As You Love Yourself

A Blog inspired by a Sermon on Mark 12:29-31 (the great commandments)

Near the University of Washington in Seattle is an apartment that has been dubbed the “love lab” by the media.

With the exception of the bedrooms and the bathrooms, there are cameras designed to capture interactions between couples.

These people, who have consented to be studied by researchers about love, have been set up with monitors for their physiological reactions to each other such as heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and blood chemistry.

The couples are asked to treat their stay in the love lab like a mini vacation and to interact as normally as possible.

Researcher John Gottman, of the University of Washington, set up this apartment/laboratory to study  the interactions of couples – those who he considers “masters of love” and those who struggle. At times Gottman simply oberserves the couples interacting and other times he directs their conversation, such as suggesting that they talk about a persistent area of disagreement in their relationship.

I will share some of Gottman’s more significant findings a little later, but for right now what I want you to notice is the assumption that love can be researched, studied, examined in a laboratory setting. Love can be coded and dissected in order to be understood more deeply. EEG’s, EKG’s, heart monitors, and microscopes can measure its effects on human beings.  In other words, the skills to love can be learned. Loving behaviors, thoughts, and actions are all skills that can be described, taught, practiced, and learned.

This is remarkably similar to the assumptions that I think underlie the passage that we are considering today. If love can be commanded, if Love is indeed the two greatest of commandments, then love can be chosen. People can – and do, everyday – make choices for or against love. Love can be chosen, learned, practiced, and improved.  You and I can learn to love. 

I want to offer a few thoughts about learning to love from the passage as a whole and then focus on the last four words:  “as you love yourself.”  I pray that God will teach us to love as we reflect upon this passage. I pray that during these moments we will learn some things that will help us love more competently, and that we will commit to loving and learning to love.

I see this passage as inviting us to have loving relationships with ourselves, other people, and God.  Love God with all of yourself.  Love your neighbor as you love yourself.  The commonality in the two is you. Yourself. Your choices to love. Your willingness to learn to love.  I would go so far as to say that the purpose of our life, our calling, our relationships is to learn to love – God, ourselves, and other people.

Love God with all of yourself implies that we value all of who we are – our hearts, our minds, our souls, our strength (or in more modern language , we love God with our bodies, our will, our emotions, our thoughts, our purpose and calling). Ideally, we value all of who we are enough to bring ourselves to God with love. We love and respect all of who we are enough to love God WITH ourselves. We trust that God invites our love and will receive it gladly.

I also think of this greatest commandment as a reciprocal relationship. Part of loving God includes allowing God to love us – receiving God’s love. In Paul Tillich’s words, “Accept your Acceptance.” Grace strikes and we accept God’s acceptance of us. This sermon of Tillich’s titled “You are Accepted” can be found in a collection of sermons entitled The Shaking of the Foundations. The book is aptly titled, because truly loving and being loved, being accepted and accepting our acceptance, can shake the foundations of our lives. We may discover that assumptions and habits are being changed! We are learning to love.

Whenever something has been shaken up in our lives – whatever it is – we need love. We need to learn to love. We need these commandments. They help us; they ground us; they bring us safely through.  We need to love ourselves enough to bring all of who we are to our relationship with God and love God. We need to love ourselves enough to receive God’s love. We need our neighbors, and we need to learn to love them as we are loving ourselves.

We can learn to love. Gottman’s research can teach us a few things about loving our neighbors. After all, in the literal sense of the word neighbor, our closest neighbors are the people we live with. I believe that his findings can also be applied to loving God and to loving ourselves.

In my opinion, one of Gottman’s more important findings is that people respond to each other in one of three ways: turn toward the other, turn away from the other, and turn against the other. In Gottman’s “love lab” he saw these behaviors in small, everyday interactions. Repeated, they had significant effects on the relationships. Gottman recognized the importance of small things to grow into big things. Jesus spoke of how small things can change the structure or flavor of big things – mustard seeds, yeast, salt, and lost coins for example.

Gottman spoke of the importance of small things in relationships. An example is that during the “vacation weekend” experience at times partners would be in the same room but doing different things – one reading a magazine while the other works a crossword puzzle for example. One would often seek to start a small, everyday conversation with the other.  “I just read an interesting article . . .” or “What’s a five letter word for . . . .?” Gottman calls these interaction bids for attention.

The partner’s response is important. Sometimes people turned toward the other. That looks like putting down what you are doing and engaging the other person. Sometimes people turned away from the other person. This looks like grunting and moving the magazine closer, or turning your back on the other person and continuing to do the crossword puzzle. Turning away can look subtle, not like fighting but it is harmful to relationships. Sometimes people turned against the other person. This looks like saying something like, “You stupid idiot, can’t you see that I’m reading. Why are you interrupting me?” or  saying sarcastically, “Well any 5 year old would know the answer to that clue. I can’t believe you didn’t get it. What’s the matter with you? You’re so stupid!?”

Not surprisingly, the masters of relatioship turned toward their partners, while those who were struggling in their relationships turned away or against. Following up with couples six years later, Gottman found that couples who had divorced in the six years since being studied had turned toward each other 33% of the time, which is roughly 3 of every 10 bids for attention. He found that couples who were still married after 6 years had turned toward each other 87% of the time, which is almost 9 of 10 times. (according to a summary in Catholic today online). Turning toward each other was a small act, that done consistently over time, contributed to a couple’s success. It seems to me that this behavior is helpful in other kinds of human relationships as well.

