At the end of my chaplain residency at St. Joseph’s Hospital, a volunteer who was a vital part of the chaplain’s office gave me a gift of a bead bracelet. She was a practicing Buddhist and I think the bracelet had a name, but I don’t remember. What I do remember is what she said when she gave it to me. She told me that when I feel these cold soft beads on my skin, I should remember to have compassion for myself so that I can have compassion for others.
This struck me. In all of my years of Bible study, seminary, church work and chaplaincy, I had never put these two things together. I felt like I offered good care to others because that was my job. I thought I understood and practiced self-care, but somehow, I did not connect the compassion I gave to myself with how I would treat others. I started to notice that when I made avoidable mistakes, I would berate myself silently. When I was late for an appointment, I could be unforgiving of myself. When I needed a mental break, I would tell myself that I should push through. And then, much to my dismay, I realized that outwardly I was kind, but inwardly, I had the same feelings toward others that I had for myself… I silently judged people when they made avoidable mistakes or when someone was late for an appointment, I was silently unforgiving. When someone else needed a mental break, I would wonder why they wouldn’t just push through.
This was a time of transformation for me and I began to understand Jesus’ call to love our neighbors as we love ourselves in a whole new way. In order to love others, I needed to love myself well. I was not loving myself very well when I was berating myself or being unforgiving or telling myself that I did not deserve time to slow down and heal. When I realized that I had little compassion for myself, the result was that I had little compassion for others. No matter how outwardly kind or compassionate I seemed, I was not really loving them either.
This is a stressful time and it can be hard to find any compassion in our public discourse. One of the best ways we can change this is to examine how well we love ourselves. If you feel little compassion for others these days, examine how much compassion you feel for yourself. Then, give yourself a break when you fail. Forgive yourself for the things you leave undone. Cut all ties with the demon of perfectionism. It will never be your friend or help you be a better person. Love your body and give it good food. Acknowledge your need for help and accept it when it comes, remembering we are created in the image of a God in triune community, and therefore we are made to need one another.
Loving ourselves well is counter-cultural. Our world prefers us to have a hard edge with no mercy, but we follow Jesus, who embodied loving himself well. So, follow him into the wilderness to pray when life is heavy. Follow him to dinner with friends (when we can gather safely again). Like Jesus with Mary and that expensive oil she poured out on his feet, let someone take care of you when they offer. Allow yourself to rest. When we have compassion for ourselves and love ourselves well, we are able also to love others well, offering them the same forgiveness, help, care, and grace we offer yourselves.