We are born with a beautiful thing called self-interest, the most basic evolutionary gift. Get what you need to survive. Babies cry. Paradoxically, this most basic selfish impulse is also the foundation for loving other people. Scientifically speaking, loving others requires that we notice ourselves first; that we notice ourselves as separate entities. Even bacteria have this trick. The God of evolution was kind, perhaps too kind. Self-interest can turn into selfishness. Adam Smith noticed that a man from Europe would be sad to hear about the earthquake in China, yet a small cut on his finger would feel way worse: “the most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance […] Human nature startles at the thought." (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, quoted in Appiah, 156). We lack moral imagination unless we flex its' muscles. China is not that far from our reach. The seed of self-interest grows into enlightened self-love. Jesus’ parable of the seeds planted on different soils comes to mind.
Self-love is not selfishness. It’s nothing more than realizing how good you can be, treating yourself with the same respect as others. It is actually the opposite of selfishness, or self-interest. Selfish people actually have no self-esteem; they hate themselves.
It's so obvious that we should love ourselves that it's implied in Jesus' greatest commandment: love God and love others as yourself. The skeptic says "what if I hate myself, shall I hate you then?" St. Augustine replied rather matter-of-factly: everyone knows we automatically love ourselves. Duh. Besides, Jesus gives us plenty of reasons to love ourselves. He had one of the most positive theories of human nature out there.
"The kingdom of God is within you.” One of Jesus most incredible teachings, Jesus said that God is in us and that we are in God. In the creation myth, God breathed himself into us. It’s not wonder, then, that Jesus thought we could do incredible things; that we could “move mountains” and do “even greater things” than himself! Jesus was the ultimate optimist.
We are worthy of love because we are good, because we can be better, and because our potential is unlimited. My potential haunts me. Does it haunt you? If you read Emerson's journal, you see a man haunted by his own possible greatness. It's God inside us, the Holy Spirit. George Fox (Quakerism) called it the "Inner Light" or the "Seed of God." John 1:9 says it "lighteth every man that cometh into the world."
Yet self love is a paradox; the thing nature infused in us, we lost. We look around and see grown men hating themselves. We hear the degrading pessimism. The drunks, the losers, the motto: "I'm only human" and "I'm a sinner." We hear it in church, of all places! Think of the pessimistic alcoholic, the addict who destroys his brain and body, the woman who gets beaten and keeps coming back. Benjamin Franklin was busy perfecting his morals, creating ethical clubs with his friends--and we sit here in a vomit of depression? If we are to go anywhere, we need our self love back, the kind that Jeremy Bentham said fuels all other love. We need respect and dignity and a healthy pride, the kind that Aristotle preached to his nephew in the Nicomachean Ethics.
Oh, the body! Precious! You must love your body! Without a healthy body and brain, what are we? Lumps of shit. You must stop smoking. Smoking costs America $100 billion a year in direct health care costs ((It’s Enough to Make you Sick, 135). You must stop doing drugs; we must drink and eat in moderation (if at all). Alcohol costs America $185 billion a year and of all the patients at a hospital, 25-40% are alcohol-related problems. This is not trivial but crucial. Eat healthy. No more fast food. Sadly, one-third of our kids are overweight and 17.6 are obese (135). The poor kids don’t have a chance! Eat vegetables and leafy greens and have your kids do the same. Will power first, then habit. Simple.
Make a real friend. Join a club. Find a hobby. Start doing. Will power is the spark inside; be diligent and get shit started. Make a plan. If you don't have these preliminaries down, if you don't give your body what it owes, how will you love your mind, humanity, God? Jesus said “how can I tell you about heavenly things, not understanding earthly things.” Can a starving man save a boy drowning, or will they both drown? Do not listen to the idiots that say "spiritual body" vs. "physical body." You are the body of God. The body fuels the mind and the mind fuels the soul.
Loving the body is one thing. It's not enough. Paul Brand spent his life repairing the bodies of leprosy victims in Africa. He realized there's something more than a healthy body: “The most precious possession any human being has is his spirit, his will to live, his sense of dignity, his personality.” Dignity, purpose, respect--this is the ending place of self-love.
