I wonder if the language of self-love and self-acceptance is the right kind of language to wrap around the problem of personal psychological development. Without question, there is something right about it. There is a place where you have to come to terms with yourself before you can encounter the “other” properly. In popular parlance, “You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others.” It often gets extended to, “You have to love yourself before you can love others.” Who can really deny the experience of someone who participates in destructive behavior toward others because their lack of self-acceptance and self-love? It is an aspect of most of our everyday lives.
I’m just wondering if it is ultimately the right language to use to talk about the problem. If we follow a more Buddhist sensibility, the ultimate end is not to come to self-love — though there is a certain sense in which one needs to extend compassion even to the self — but, the ultimate goal is the realization that there is no “self.” This seems a different animal than the popular sentiment about self-love and acceptance. In the Christian monastic tradition, the experience is quite similar to the Buddhist practice. More and more of the “self” is stripped away. There are fewer and fewer identifiers that we get to claim as our “self.” So, all of the things we think of as necessary to our identity, are claims that we lay down at the foot of the cross. I no longer get to claim my religious identity (Jew or Gentile), my political status (slave or free), or even my sexual identity (male or female) as essential. In the Christian way, when everything is stripped away, there is only Jesus left, and you ironically become more authentically who you are.
So the language of “self-acceptance,” as an intrinsic process to self-actualization may not be the best language. Rather, we might better speak in terms of realizing more deeply that we are accepted. In the end, this is important because of the negative aspect of the language of self-acceptance. That is, if you wait until you’ve got it all together, you will never take action. Not long ago, a friend came to me after an incredibly difficult year. His practice was off, and the places where he normally encountered the divine had become barren. Things were dry everywhere, and he couldn’t find a way to reconnect in meditation and prayer. I immediately said, “Go find a place to help poor people. Then you don’t have to wonder where God is. God will be standing right in front of you.”
I think this is right. Sometimes, we learn about our own acceptance by accepting others even when we don’t feel like doing it. We don’t always accept ourselves and then accept others. Sometimes the order is, accept others and you learn that you also have been accepted. If that is the case, then there must be a middle way between the self-destructive behavior of people who lash out at others because they don’t accept themselves and the self-abusive behavior of imagining that there aren’t limits to our ability to help others. The language of “self-acceptance” doesn’t really strike me as the middle way because it is ultimately focussed on the self. The great spiritual traditions of the East and the West seem to suggest that the motions of “self-acceptance” might better be framed from outside the personal psychological experience.
Finding middle ways makes me sound even more Taoist and Buddhist than I probably am, but I’m OK with that. I’m not really trying to hold on to my religious identity that tightly.