Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Doormats, Deuteronomy and Dissing the Self

Caution: the following contains explicitly religious language. Don't read this if you're offended by a reference or two to fundamental religious concepts. On the other hand, you won't find this interpretation of tradional religious beliefs in any church I ever went to, so you probably won't be too offended if you venture in.

I am not responsible for the happiness of others.

I am responsible for treating people with kindness, for helping to relieve suffering, and for making sure there is enough of me left to continue to exist. I am responsible for loving my neighbor as myself.

That means loving me too. In fact, it is only in loving myself equally with my neighbor that I can accomplish this commandment. When asked what was the most important commandment, a trick question designed to make him falter, the clever rabbi Jesus gave his own revolutionary interpretation of Shema. Second only to loving God as ancient law required was this loving my neighbor as myself commandment. In fact, he believed these two commandments to be the only really important ones. That’s why, years ago as a Sunday school teacher, I had the kids build mezuzot and inscribe that passage on a small piece of paper to place inside. Mine is in a mezuzah hung by my front door, and that passage is supposed to govern all my actions on leaving and entering my home. For those of you new to ideas about the Shema, check it out in Deuteronomy 6:5-9, then check out how masterfully Jesus recited this elemental prayer for his audience according to the New Testament.

Of course, Jesus also shared his pearls with women freely, and if even the church canon is correct, included women, gasp, in the most important events of his ministry, albeit in somewhat secodnary roles. Yet many centuries of women, subject to the misogynist Christian church and its oppressive ways, got it wrong: we were told to forget the second half of that important commandment and love only the other. It’s why I say “I’m sorry,” when someone else hurts me. It’s why I say “Excuse me,” and even mean it, when someone else cuts in front of me. Our culture condones that on the part of women, and teaches us to be selfless to the point of actual self-sacrifice, that is the annihilation of self in order to preserve the other. We have been doormats to centuries of people who tromp all over our selves. Often, those with the banner of Christianity held high above their arrogant heads trod us completely out of existence, literally.

If you really take Christianity to its logical conclusion, and if you believe all the stories about Jesus' death and resurrection, then you must also believe that Jesus died so we didn’t have to. Loving yourself as you love others is an essential piece of that puzzle. Reading Christian teaching clearly we can see that god wants us to “self-actualize,” to use a smarmy new-age phrase, as long as we also possess compassion and empathy.

Without the healthy love of self, combined with a true love of our neighbor, we can’t make it at all. We can limp along dispensing pieces of ourselves until there is nothing left, or we can preserve ourselves, making ourselves whole, and then, as whole persons, minister to others the love of true children of god.

You can’t love yourself until you know yourself, either, and that takes time and study.

I can’t love myself until I have the courage to say what I will and won’t tolerate. When confronted with situations which require acceptance of unacceptable behavior, I need to say no, I won’t be tread on this way. Wipe your feet somewhere else.

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