Over the last semester, I wrote my theology capstone over Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish religious philosopher and walking existential crisis. As I’ve had more time to reflect and more thoroughly read his writings for leisure rather than with franticly approaching deadlines, there are some ideas that I feel like I never got to fully expand upon when I was writing my paper or sometimes even flew over my head.
One such thing is his writing on self love, and what that means within the wider understanding of what it means to love.
“Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
In the gospel of John, this is the commandment that Jesus gives as being only second to the commandment to love God. Usually, when we think of this commandment, we focus on the general of it, that we are required to love others. But there often isn’t enough attention paid to the specifics.
The specific I want to closely look at and consider is the second part of the command, “as you love yourself.” The commandment in the whole is a call for outward action, to make your love known. But within the command, there is an implicit understanding that there is an inward action, that a person already, and even must, love themselves.
This might sound selfish, and it is to a certain degree. But I only think it is if you fail to recognize the first part of the command to love others, and understand that the pursuit of self love is in order to better love others.
If someone is to love others, they first need to be able to love themselves. It becomes the basis of loving others. If we don’t love ourselves, the rest of the commandment would be meaningless. If we hate ourselves the bar is set low for what me must do. The action becomes meaningless.
But what is the reason behind this? Why is that you need to love yourself to love others? The implication feels arbitrary, surely it is possible to love even when there is reason not to love yourself, to love others “more than” yourself rather than “as” yourself. And why isn’t this something worth striving for?
We often talk about compassion burnout and the importance of self care, especially within jobs or services that require continuous self giving of love. I think this captures part of the importance — that there are limits to how far you can push yourself to love, and that sometimes there is a need to physically rebalance.
I also think there is something that is more psychological. If we can’t really love ourselves, it is difficult to ask that we love others. Self love can be argued to be to a certain point, the way in which we most consistently encounter our own love. It’s the way that we best come to understand what methods and ways of thinking we need to follow to apply our love to others.
For Kierkegaard, love is something that overflows out of a God that is the complete embodiment of love, and it flows into the individual. When the individual is filled with love, they to become an embodiment of love, and it overflows from them and toward others. The love of the self isn’t just about learning to love, but about becoming this complete loving being.