The notion that loving ourselves is a prerequisite to knowing unconditioned love of another has circulated for decades, centuries, millennia. Most major belief systems include some form of it (e.g., Christianity, Buddhism, etc). These kind of mantras become so flippantly prolific that we fail to pay them the mind they’re due. We overlook them, thinking, “Oh, I’ve heard that before.” Yes, but do we fully understand?
Of late, I’ve found that there are many subtle layers to “love thyself.” I have always struggled with the notion that “love of the self” must come before “love of another”. Some of us, many of us, constantly struggle with self-esteem. But lack of confidence does not equate to a lack of love. It just means we have yet to discover “unconditioned” love. Moreover, many of us learn what love can be through our initial romances. While familial love is implicit (for the lucky ones) and often taken for granted, love freely given takes on another formative role. We learn HOW to love ourselves through the love someone else shows us. So, no, I do not believe the widespread notion that we must wait for the divine inspiration of completely loving ourselves before entering into a loving relationship.
Mind you, there are some of us, unfortunately, who believe that our lack of self-esteem can ONLY be fixed through the love of another. This is the trap the mantra seeks to steer us away from. The key, I believe, is to discover and embrace love, but not identify it with a single soul. If we equate another with love we desire, then we make them into a singular repository for love. In the event this soul vanishes, so does our love. So in each relationship, we must learn love – learn what it is and what it is not – and take it with us. Hold it, hone it, and polish it. We should learn to think of each love with another, each relationship, as a means to REFINE the love we carry for ourselves.
Let’s consider the metaphor that we are boxes, that we are all vessels of some kind. We are then managers of what resides inside. It is our responsibility to fill the vessel with care. Ideally, we are conscious enough to avoid the superficial fill of mindless clutter. I find it telling that, within this metaphor, most people would focus too much on the vessel itself. Many people would spend a lot of time reconstructing, painting, beautifying and perfecting the walls of their boxes. While I do not believe this is completely in vain, since within beauty we often discover love, I think we must be careful not to let it occupy ourselves and our thoughts over much.
Adjusting our walls and covering them with empty mantras, pretty nuts and bolts, serves only a delusion of identity. If we, however, polish our vessels, if we hone and burnish in an effort to create translucency, to provide a clearer vision of what lies within, then we are actually focused on our essence. For me, I want to carry only those things that enhance me, lift me and increase my awareness, my love, my compassion. For I believe the greater the truth within, the more accurately reflected truth without. If someone takes extra care to decide what lives and breathes inside, and not so much on the boundaries, then their essence will shine through, revealing the truest beauty of all.
Once we know and understand how to manage our own vessels, learning as we go along, we can then enhance our knowledge on managing relationships. Relationships are vessels too. They require just as much if not more conscious observation and maintenance as we do. Marriage, for instance, the supposedly the most stable and secure relationship, cannot sustain itself without it.
When I was young and naïve, I had a fairytale view of marriage. I thought it was the ultimate step in success and happiness. I find now that so many girls believe the same thing. But, having been married and divorced, I can tell you a lot about what marriage isn’t and it isn’t a fairytale. (I don’t use the word fairytale to refer to men in shining armor or princes that fall in love with downtrodden women. I use the word fairytale in a more realistic sense – all girls fantasize that all their problems will vanish the instant they get married. They believe marriage is the answer and that their husband will supply them will endless happiness. News flash: Marriage isn’t ANY sort of answer.)
Marriage is not and should never be a foregone conclusion. The love between two people is no more or less solid than before they married. The act of marrying another does not inherently create, increase, or confirm the existence of their love. Because marriage is NOT love.
Originally, marriages were contracts, agreements between countries, city-states, and wealthy families. Love was left for poetry, plays, and music. While contractual marriages may eventually develop into a loving state, this love is still dependent on the two people who are married. I’ll say it again. Marriage is NOT love. Love exists within people, between people. The simple act of joining lives in front of others, in front of “God”, does not create anything, augment anything, or fill any previous void. A marriage, like most other things, cannot create something out of nothing.
Furthermore, the symbology of marriage as a threshold is a falsity, a delusion. There is nothing that exists on the other side that does not already reside on this one. Only that which the two lovers carry into their wedded lives will follow them.
And yet, we like to fool ourselves into thinking that our relationship will sustain all three vessels involved. I see so many of us, myself included, use relationships to define ourselves. Our sense of worth, our sense of purpose, our happiness easily gets intertwined in and enveloped by the relationship that the other person is quickly overlooked and we, ourselves, are lost. The relationship then becomes the only living entity, which we feed and stuff, thinking that if make it overflow, we have security.
But this is all at the expense of ourselves and the denial of ourselves. By filling a “relationship”, in actuality a delusion, we neglect and thus empty out our own vessel. We aggravated the void that we already felt, and therefore render ourselves incapable of…anything…except for feeding a delusion. We develop ourselves into mere shells, facades, soulless dolls that robotically chase an elusive illusion to fill the emptiness that we have unconsciously exacerbated by forgetting ourselves in the first place.
Marriage is not love. Relationships are not love. People are love, if they aim to love themselves. If they take care in choosing what resides within.
Funny, now that I think about it, the box metaphor seems to work better in my mind when applied to relationships. I don’t really like the metaphor that WE are vessels of any sort. We are not bodies after all. We are souls who have bodies. Nevertheless, I believe there are small gems in this metaphor that could provide some clarity. We aren’t the vessel, we are what lives inside. And we cannot be empty. We just need guidance and consciousness to learn how to uncover the treasures we carry. As much as we can elucidate ourselves for others, we must also do this for ourselves.
One of the most overlooked interpretations of “love thyself”, which I believe to be most essential, is “forgive yourself.” If you forgive yourself for mistakes, transgressions, negativity, then you love yourself. You love yourself a great deal. But even more than that, “love thyself” helps us to NOT FORGET ourselves. We must remember our true selves. Not the wife, the father, the student, the child – the vessel – but the silent and powerful essence that exists formlessly within.
To love yourself is to take the time to know and accept yourself. And in the stillness of knowing, unveiling what lives inside, who we are ESSENTIALLY, perhaps we will no longer need to seek the answers to surface of things.