Recently, the Sunday Gospel centered on the two great commandments: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39) The Golden Rule, right? I’ve heard it since kindergarten. And yet, I was struck by the assumption in the second commandment. It presumes we already love ourselves. Jesus doesn’t explicitly say first love God, then love yourself, and then love your neighbor. But the simple reality is: in order to love your neighbor well, you’ve got to love yourself.
This new insight came to me because I’ve just emerged from what felt like a period of darkness, in which I felt embarrassed about being newly married. Why wasn’t I reveling in the “bliss” that everyone talks about? During our first few months of marriage I actually felt pretty lonely. Andy and I work in two different cities, so we found an apartment that’s halfway between them, in a very suburban town. Being away from the communities which we had formed (primarily in Boston) left me feeling a lot more isolated in our new town. Additionally, being busy at work, what little free time I did have I spent with Andy rather than friends. I did not realize how hard this isolation was being on me until we visited my parents in September. It was the first time we had seen them since our wedding. When they asked me, “How’s married life?” it was very different from the way I had received the question in passing from other people. It was from the sincere and honest depths of a parent’s heart. And, in response, I opened up with a well of emotion. I realized how much I was struggling. The weekend was full of tears and encouraging pep talks.
Don’t get me wrong, Andy makes me so happy. He is the coolest and the cutest guy around. And he is quite literally my most intimate neighbor now. I share my home and my heart with him. The problem is that I don’t always make myself happy. And in order to love him well, I have to love myself.
My parents assured me what I was going through was normal, that transitions are always hard. But they also identified things I hadn’t wanted to acknowledge. I hadn’t been taking care of myself. I wasn’t running, or eating as well. I had been making alcohol too much of a relaxation habit. And I hadn’t been praying or journaling as much. My mom knows me well enough to know that I’m not happy with myself unless I feel good about my body and how I am treating it. And so, throughout the summer, I had developed a lot of insecurities, which were weighing me down and definitely affecting how I was in relationship with Andy. I had been trying so hard to spend time with him and focus on building this new life together, but in doing so, I was not taking time for myself and my external supports.
After the weekend with my parents, my mom called and initiated a 30-day challenge of healthy eating, exercise and prayer for us to do together. I ran more, ate my daily dose of greens, drank herbal tea rather than wine, and spent more time in prayer. I also acknowledged my sense of isolation to some friends and received so much love in return. Throughout the challenge, I received a ton of encouragement from Andy. He was my cheerleader as I pulled myself out of bed to go for a run in the morning and made some delicious healthy dinners to enjoy at the end of a long day. I even pulled him out of bed last weekend to go for a long power walk with me. Now that’s marital bliss!
Andy is my number one partner in crime, my best buddy, my neighbor, and love. But the love I have for myself can’t merely come from him. Intellectually, I know that. I’ve always known that. But it’s easy to fall into unhealthy patterns that leave me pining for my sense of self-worth. It has to come from within, in the context of my relationship with God and mirrored in healthy relationships with a larger community. And all of that will make me a better neighbor to Andy and to others.