I hear it often: “If a person doesn’t love himself, first, he can’t love others.” Frequently, that sentiment is followed by “And if he can’t love himself, no one else can love him, either.” If that’s true, a person who can’t love himself is sentenced to a truly cold and hopeless existence. It condemns him to either find a way to love the unlovable or to accept emotional isolation; being shunned by the only people who could possibly reach him. There’s no way out for him, because it’s not really a choice. It is a penalty.

Why might a person be unable to love himself? There are hundreds of reasons. Recollections of past thoughts or actions. Recognition of attitudes or behaviors that fly in the face of accepted social mores. Belief in his inability to be the kind of person others would be willing or able to love. Regret about actions taken, or not taken, that would have proven his decency or his humanity. The list is as endless as the shades of human thought and behavior; it goes on and on and on.

Whatever the reason for a person’s self-loathing, if that’s what it is, the inability to love oneself is far easier to tolerate and to accept than the belief that others might find him unlovable. That is the soul-crushing aspect of a person’s failure to find self-love within; he is told his inability to love himself is just cause for others to feel the same about him. So, not only is his loathing of the person he lives with every moment of his life his fault, so is the fact that others can’t love him, either. It’s all on his shoulders. The only way out is to, somehow, find a way to love himself. That’s not even remotely possibly without help.

I know this. I’ve written, or at least thought, my way through these characters. Every facet of their personalities. They will not, cannot, change without some form of intervention. Usually a painful, embarrassing, chaotic intervention. And those interventions often fail to achieve the desired outcomes. They drive him deeper into a dark hole where he buries himself under more and more condemnatory accusations that he is unworthy of love.

The more unworthy he feels, the more unworthy he appears. His defenses against the pain of being unworthy of love become offenses against those who would love him, but for his behavior. The only way to break the cycle is for someone who matters to him to lie to him; make him believe he is worthy, even though he might not be. That’s the kind of intervention that might work, but often fails. But to get to that point, someone who has suffered the agony of dealing with him and his inability to love himself must be willing to wade through even more suffering and risk even more. That person is the hero in the story, if he or she succeeds; he or she becomes the savior. But if the outcome is failure, no one emerges victorious. Everyone is further damaged. The attempt at salvation becomes a tragedy of the human spirit; love is burned in effigy and its ashes are smeared in the rubble of humanity.

These are the kinds of thoughts that can make for a depressing day. But that’s just what emerged this morning, so they are what I’ve written about. I’ve been thinking about people I write about and how they sometimes suffer. I think understanding them helps me write more convincingly about them. Experiencing what they experience, though, is sometimes too hard. So I have to lay it out as an abstraction and attribute it to two-dimensional characters. That makes it easier to peel away, as if they were sheets of paper or layers of an onion.

This morning, I will go to Jackson House to help prepare and serve meals to people who are hungry. I am going alone, as my wife has said she is not interested in going. Maybe I’m doing it in an attempt to make up for my own failings. I’d like to think I’m doing it because I feel compassion for the people I will help feed, but I’m afraid that’s only a fraction of my motivation. I’m afraid my motives are more selfish than selfless. I’m afraid it’s  like praying, in the hope the light of my good deeds will dim the spotlight on my faults.

Last night, I met with volunteers who will participate with me in organizing and orchestrating the church services auction in April. Though I agreed to participate, I wouldn’t call my decision to do so a voluntary act; I allowed my own guilt at considering refusal to push me toward doing it. I did it two years ago. I have little interest in doing it again. But I guess no one else offered and so I am the default fallback. And, rather than balk, I readily acquiesced to the gentle inquiry as to whether I would do it again.

There, again, is a difficult situation. I don’t want to do it, but if I refused, I would feel like I am being selfish. Yet by accepting I feel I am an easy mark who can’t say “no.” No matter which way I go, I feel it’s a no-win situation for me. I just want to withdraw from everything and everyone. Just uncoil and unwind and remove the tensile strain of being pulled in directions my mind and body do not want to go. But it’s not external forces. I’m not being pulled. I’m pushing myself. I’m allowing myself to be cajoled and coaxed, not shoved and dragged. It’s not “them,” it’s me. I am the one doing it to myself. Willingly, but against my will; it doesn’t have to make sense to be true.

I don’t feel like showering or shaving this morning. I may do neither. I can fake looking presentable before going to Jackson House. I hope. But if I don’t succeed at faking it, so be it. At the moment, it doesn’t matter. I’ll just go feed the hungry and be done with it.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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4 Responses to Straining

  1. Thanks, Bev. I know you are right. And I do need to put on the brakes. It frankly rarely occurs to me that I may still be recovering my strength and stamina from my health issues; that may well be the reason I want to and need to say “not now,” at the very least.

  2. bev says:

    Just an opinion. I used to let myself get sucked into all kinds of volunteer roles or tasks that I didn’t actually want to do. That left me with no time to do the things I wanted to do – many of which were more meaningful tasks that might actually make a difference to the world. These days, I always ask myself, “Do I actually want to do this thing?” If the answer is no, I just say so. As you probably know from recent FB posts, I’ve been putting a lot of time into environmental issues and projects. I get asked to do a lot of stuff “on the side”. Would I mind driving to Yarmouth to give an evening presentation on saving old growth forests (180 mile round trip). Could I come to a meeting in Halifax on a Sunday afternoon (200 mile round trip). Can I be one of the speakers at a naturalist club meeting about protecting forests (160 mile round trip). It kind of never ends. I’m at an age where I just can do all of this stuff AND keep up with my own life, care for my dogs, care for myself, do the forest advocacy that is important to me — groundtruthing forests, organizing local outings, meeting with politicians, writing tons of letters… and so on. If I were to try to do what I’m asked to do, I’d blow a fuse. We all have to work within our limitations. You’ve got health issues that you have to deal with. You’ve been through a hell of a lot over the past year. Your energy reserves probably aren’t all that robust yet. You’ve had a busy life — make time for yourself. My advice is to be a good steward to your body and your spirit. Don’t push yourself any more than feels comfortable or pleasant. When you feel yourself putting on the brakes, it’s time to listen to yourself. It sounds to me like you’re saying “no”. Sorry if it seems like I’m being stern about this — but actually, I am. I feel very strongly about protecting ourselves from over committing. It happens so easily — too easily.

  3. Thank you very much for your comments. Bari. I appreciate your words.

  4. Bari says:

    Good morning, John. I read your Blog today and I must comment on how much your words touched me. As I am rather shy and not at all articulate, I appreciate your honest heart felt thoughts. Thank you, your friend, Bari

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