Yesterday, I walked into an audiology office for a hearing test and new set of hearing aids. As I’m getting fitted, I hear at full volume again for the first time in weeks. And it’s a revelation. My own voice seems odd to me, the doctor’s tone is so vivid, the sounds of the world are so clear again.
So I say to the audiologist: No wonder I’ve been so tired the past few weeks. I’ve been trying to process everything through this fog of fuzzy hearing. She gave me a knowing look and said: Your brain’s been working really hard just to keep up. Of course you’d be tired.
Suddenly, it was as if I was in therapy or confession. That brief moment of empathy was so unburdening, I didn’t know if I wanted to hug her or cry; instead, I just leaned back and took what felt like my first deep breath in weeks.
I’m not always much for these lingering deep breaths. I prize my toughness, stoicism, and independence. I’ve run marathons, one of them on a balky Achilles. When I joined a rowing studio, I trained until I had the most meters rowed per week. I know how to ignore pain and carry on. But perhaps this is sometimes more curse than gift.
The reason I was in that audiology office was because I had lost one of my hearing aids in a bike accident, the same accident in which I bruised my ribs, hip, leg and knee, while sustaining a concussion and knocking my bike out of whack. And that accident came on top of a long head cold and respiratory congestion that was long and fierce enough that it settled into a case of pneumonia in one of my kids. The Sunday just after the accident, while I was still sick, I joked at church that I’d felt a little spacey all week and could never know if it was the head cold, the concussion, or the missing hearing aid. So many options to explain my low energy and the fog in my head!
Do you know what I did last month, though? I soldiered through. I met my obligations, even taking on an extra work project that I didn’t have to, and didn’t take a sick day. When I took a few days vacation off, it was to drive my daughter 1400 miles in five days to visit colleges around the Northeast. All month, I kept pushing, aware now and then that my energy and mood were low, that I was just so tired. But not once did I ask: how do I slow down and take care of myself? What do I need right now? How can I love myself?
It turns out that many of us have difficulties loving ourselves, and these difficulties sometimes have pretty deep roots. I follow the work of the social psychologist and public theologian Christena Cleveland, who is publishing a great deal of provocative content on justice and renewal on her patreon account. In a February post on mindful self-compassion, she cited that most of us are far more compassionate toward loved ones in distress than we are to ourselves. She also discussed how we can learn to become more self-compassionate and start to reap the many benefits that come with that.
I recalled Dr. Cleveland’s words as I reflected on my revelation in the audiology office. They were an echo of some of the most significant inner work I did throughout 2018, both in months of therapy and in a year’s worth of prayer, following the 19th annotation of the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius. If God loves me as much as I hope, as much as my faith has taught me, as much as the Bible assures me, then perhaps I can learn to love myself.
There’s a lot to say about learning to love oneself as God loves us. I gave two sermons on this topic early this year. Even there, I was only scratching the surface, and obviously I’m very much a learner here myself. But one thing I’m learning is that to love myself, what I need matters. It’s not all that matters, for sure, but it doesn’t not matter. What I need matters to me, and it matters to the God who made and loves me as well.
So for a while, each morning, I’m going to start asking myself in the presence of God: What do I need today?
The funny thing is, this doesn’t only matter to me and to God, but it seems to matter to others in my life as well.
After the Spirit of God did that thing through the audiologist and gave me permission to admit how exhausted I’d been, I took a few minutes to sit with that self-knowledge, said sorry to myself for neglecting my needs, and talked to God about how God loves me, how God has room for my needs.
And you know what, that work of self-compassion didn’t seem to make me more self-centered, but less. Rather than lead toward self-indulgence, I noticed some movement toward a more empowered, more compassionate, and more generous life. Later that day, I had a more wholehearted conversation with someone I love but don’t always show that to very well. I also had a clearer head for a project I was thinking about. And a persistent work-related anxiety was triggered, and I experienced less worry. I thought: that’s a much smaller deal than I have made it out to be.
See, I may be harder on myself than on anyone else in my life, but hating myself does have an impact. My self-criticism starts with me, but radiates out into the lives of those closest to me, making me a harsher critic, less tolerant of weakness and difficulty. And the particular form of self-hatred that disregards my own needs saps me of life.
In one of the high points of the Bible’s spiritual reflections, the apostle John tells us, “God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them.” (I John 4:16) Likely John is remembering the many things Jesus said about the centrality of love in the abundant life God offers. Or perhaps he’s remembering Jesus’ practice of the great love of laying down his life for his friends. Or maybe simply remembering how much Jesus loved him; with no embarrassment, John gave himself the nickname, “the disciple Jesus loved.”
You and I too are the friends of Jesus that Jesus loves. If God loves me, maybe it’s time I stop hating myself. Maybe you too.