January 10, 2015

How Blasphemy Led Me to Empathy: A Spiritual Experiment.

moroccan friends 500 by 500

Love thy neighbor as thyself. ~ Mark 12:31

This sacred command is one of the last patches of common ground where Christians—who disagree on all manner of other things—can still stand together.

These words drew me into the church when I was a child and kept me there—even though I have always been an honest doubter when it comes to matters of religion.

These words felt like a calling to me when I was in college, so much so that I went on to get my Masters of Divinity and became an ordained minister. These words sustained me for three decades because I wanted to make the world a better place, and love seemed to be the answer to every important question I had.

However, I was only a few months into my first ministry job when I ran into problems with the concept of loving thy neighbor as thyself.

I felt right at home working in the Chaplain’s Office at a small, liberal arts college. I was only a few years older than the sleep-deprived students who filled my office with their humor, big ideas and open hearts. The majority were working in soup kitchens, leading study groups in prisons, helping to build houses for low-income families and the like.

The students were fierce and earnest about loving their neighbors. In fact, they sometimes made decisions that put themselves in danger, all in the name of radical Christian love.

They were giving rides to homeless folks and sacrificing healthy doses of sleep, study time, and recreation in order to tend to the endless, gaping, personal and systemic needs of the people they befriended from the streets, prisons and projects.

It was my job to walk with them into these countercultural relationships, but it was also my job to keep them safe.

As much as I wanted to encourage their wild, reckless love, I spent much of my time trying to convince students to think practically and act carefully with their own precious lives. In every such conversation the students would say, “But I thought we were supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves!”

Here is what I have come to understand about those magic words that have meant so much to me and many others.

The instruction to love thy neighbor as thyself presupposes that we know how to love ourselves. It assumes that we know how to take good care of ourselves, that we already treat ourselves with wild, reckless, radical compassion.

Given how I feel about myself on most days, loving my neighbors as I love myself could potentially be an oppressive act. Whether it’s from being a woman, being exposed to pervasive theology of self-sacrifice, being raised amidst the cultural backdrop of competition and comparison or just being in this world where life bears down pretty hard on us all, I struggle mightily with the concept of self-love.

I recognized the same struggle within those college students back then, and I see it now in the lives of a few close friends who are willing to be vulnerable and open about their own mean self-narratives.

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend an artists’ retreat in Morocco with 11 other people whom I’d never before met. I have issues with anxiety, especially when it comes to traveling. I worried for months before the trip about how I would cope with my inner demons in the absence of my family, friends, therapist and calming daily routines of home. I worried that there would be nobody on the trip to take care of me.

And then it occurred to me that the trip would be the perfect time to experiment with a new spiritual idea I had been entertaining. I would try to love myself as I love my neighbor.

I thought about my most treasured friend, about how much I love her, about all of the little foibles that set her back and the level of compassion and understanding that flows from me every time we talk about them.

I thought about how easy it is to see the good in her, even when she cannot see it herself.

I thought about all the nice things I want to do for her, all the ways I could make her life easier, all of the things I could do to make her life more joyful and fun.

And then, during my eight days in Morocco, I worked hard to transfer these wild, reckless, radical loving thoughts to myself.

When my luggage got lost and didn’t arrive when I did, I cried, but I did not feel ashamed for feeling sad or embarrassed about wearing the same clothes for five days. I had compassion for my natural reactions. Instead of restricting my diet out of fear of weight gain, I allowed myself to enjoy the colorful bounty that was set before me at every meal. Instead of ignoring my desires for some clean clothes and exercise, I spoke up, borrowed from my trip mates, and and found a place to jog. Instead of belittling my art and comparing it with that of my colleagues during our workshops, I relished in the process and treasured what I was making.

None of this care-taking felt like my first instinct, and at every point, I had to ask myself how I would treat my most treasured friend. This is how, at the age of 38, I got my first taste of self-love.

I know that the idea of reversing such a foundational Biblical teaching comes across as offensive or brazen or blasphemous to some. I often hear criticisms that this kind of spirituality is selfish and “navel gazing.”

The preliminary results of my spiritual experiment would suggest, however, that my capacity for loving my neighbor has actually blown wide open since I made the decision to afford myself the same regard. The honest wellspring of empathy for others that I feel these days is unprecedented.

Though I have ventured far from the faith of my childhood, these things remain the same: I still want to make the world a better place, and love still seems to be the answer to every important question I have.

When the bird and the book disagree, always believe the bird. ~ James Audubon


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Author: Mary Allison Cates

Apprentice Editor: Guenevere Neufeld / Editor: Travis May

Photos: via author

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