Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Self Hate, Self Love, or Self Sacrifice?

The Morpheous-like Malik at the Struggle Within has a couple of stimulating posts that have recently set my Baha'i mind in motion. I've been getting my geek on as usual reading about things like theological anthropology and pastoral theology and preparing to start what may be a series of posts in Struggle Within-style, called Knowing, Loving and Liberation. This series of posts are part of my long time project of discerning and articulating a Baha'i theology of Black liberation that has been inspired by such theological luminaries as Howard Thurman and James Cone. On Malik's recent post about the "N" word, I made the following comment:

"I was just talking with my sister this weekend about the use of the “N” word. The idea that people can turn it into something positive by appropriating it and using on each other at every opportunity is kind of like the age old effort to transmute elements. Just like humanity has not yet attained the maturity to change copper into gold, we have not yet attained the maturity to change a word forged and formed in the fires of white supremacy and the systematic enslavement and traumatizing of millions of human beings into a “positive word”. People who believe that it is possible to do that are suffering from a delusion, a pathetic attempt to rationalize their self-hatred and hatred of other black folk while trying to sound all hip and revolutionary and metaphysical. I feel sorry for them." (Enjoy the actual post here)

Malik had another post with an ad that is an unintentionally hilarious example of commercialized self-hatred based on skin color.

All this talk of self-hate made me start to meditate on this question: Is there a healthy form of "self-love", from a Baha'i perspective?

I've spent a lot of time studying the Baha'i Writings over the past 10.5 years and have found few explicit references to what has become popularly known as "loving yourself". There's quite a bit about being patient with oneself and fair to oneself, but not so much about loving oneself. In fact the following reference to self love seems to question the health benefits of such an orientation:

"All these wishes are well worthy of asking. Especially the rescue from self-love. This is a strange trait and the means of the destruction of many important souls in the world. If man be imbued with all good qualities but be selfish, all the other virtues will fade or pass away and eventually he will grow worse."
(Abdu'l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu'l-Baha v1, p. 136)

And again:
"O army of God! Whensoever ye behold a person whose entire attention is directed toward the Cause of God; whose only aim is this, to make the Word of God to take effect; who, day and night, with pure intent, is rendering service to the Cause; from whose behaviour not the slightest trace of egotism or private motives is discerned -- who, rather, wandereth distracted in the wilderness of the love of God, and drinketh only from the cup of the knowledge of God, and is utterly engrossed in spreading the sweet savours of God, and is enamoured of the holy verses of the Kingdom of God -- know ye for a certainty that this individual will be supported and reinforced by heaven; that like unto the morning star, he will forever gleam brightly out of the skies of eternal grace. But if he show the slightest taint of selfish desires and self love, his efforts will lead to nothing and he will be destroyed and left hopeless at the last."
(Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 71)

But Phillipe, you say, these Writings are talking about "selfishness" and selfishness is not "self love". Are you sure?, is my reply. My experience of America culture is that we are now living under a "self-esteem" regime where "feeling good" has become more important than "doing good". The line between self love and selfishness is not a bright and well-lit highway, but is more like a spider's web in a dark attic.

It may be helpful to understand the two ways that "self" or "ego" is understood in the Baha'i Writings as explained by Shoghi Effendi:

"Regarding the questions you asked: self has really two meanings, or is used in two senses, in the Bahá'í writings; one is self, the identity of the individual created by God. This is the self mentioned in such passages as "he hath known God who hath known himself", etc. The other self is the ego, the dark, animalistic heritage each one of us has, the lower nature that can develop into a monster of selfishness, brutality, lust and so on. It is this self we must struggle against, or this side of our natures, in order to strengthen and free the spirit within us and help it to attain perfection.

Self-sacrifice means to subordinate this lower nature and its desires to the more godly and noble side of our selves. Ultimately, in its highest sense, self-sacrifice means to give our will and our all to God to do with as He pleases. Then He purifies and glorifies our true self until it becomes a shining and wonderful reality."
(From a letter dated 10 December 1947 written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual

It would seem to me as a Baha'i and as person dedicated to psychological empowerment and healing, that the Baha'i Faith is encouraging us to focus on "God love" rather than "self-love". The most effective and safest way to love ourselves is to love the image of God that is potentially reflected in the reality of our true identity which is the soul. Paradoxically, the way we express this kind of love is through "self-sacrifice". This is not some kind of misguided process of puritanical of ascetic self injury, but is fundamentally life-giving and allows God to purify and glorify "our true self until it becomes a shining and wonderful reality." This is the ultimate antidote to self-hatred whatever inspires such feelings.

Of course in order to love God, we have to "know God" which is why both knowing and loving are necessary for true liberation. But that's for another post.

So brave readers, weigh in. What do you think about self-hate, self-love and self-sacrifice?