I have been meditating on this balance in life that we struggle to strike between the call to be humble and the call to compassion, especially self-compassion.
In prayer the other evening, I read through David J. Muyskens‘ chapter on “Letting Go of Esteem,” in which he encourages drawing from the concepts of Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating‘s true self and false self to parse this balance.
Muyskens writes, “The false self desires control, security, affection. I am created to be my true self- like God- unselfish, loving, and forgiving, in the image of Christ. ‘Self-esteem,’ then stems from divine love, not my selfish desires…” (Sacred Breath 70).
A friend of mine who tutors children recently told me that when her kids seem down or depressed, she tries to give them encouragement from the premise that God loves them, just as they are, no matter what, and they’ve got nothing to prove to anyone. By tapping into their true self, she feels that she can give children the source to cultivate self-confidence and also self-compassion that is immune to the struggles of everyday life.
Even when we know God loves us, we are still subject to the feelings of others around us, but a new article suggests many of us are our own harshest critics. This article that ran in the New York Times last February claims that going easy on yourself, or “dealing gently with yourself,” as I like to call it, is healthy. Still, many of us who can deal gently with others, subject ourselves to harsh criticism and ridicule. The article points out that many of us are so afraid of self-indulgence that we don’t treat ourselves with the same respect we give others. “Self-compassion is really conducive to motivation,” Dr. Neff said. “The reason you don’t let your children eat five big tubs of ice cream is because you care about them. With self-compassion, if you care about yourself, you do what’s healthy for you rather than what’s harmful to you.”
I think it comes down to not only our image of ourselves but our image of God. Do we serve a God who harps on our weaknesses, who wants to “take us down a peg,” who wants us to be paralyzed by our sins and our inadequacies, or do we serve a God who loves us in spite of our faults, wants us to pick ourselves up and keep going despite our failures, and wants us to see ourselves in God’s own image, to know we are loved and the we are always loved?
I think that while it isn’t easy to let go of our esteem, the esteem of the world, and practice self-compassion, I do know that with God, all things are possible.