Loving Thyself

Primavera (Spring) by Sandro Botticelli ca. 1470

Sometimes the chief happenings of one’s life occur in the form of inward shifts. That’s been true of me lately.

Late Saturday night, we returned from five days of neuropathy treatments in California. In the evenings, we dined with some fine people. But the main event that was personal was invisible to anyone but me.

When I first read Jerry’s God: An Autobiography, as told to a philosopher, I was particularly struck by the assertion that Jesus could love without the usual filters, cautions and inhibitors. Why? Because, given the Biblical injunction to love thy neighbor as thyself, he was able first to love himself unreservedly. Here I am talking about Jesus of Nazareth, “the carpenter’s son whom we know” – not the Christ of theology.

Huh! I thought. That’s interesting.

I wonder how you do that.

Nota bene: I am not talking here about “self-esteem.” My friend the late Shirley Kennedy, an award-winning barrel racer, once told me that some of the hardest events had been eliminated from recent rodeos lest inability to perform in them lower the self-esteem of potential competitors. 

Needless to say, if my “self-esteem” hung on a competition rigged so that I couldn’t lose, it would be a tiny thing indeed.

In fact, I really didn’t know what it meant to be a Lover-of-Oneself and whether it designated a class with no members.  

I did know what it was like to have one’s feelings of self-worth bruised or eroded. And I knew what it felt like to fight for one’s footing in the world. Or to resist challenges to one’s integrity. In my field of philosophy, I knew how one went about exploring a view of reality that seemed incompatible with one’s own previously-held view – even at the risk of discovering that one had been mistaken. I also knew what it meant to make a choice that seemed to be the right one – and stick to it through every discouraging setback and hurdle until one had either confirmed it in every feasible way or else found by experience that one’s earlier view or choice was unsustainable.

You might call me a dialectically serious person. It’s been my intention to say what I meant and mean what I said. But to “love myself”? I did that, so far as I knew, only in the sense that, in my own life, I refused to settle for Plan B prematurely – until and unless I was quite sure that all the other available options were worse. But that was not about loving myself. It was more like a question of sincerity. If what you really want is a husband, don’t get a cat. Don’t be a phony. Your cat will see through you.

So the features of my sole self that I could approve had to do with loving truth. Not necessarily with loving the self-of-Abigail. Or so it seemed to me.

Meanwhile, I kept the thought about Jesus’s capacity for unfiltered love in brackets, filing it (so to speak) under “for eventual consideration,” and didn’t trouble my little head about it further.

Until this past week in California. The treatments were particularly exhausting this time. At his Loma Linda Hospital-affiliated clinic, Mark Bussell has found an approach that allows him to take more precise measurements as well as locate sites of inflammation more accurately. As a result, my body got more of an overhaul than usual and I was too tired to do anything much in the afternoons but doze and let whatever images appeared just float down the river of consciousness.

That’s when the inner shift came about. I was too tired to do anything but dream and muse. Here’s what came into my mind:

Suppose, experimentally,

I tried aiming the best love I can –

on me – Abigail.

If I did that, what would happen? Of course, Abigail doesn’t live in a vacuum. She lives with a pretty full complement of memories. Including painful ones. So I tried to love the-Abigail-I-am in the presence of some particularly trying, infuriating, or depressing occurrences. The kind that you replay to get right this time at last, but can’t get right even when replayed the hundredth time with nobody butting in to stop you.

Here’s such a sample memory that I just tried out for the first time now, while writing this. It’s an incident from years past and I don’t think anyone who was at that dinner will be reading this, so I can call it up for general viewing.  

I was visiting a southern woman friend in New Orleans over Thanksgiving. My friend had cooked a traditional festive dinner and, besides me, had invited three other guests. These included a local couple – a woman friend and her husband. The other was a then boyfriend of my hostess, Jewish as it happened, who was given to referring to his Jewishness in demeaning and vulgar epithets. No doubt the boyfriend thought that, by “saying it first,” he would self-protectively get ahead of slings and arrows coming from other people.  

His strategy was flawed in many ways. Rather than prevent bigotry, it stoked it. (“If even he says it, surely it must be true,” goes the reaction.) Additionally, it made him utterly unable to defend a co-religionist, at whom the same epithets could now be flung with social impunity – even had he been minded to defend her.

As I turned toward this desecrator-of-the-Name to express some personal disavowal of his style of being Jewish, the other woman guest said to me, “There are no [plural anti-semitic epithet] in your family?”

I stared at her, silenced by the following silencers: (1) not wanting to spoil the Thanksgiving festival so carefully prepared by my hostess; (2) not wanting to quarrel with the woman friend of my woman friend; (3) feeling a guest’s duty of politeness; (4) not wanting to attack – and thereby prompt a display of – my friend’s execrable choice in boyfriends. 

Obviously, the scene has stayed with me through the years: exhibit A in the evidence for my ineptitude at the social art of gracefully, wittily, holding-one’s-own.

Now what does it look like if I add a powerful inflow of self-love to Abigail at the Dinner Party in New Orleans? I need only turn to the woman guest, since she had addressed me personally, to say, in the mildest, smiling tones, but with finality, 

“I’m sorry, but you may not speak to me that way.”

Now I ask you, isn’t that amazing?

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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