Have you ever surprised yourself by smiling? You were watching someone else smile, a happy event, and you automatically smiled without noticing? This is the amazing gift of mirror neurons, the building blocks of empathy - the building blocks of morality. When we see someone smile, our brain smiles. When a baby hears another baby cry, they cry. A beautiful evolutionary achievement.
At first, it’s the baby and the mother. Everyone else on the face of the planet is deemed “Other.” It’s well known that fathers can feel rejected by their newborns (luckily, because I had paternity leave, I wasn’t). That baby, in the end, will be in a casket someday, and will be judged by how many “Others” she has taken in; by how many “others” she has turned into “friend” or “fellow citizen.” Starting with our own fathers, we must take everyone in. Environment has a lot to say about if we will succeed.
Do we have free will? Given the laws of nature, our genes, and our upbringing, could we have turned out any other way? Doubt settles in, I must admit, the more I learn about a child’s tender first years of life. The love that a baby gets from their primary caregiver will decide the love they give for the rest of their lives, the pleasure they get from loving, and how they nurture their own children when they grow up. Simon Baron-Cohen calls this an “internal pot of gold” that stays with them always.
Lack of love can have devastating, permanent effects on the brain. I had a girlfriend that was abandoned by her father, which had devastating consequences on our relationship; she didn’t trust me, she couldn’t trust me. Something that came so naturally to me, was hard for her. Then you’ve got the orphanage baby, passed on from one caretaker to another constantly; they also don’t learn to trust. Take a particular example: in this case, a rich mother didn’t want to take care of her baby, so she kept hiring and firing nurses, because the mother got jealous when the baby got attached. The child in this situation would grow up to humiliate and rape a disabled girl in high school at a party. He was a sociopath (from Born for Love).
What’s the lesson from all this deterministic science? Forgiveness. That is why forgiveness is the ultimate practice of love. It’s not their fault. The gang member from South Chicago is the lady at the well. Jesus has pity, forgives them, and says “ sin no more.” Jesus, way ahead of his time, actually understands that people never wanted to be this way and they want a way out. Jesus didn’t understand 21st Century science, but his ethics were compatible with it.
Loving your child is not controlling their life, yelling at the coach at a baseball game, thinking your child is the best or perfect, expecting too much, or micromanaging their life. Do not be the parent that lives through your child. This is not love. This is pathetic and, ironically, will hurt the child more than you ever realized (see HyperParenting: Are you Hurting Your Child by Trying Too Hard?)
The word kind comes from kin, meaning kin selection; our natural, evolutionary gift that says: love your family. In terms of passing on our genes, we love two brothers as much as eight cousins. They are so real and so close. How could we not love them? We have no choice. Closeness begets love. And hate.
I was woken up in the middle of the night. My dad was breathing on me, close. Something was wrong. He was threatening me, or yelling at me or something. My nightmare was coming true: your own family turning on you. Lightening shot through my body. “Why did you do it, Matt,” he said. Do what? He was drunk, really drunk. He seemed dangerous. At the time, I had no clue he was referring to the cans that spilt all over the kitchen floor, a bag of pop cans the cat probably knocked over. To him, it was a wiccan spell. He thought I was a witch, that I put a spell on the pop cans that were all over the kitchen floor. He was confronting evil. I was evil. My blood was coursing through my body. “Dad, get the fuck out.” This is the first time I ever felt hatred for my own father. I would have beat him up, smashed his face right in front of my mother. So would my brother. The next day he probably felt bad. But he did not apologize to me. Instead, he said “Matt, you should have seen those cans…,” as if that explained anything. At the time, he knew I was writing a paper on Witchcraft for high school English. My thesis was that the Wiccan religion, which got a bad rap by Christianity, is a positive religion. He didn’t want to discuss it, of course. He let it build, and then reacted. Now, of course, I love my dad. This is just one bad example among a mountain of good examples, examples of love.
The very people that we love the most—our family—we treat the worst. This is shockingly sad. Most homicides are crimes of passion, usually done by someone close [verify this]. My parents loved each other, just like most divorced parents do. We lie, we take people for granted, we become selfish. Our souls become filled with rubbish. We need a clean slate. We get one. What shall we do?