Sometimes I feel like a prick when I talk to my neighbors.
We plant our feet on modest Midwestern lawns—the kind that show a hint of brown no matter the season—coming to temporary rest a few steps shy of the front steps. Usually we pass around a script, trading boilerplate copy about the weather or lack thereof, our weekend plans or lack thereof, about the intrinsic properties of Mondays.
Occasionally, the stories stretch a little longer, and the sentences burrow inches deeper. My spirit is willing to listen as long as they want to talk, to enter their stories, to leave a little salt on the tongue as my words suggest an interest in what or who animates these lives we lead.
But my flesh is weak. My eyes especially betray me. At best, they cloud with indifference; at worst, they flash something like despair. They blink out a blinkered Morse Code and the message comes through clear: I’d rather be anywhere else.
“Well, don’t mean to hold you up,” my neighbor Howard says, turning back toward his house after an infinite two minutes discussing his cancer treatment.
My heart drops. I want to stretch my arms to their full length, gently taking him by the collar to insist “Man, it’s not you. It’s me.” Howard wouldn’t know the reference, but I want to borrow a phrase from songwriter Jeff Tweedy: “How can I convince you it’s me I don’t like?”
Love your neighbor as yourself. The weight of those five words isn’t lost on me. They represent the second-most important truth we could ever chase, a movement stemming from life’s greatest reality—that God himself embodies love. For me, the stress in that sentence always lands on the last two words: “as yourself.” How am I supposed to love my neighbors, with all the affection and activity Jesus’ words imply, when I struggle to love myself?
I fail to stand still and sympathetic in my neighbors’ yards when I can’t stand myself. I want to run home before I say something foolish, while my dignity remains intact. The inner clang and churn reveals something stamped on each of us from the first bite of forbidden fruit: the fear that if my neighbors ever fully knew me, they would fully reject me.
My longing to love others, and lack of love for myself, lock themselves in stalemate. I run around quoting Brennan Manning like I know what he meant. The late author and erstwhile priest believed God’s love let loose works on and in us “to the extent that no human flesh is strange to us, to the extent that we can touch the hand of another in love, to the extent that for us there are no ‘others.’ ”
But what if my flesh seems strangest of all? What if I feel more like an “other” to myself than any neighbor ever could? What then? In a very real way, I love my neighbors more than I love myself. They receive the benefit of the doubt; I absorb the curses muttered under my breath. And yet I know my ability to bind and beat myself up colors my neighbor-love. I’ve seen it in too many scenes.
A temptation arises—to muster up more love for myself for the sake of loving my neighbors, and perhaps there’s something to it. But God calls some things worthy ends and never merely means, good even if they don’t lead anywhere. Worship. Witness. Justice. Beauty. Healthy love of self lives in this company. I want to fight for love wherever it might be found, in the mirror or at the end of my block.
I want to work from the positive and not the negative, to be defined by something and not against something. And yet on the days when self-love lingers in limbo, I try to work backwards. What do I keep from myself for fear of harm? What do I require for flourishing? Love of neighbor means, at the least, entering into collective rhythms of having and withholding.
I labor to remember the fullness of neighbor-love. A natural outworking of God’s love, it measures wide and long, deep and high. So often we treat “love your neighbor as yourself” as shorthand for “make sure to bring your neighbor the occasional plate of cookies.”
Neighbor-love is more radical—it recognizes other people as intellectual, emotional, and spiritual equals. Neighbor-love never begins and ends on paper; it hears others out, granting them the same say in life and community that even the most self-deprecating of us grant ourselves.
Why settle for only this? When I grow tired of myself, unlovely in my own eyes, I still myself and strain to listen for the divine voice—the one which speaks more softly than all my self-talk, yet speaks ever more true. Sometimes that voice speaks at a slow, steady clip, choosing its words carefully in the manner of Fred Rogers. Sometimes it sounds like Eddie Vedder, bellowing an emphatic “hello” to all that’s beautiful within and without me.
Whatever its tone and timbre, the voice of God repeats the same words until I believe them: What God has made clean, don’t call common. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. Just as he spoke the world into existence, he speaks my love into flowering. What my neighbor needs from me, and what I need from myself, reside in my eyes when I see myself through his.