These patterns can also be seen in relationships with God. Sometimes we turn toward God when we experience a bid for attention from God. Sometimes we turn away  saying in effect “I’m too busy.” “Not now.”  Sometimes, sadly, we turn against God with behavior that is hurtful. Just to be clear, I see being honest with God, even with our anger and pain as turning toward God, not turning away or against. It is turning toward because it improves or corrects problems in the relationship leading to more closeness, not less.

We can learn to love God by practicing turning toward God. We can recognize and correct our behavior when we discover that we are turning away from God or against God.  We can learn to love our neighbors by practicing turning toward them. We can recognize and correct ourselves when we discover that we are turning way from them or turning against them. Finally, we can learn to love ourselves by turning toward ourselves. We can recognize and correct our behavior when we discover that we are turning away from ourself or turning against ourself.

Now, I want to offer a few reflections about the phrase “as you love yourself” in this passage. Love your neighbor AS you love yourself. I think of it as meaning “love your neighbor while you are loving yourself.” When we do what’s loving to our neighbors, if we meet the standard of Jesus, it will also be loving to ourselves. AND when we do what is loving to ourselves, by the standard of Jesus it will also be loving to our neighbors. We miss the mark if we love our neighbors while hating and disrespecting ourselves. We also miss the mark if we love ourselves while hating or disrespecting our neighbors. It is a both/and calling, not an either/or calling.

In modern language, this commandment can be seen as inviting a win/win attitude about relationships. I win AND you win is the result of loving our neighbors as/while we are loving ourselves. I win/you lose falls short. I lose/you win falls short. I lose/you lose definitely falls short. Steven Covey tells a story of a businessman who told Covey that win/win doesn’t work in business. He said that he had entered a negotiation thinking win/win rather that I win and it doesn’t matter what happens to you. The businessman said that the result was, “They took us to the Cleaners!”  Covey’s response was telling, “Why did you go for lose/win?”

When this man tried to change from win/ lose to win/win he inadvertently, perhaps unconsciously, chose to go to lose/win. As we try to make this change, we may find ourselves also shifting to lose/win rather than to win/win. This is one reason that people think win/win does not work. It is one reason that people think love your neighbor AS you love yourself does not work. Often when they shift to loving their neighbors they shift away from loving themselves. But the good news is that we can learn to do both at once.

In our world we are often conditioned to assume that relationships have to be either lose/win or win/lose. The command, “Love your Neighbor As you love yourself” invites us to aim for win/win. Or as I think of it Love/Love. Love neighbor/love self at the same time and with the same actions. Anything else is less than we are called to be and to do and to learn how to do. 

Finally, I think there is a hidden, third command in this passage – “you love yourself.”  This phrase assumes, like modern psychology does, that there are several parts or aspects of ourselves. We hear this assumption in common language all the time, as people say things like, “A part of me wants to do this and a part of me wants to do that.” This passage assumes that there is a part of us that loves – the you in “you love yourself.” There is also a part of us that needs love – the yourself in “you love yourself.” We are called to choose for the part of us that can love to love the part of us that needs love. Let me say that again, You are called to choose for the part of you that can love to love the part of you that needs love. You love yourself.  Relating to ourselves in that way is at the heart of everything. It is at the heart of loving God with all that we are. It is at the heart of loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.

“You love yourself.” It is commanded. It is possible. You can choose to love yourself. You can learn to love yourself. Spiritual practices, therapists, spiritual guides, CPE supervisors, coaches, and professors can help you learn to love yourself.  Even though learning to love yourself is a lifelong complex journey, I want to leave you with a few simple and small ideas.

You will be tempted to turn away from the part of you that needs love. You may even be tempted to turn against the part of you that needs help. This looks like ignoring the part of you that needs love. It looks like being contemptuous or berating toward the part of you that needs love, perhaps even despising your humanness. Don’t do it. Don’t fall into temptation. Ask for God’s help. Learn and practice outsmarting temptation as Jesus did. Henri Nouwen says that Jesus was tempted to be relevant, powerful, and spectacular during the 40 days in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry.  Jesus made loving choices instead – he chose worship, trust, presence, and ministry. He chose to love God with all of who he was and to love his  neighbors as he loved himself.

These are also choices that you can make. You love yourself. Talk to yourself with love and respect. Be kind, gentle, and soft as you talk to yourself. Turn toward yourself. When part of you says, “I need sleep, I need healthy food,  I need to move.” listen and turn toward that part of you that needs love. Choose loving thoughts and behaviors. When part of you says, “I need a plan. I need to study not to be distracted,” listen. Turn toward the part of you that that needs love. Choose to love yourself.. Take loving actions.

Love yourself, others and God by seeking win/win and love/love in all your interactions. Practice and learn these skills. Experiment and improve. Get help from other people. Accept your acceptance. Turn toward yourself, other people, and God. Commit to Learning to Love. Love God with yourself. Love your neighbors while you are also loving yourself. You love yourself.

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