“My son, in all modesty, keep your self-respect and value yourself at your true worth. Who will speak up for a man, who is his own enemy, or respect one who disparages himself?” Ecclesiasticus 10:28-29

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22:39

Who and what we are is not so much about reputation and heritance – the family into which we are born or where we get our mail. More likely it is consequent of what we choose to believe about ourselves. The self that is constantly checking where one is in line relative to others may fail to value itself as the matchless and awe-inspiring being one is. Shakespeare’s Caesar foresaw that the darkest problem of our humanity is our conception of ourselves. Who do we wish to be?

“It hath been taught us from the primal state That he which is was wished until he were.”

We may use all manner of tricks in presenting ourselves to others, even sometimes shaming ourselves with borrowed credentials. Truth be told, there is in you and me a “self-with-self” struggle, as the varying insistent parts of our being vie for place and station. From this wrestle come those wishes which govern in our lives. These wishes, however, are limited by our inborn gifts, our life’s circumstances and chance’s enigmatic offerings.

German poet Rilke called us to “…think of the world you carry within you, and call this thinking what you will; whether it be remembering your own childhood or yearning toward your own future.”

Indeed, we are selves dowered with memories and yearnings. Childhood, in turn, fosters a kind of dreaming certitude ferrying us unafraid into each tomorrow. Rabbinic literature allowed that when a baby arrives in the world its hands are clenched as though to say, “Everything is mine. I will inherit it all.”

Age and maturing mindset give the lie to this as the self realizes how uncertain the business of living is. Moreover, hustled by luckless ambition and a self-serving bias, one may become the contradictory self one never wanted to be, a self on the outs with itself now harnessed to a sullied self-respect.

A theologian several decades back championed the thought that our ability to love ourselves was bound to the belief that at all times we were accepted by a power greater than our own—a power greater than that of our friendships, greater than the authority of our counselors and psychological helpers. This faith of our being loved and accepted by God is what enables us to rightly love ourselves. In receiving Jesus’ words “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” we tend to neglect his add-on call to love oneself. Nonetheless, the wisdom in loving oneself often proves to be a ladder up and away from any self-created dungeons of despair, allowing us quite possibly to become the dream God is dreaming of us.

In “The Diary of a Country Priest,” Georges Bernanos’ novel of a cancer-ridden priest, we find the priest at the book’s ending musing on his own end, “Well, it’s all over now. The strange mistrust I had of myself, my own being, has flown, I believe forever. That conflict is done. I cannot understand it any more. I am reconciled to myself, to the poor, shell of me. How easy it is to hate oneself! True grace is to forget. Yet if pride could die in us, the supreme grace would be to love oneself in all simplicity—as one would love any one of those who themselves have suffered and loved in Christ.”

In the last and before time puts all of us to bed, we shall perhaps realize as did Bernanos’ priest that “Grace is everywhere.” It is God who gives us the power to forgive and love ourselves…God who accepts us who must finally settle to be reconciled to the imperfect persons we are…God who enables us in regaining our self-respect and then invites us to mirror the immensity of his love for both our neighbor and ourselves. I fancy that God’s final word to Adam may have been, “Best to you and the self-love for it.”

The Rev. Merle G. Steva is Minister of Visitation Emeritus at First Parish Church, Saco, Maine. He may be contacted at [email protected]