All that, or some less articulated version of it, went through my head as I was putting on my exercise clothes. I headed out the door. And then I saw the writing on the sidewalk: Jesus loves you! “Well, at least someone loves me,” went through my head, almost immediately followed by a realization. In our hypercompetitive world where a person is only good enough if she achieves by the social standards set by who knows whom, self-love is a rarity. The only way we can get unconditional love is through an imaginary being (God) or through a dead and decomposed guy (Jesus). And this acceptable form of self-love – for if God and Jesus cannot really love you because they don’t exist, this is a form of self-love – has subverted a possibly healthier way of taking care of the self practiced in ancient philosophy. Michel Foucault put the shift this way (284):
In the Greco-Roman world, the care of the self was the mode in which individual freedom – or civic liberty, up to a point – was reflected as an ethics. […] the theme of the care of the self thoroughly permeated moral reflection. […] in our societies on the other hand, at a time that is very difficult to pinpoint, the care of the self became somewhat suspect. Starting at a certain point, being concerned with oneself was readily denounced as a form of self-love, a form of selfishness or self-interest in contradiction with the interest to be shown in others or the self-sacrifice required.
Jesus loves you instead of know thyself. Self-sacrifice instead of self-love. And we’re not talking about the narcissistic self-love here, we are talking about a healthy amount of self-love that counteracts the doubts of inadequacy I was struggling with and suspect many others who are venturing off the beaten path are struggling with (heck, even people who are on the beaten path). Rather than loving ourselves, we’re supposed to love God or Jesus or both and then sacrifice ourselves in their name. Only that way do we get back a self-love substitute, God’s or Jesus’ love. No wonder that so many people flock to religions! Existential angst is part of our world – we no longer learn to counter-act it by becoming a virtuous person grounded in a deep love for and knowledge of ourselves.
Maybe if we listen to the ancients some more, we can relearn how to find our way to happiness. Maybe if we cultivate healthy self-love again, we’ll see less of the unhealthy kind, which leads to destruction both of the economy and the environment. Maybe if we reconnect with ourselves, our dreams and start knowing ourselves again, we might have to buy less stuff to fill the existential hole. The planet could sure use that kind of a value-shift. So could we.