allow us to accept and engage with other people in their complexity. And yet..and yet…for so many people self-acceptance is a distant mirage. What follows is a short extract on this very topic from my book Choosing Happiness. I very much hope that it is helpful because His Holiness is right: “If we do not love ourselves, how can we love others?” And how can we promote the harmony and tolerance that brings us peace and happiness?
Adapted from Choosing Happiness
I was well into adulthood before I ‘got it’ that this life of mine is an incredible gift. And that it may be perfect exactly as it is! Up to that point – and there have been lapses since – I was quite preoccupied with all the (many) things that are wrong with me. Whatever vision of perfection I might have had certainly didn’t fit any life that I could recognise. It’s not that I was entirely ungrateful for my life. In fact, some aspects of it I valued highly. None the less, I paid far more attention to what was wrong than to what was right. I believed that what was wrong needed my attention. Perhaps I unconsciously believed that what was right could take care of itself.
Two sets of events changed my perspective.
First of all, I came to terms with how finite this life is.
Working in psychotherapy with people who were dying, and experiencing the death of people close to me, I could not help but gain a different perspective on life. I came to see that each day is a gift, not for what we can ‘do with it’, but for what it is. Many people express the view that it is not until they know they are dying that they live fully and truthfully, focusing on what’s important and discarding what’s not. But the reality is we are all dying. Our death may be days away; it may be decades away. But there’s no avoiding it.
Understanding how very precious life is, and seeing for myself how fiercely and tenderly people cling to life when they know how little time they have left, I also realised that like any love, our love for life soars when we allow it to become unconditional. What this means to me is loving life even when it’s not following my orders, wishes or desires; loving life even when it feels massively unfair, unsafe, disappointing or tragic; loving life even when I am not getting what I want from it. I don’t think most of us realise, unless we are fortunate enough to be living consciously, how conditional our love affair with life really is; how much we complain and how offended we feel when we don’t get what we believe (perhaps unconsciously) that life ‘owes’ us.
Unconditional love for life means, to me, entering life fully. Taking it all on. Saying yes to everything: to the suffering and the compassion; to the crassness and the wisdom; to the brutality as well as the radiance and beauty; to the disappointments and the triumphs. Of course I welcome some things more than others; of course I am concerned with keeping myself safe; of course I want to do my very very best for kindness and goodness and beauty. But loving life only if or when it gives me what I want keeps me from being real.
What also made a difference for me was attending some Buddhist classes and retreats and reading many books by Buddhist teachers. I am not a Buddhist but over the last twenty years or so I have gained so much from these teachings in particular:
* This gift of life is precious. My gift of life is precious. (So is yours.)
* Human existence is precious.
* The chance to reflect upon the big questions is precious.
* Every life offers a constant repertoire of opportunities to become happier and wiser.
* Taking those opportunities is precious; living them daily is more precious still.
My study and reading in more recent years has shown me that there are teachings within all the world’s faiths that reveal how precious each life is and that we can worry less about who we are. A famous passage in Luke’s Gospel (12:24-27) points to this – and it speaks to us all, whatever our faith identity.
Consider the birds: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies in the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.
For many Westerners, including myself, those insights were buried for too many years beneath other more widely taught ideas about sin, guilt, unworthiness and insufficiency that carry tremendous psychological power to wound and damage. Our deep sense of being ‘wrong’ or unworthy of love, our distrust of our own strengths, our ability to hurt ourselves and other people are all born from a lack of awareness and trust that our lives are precious: that life itself is infinitely precious.
And when I forget? I don’t need to beat myself up for my shortcomings or blame myself. I just have to remember. I have to remember what I learned so long ago in my psychosynthesis training: that I have a body but am not my body; that I have thoughts but am not my thoughts; that I have passions, desires, deep feelings…and those too are not who I am. In the decade or more of learning, slowly slowly, to identify less with this swiftly passing existence and more confidently with my eternal self and soul strengths, I have come to value this life more, not less. As my dependence on ego and outer achievement diminishes, my inner stability grows, and so does my capacity to remain connected to all of life. I am connected to all of life and supported by it; I have only to remember.
Dr Stephanie Dowrick’s Choosing Happiness is available at most bookstores and postage free via this LINK. You can also find the audio edition (read by Carmen Warrington) via this LINK. For the books that Stephanie Dowrick has recorded herself please visit the Bolinda Audio publishing website, via this LINK. Those unabridged audio versions are available as MP3 downloads or as CD sets. You are very welcome to comment at Stephanie Dowrick’s public Facebook page where Stephanie posts ongoing encouragement. Her most recent book is Heaven on Earth.