When the crowds heard him, they were astounded at his teaching. But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees with his reply, they met together to question him again. One of them, an expert in religious law, tried to trap him with this question: “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?” Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:36-40At heart, I am a nice guy. And I can be sensitive, too. Sometimes I care too much what other people think. Sure, I have my moments of when I am unpleasant, but most of the time I like to relax, and laugh, and enjoy my time with others. I want people to feel at ease around me. I want to live the kind of life that the Dalai Lama speaks about. He says, “We must each lead a way of life with self-awareness and compassion, to do as much as we can. Then, whatever happens we will have no regrets.” How many of us can say we live like that – a life of peace with ourselves, a life with no regrets?
Of course, I can’t be the nice guy all the time. Then there are the times I just have to stand my ground on an issue. An ethical line has been crossed. A decision needs to be made and the buck has stopped with me. People look to me to make a tough leadership decision. No matter what, someone will be unhappy. Someone may feel hurt. And someone may think less of me. So much for getting to be the nice guy all the time. I can feel very ill at ease in these situations, because my values tell me to be kind, but others may perceive my actions as mean-spirited or inflexible.
Maybe you’ve let your anticipation of how a critic will speak about you keep you from fulfilling your dreams. Perhaps you’ve been quiet or inactive on important issues because you’ve cared too much about what other people think of you. Have you ever sacrificed your sense of inner authority to another person’s opinion of you?
Sometimes we can have a hard time owning our inner authority. We can feel intimidated by approaching critical people, especially those we see as powerful. Our tendency is to try to get someone else to do the difficult work of confronting those we perceive as controlling. For example, I feel angry with Janelle and I see her as controlling, so I share my anger not with Janelle but with my buddy Hal. Hopefully, Hal will share my anger with Janelle without mentioning my name so Janelle won’t be angry back at me. It’s a sure recipe for chaotic and destructive interpersonal relationships.
So here is what I propose for making peace with myself. It’s not original with me – the first time I came across this idea was in The Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz. Here’s the proposal:
The truth is, most people don’t spend much time thinking about me at all. The same is true for you. Sorry. Few people have time in their schedules to think more than a brief second about us. When I do have time to get my thoughts straight, I’m too busy mulling over my own shortcomings to worry about yours. In the words of essayist David Foster Wallace, “You’ll worry less about what people think about you when you realize how seldom they do.”
It’s not none of my business what others think of me.
However, it is entirely my business what I think of me and how I nurture my sense of self-identity while staying connected in relationships. There is a fancy word that therapists and coaches use for this attitude. It’s called “self-differentiation.”
- Self-differentiation means being willing to say clearly who I am and who I want to be while others are trying to tell me who I am and who I should be.
- Self-differentiation means understanding that I can be distinct from others, without being distant from others.
- Self-differentiation means becoming responsible for my own life while being committed to growing closer to those I love.
When I recognize my authority, I can say three very important statements:
I am who I am, and
I am good enough.
I get a sense of this in Matthew’s telling of Jesus and the greatest commandment. We read an episode about yet another attack on Jesus character and reputation by teachers and leaders of the established religion. I think the interrogation is about more than the religious authorities trying to catch Jesus in a theological mistake. Jesus is so threatening to the religious order, the questions are intended to pull him back into line. It’s a way of saying, “Jesus, if you just change your ways and become like us again, you will have respectability and acceptance.” The Pharisee’s questions are about assimilation. Assimilation is one way to turn away criticism and dissent. Assimilation says, “Give up your self-identity and become like us, and we will all get along. Failure to do so will mean exclusion, and perhaps elimination.” We can see a similar pattern of assimilation and exclusion in immigration debates in America, by the way. We talk about the dream of an America that promotes a process of identity formation among diverse citizens who deliberate freely together. A free-thinking, diverse citizenry can feel so menacing to the majority, we create systems that domesticate or internally colonize the identities of those who don’t fit in. The majority says, “You must walk, talk, think, and act like us if you want to be like us.” Nations do it. Religions do it. Neighbors do it. Churches do it. The person or group in power demands that others sacrifice self-identity and self-reflection to keep a vague and tenuous peace.
Jesus doesn’t cave into the trap of compromising himself in order to help others feel at peace with him. For him it’s not about assimilation but self-differentiation. Jesus knows who he is. He senses where he begins and ends and he is at peace with himself. Because he is at peace, Jesus can confront the systems and empires he calls his followers to resist. Jesus is not influenced by the pain or pleasure associated with reputation. He is influenced by love. Love for God, love for neighbor, and love for self.
You and I will find it very difficult to fulfill God’s aims in the world when we shape our lives around a compulsive concern about respectability or winning the approval of critics. Church, this is not our calling and not our hope. We claim a different authority. We claim the authority of love.
Instead of assimilation, I want to be self differentiated. It has to do with being a “self” or an “I” in the face of pressure by others or by systems to blend into, the “we.” To be differentiated is to know and act on one’s own mind, especially when one’s position is different from the group’s. My inner authority tells me that I am a loving person who is trying to live out the greatest commandments: love God, love others, love myself. I don't need the approval of others or the disapproval of others. Validation begins from inside me, not from others on the outside.
I love the self-differentiating imagery in Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Journey.”
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice --
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do --
determined to savethe only life you could save.
Mary Oliver reminds me to listen to my own voice and not the voices of everyone else around me telling me who to be and what to do and how to fix myself.
This is the most compassionate act you can do for anyone: to stand by the truth of your own life and live it as passionately and as fully as you are able.
This is the point where my New Englandy, puritan congregational roots kick in. My inner Calvinist says, “Isn’t what you are saying idolatry? Aren’t you putting self-love above love for God? How are vanity and self-absorption going to help anything?” I think sometimes we get scared about self-love and self-esteem talk because it can sound pathological. If we love ourselves, we will turn into irrepressible narcissists. There’s a difference between self esteem and narcissism. Self-esteem represents an attitude built on accomplishments we've mastered, values we've adhered to, and care we've shown toward others. Narcissism is often based on a fear of failure or weakness. It’s an unhealthy drive to be seen as the best, and a deep-seated insecurity and underlying feeling of inadequacy. Narcissism has to do with what others think of you. Healthy self-love has to do with what you think of you.
What I’m talking about is making peace with yourself by nurturing a sense of self-identity while staying connected in relationships. Here is an exercise I am working with. I was inspired by an article I read on the Website Tiny Buddha.
- Look in the mirror and say “I love you.”
- Immediately, the judgmental thoughts might begin. “But I’m fat. I’m ugly. I’m stupid. I’m afraid.”
- Let those thoughts come and go. Don’t judge. Just notice.
- Look again in the mirror and say “I love you.”
- The judgmental thoughts may come again. “But you don’t understand, I did something terrible. People are angry at me. I’ve made mistakes. I’m unlovable”
- Look in the mirror and say “I love you.”
- Here come those thoughts again. “No really, listen, I’m damaged and I’m damaging.”
- Look in the mirror and say, “Yes. And I love you.”
Believe me, it takes some time. I’m still learning. I hear perseverance is the trick. I believe that practicing how to love myself, and not the perceived image others have of me, is worth the risk and the pain.
Ten Poems to Change Your Life by Roger Housden