Monday, February 20, 2012

Loving your neighbour as yourself

The sentimentalist in me came out last week upon learning of the sudden demise of the singer Whitney Houston.  I grew up listening to her music.  Searching my iTunes playlist, I listened wistfully to her powerful and emotive singing, and tried to understand how someone who shot to stardom and riches in such a meteoric way could end up falling the same way. 

When my ears landed on the words of “The Greatest Love of All”, the phrase that caught my attention was “… learning to love yourself, is the greatest love of all.”  In a way, that is the truth of life in a nutshell, apart from the fact that this love has to stem from the fact that we know that we are first loved by God and love him as our first love.  The royal rule of “love your neighbour as yourself” is a corollary to loving God first.  If this love is inordinate in any way, it can easily turn into a very egocentric and self-serving love.  The problem I have with Ms Houston is that I am not truly convinced that she meant what she was singing.  True, her rendition was flawless.  All emoted at the right places, and with a tone that was rich and velvety at the same time.  Besides, she had the armfuls of Grammy Awards to prove it.  But whether she loved herself in a healthy and positive way is something that many struggle to believe. 

Why do we need to love ourselves?  For the simple reason that God finds us lovable.  The "Choice" programme, an offshoot of the Worldwide Marriage Encounter movement, has a very pithy but real statement that says, “God does not make junk”.  It was one of the first things that I recall being fundamental when I took part in my  Choice weekend about three decades ago.  I am sure that the writers and founders of the programme knew that teenagers often grow up in an environment where there is so much self-doubt and negative self-image.  Today’s youth are not that much a different bunch.  I have seen this with my own eyes. 

When we do not grow up with a healthy self-love, based on the fact that we are first loved unconditionally by God and given the grace to love, it becomes very easy for us to look to anyone, anything or substance to find the validation that our human nature seems to crave.  Good parenting is evidently at work when children grow up confident (and this is different from being arrogant and cocky) that they are loved, and it gives them the strength and ability to love others with a confidence that doesn’t demand a return of love.  This is rare in people, both in youth and in adults, and even great saints struggle with altruistic love. 

Truth be told, as Henri Nouwen said, our lives seem to be a moving from living in a house of fear, to living in house of love.  In this regard then, a saint is the one who dares to make that determined albeit difficult move from one house to the other without looking back at what he or she has left behind.

But most of our lives are instead a constant shifting between the two houses.  While we hope that there is some magical formula or easy way to help us to attain that healthy love that Jesus talks about, unfortunately, that is wishful thinking.  Loving ourselves healthily is never automatic.  Moving to that second house is a hard task.  It takes hard work, and it helps when our parents and the village that it took to raise us up are demonstrative examples of how to love both God and neighbour. 

Then and only then, can we really sing the last line of Ms Houston’s song when we can “… find (y)our strength in love”.


  1. I like and agree with what you said about - “The royal rule of “love your neighbour as yourself” is a corollary to loving God first, “ and that you doubt that Houston really loved herself in a healthy and positive manner. However, to be able to love self , one has to find himself/herself first. Do we really know ourselves?

    Our beloved Blessed(?) Pope John –Paul II has this to say about the ‘Self ’- that Man cannot “ fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” ( Gaudium et Spes,24) According to him, one has to give of oneself, one’s very “I,” – opening this ‘I’ to the other person. He was teaching about who is a “Neighbour” and what loving a neighbour entails. To do as he says - means that one has to develop a certain sensitivity and compassion for others and more demanding still is the attitude of ‘availability’ and I think that when one does that one becomes very vulnerable too. So I believe that loving one’s neighbour can only be possible- as an act of the will working in tandem with Divine grace!

    I wonder.... if - circumstances make it well nigh impossible for us to lend a helping hand, yet we are deeply moved by the misfortune/sufferings of others – does this standing in solidarity and compassionate love with the sufferer make us good neighbours too?
    God bless you, Fr

  2. Hi Fr Luke,
    Had been following your blog on and off and benefited much from it. This thing about loving oneself is much reflected in the act of going to Mass as I would be going for my 1st Sunday of Lent after this entry. In our local mentality over here, the word, "Pai seh" in Hokkien or shy and unworthy in English is rampant thinking and very much a way of life.

    As Catholics, we believe God's presence in the Holy Eucharist and in every Mass during the consecration of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. We go to receive this Great Love and do we feel "pai seh" as well? If we are truly not, then we must have great faith or we either take it for granted and just go through the motion.

    We say the word, Lord I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof...and come off the Mass none the better week after week!

    Lord, I can't love myself enough to receive you worthily... I need your grace to heal my soul for the many times I took your love for granted. Am I going to Mass to repeat this tragedy again? No! You invited me and no matter how unworthy I am at this moment, I come as your baptised son and respond to your Love by saying YES one more time.

    Pray for me that I may ultimately see God in Person on my last Mass and that Mother Mary come to bring me over to Your Presence on my departure from Planet Earth. Amen.