No matter what our spiritual bent—and even if we have no form of "spirituality" as such, but are atheistic and subscribe to a humanistic view of human beings—few of us would disagree with the idea that we ought to love others.
The idea of loving each other is pretty universal. Yet when you look around the world, on the whole it's not a very loving place. So there's a discrepancy somewhere between what we say we believe and what we actually do.
Here's a question that might begin to get at this discrepancy:
If we are to love others, how can we do so unless we first love who we are as a person?
Our ability to love another person depends on whether we love ourselves. If you just think about it, it has to be this way, because we can't give away what we don't have.
Yet in everyday life, so many people I come across don't appear to even like who they are, let alone really love themselves—and this is reflected in just how unloving life is for so many of us on this planet.
In fact, there has been a centuries-long taboo on loving yourself in much of the world. Especially in the West, we've been taught that we are flawed, for which we ought to feel badly about ourselves. But even in the East, people were told they ought to put others first and feel apologetic about themselves. In so much of the East, there's a hierarchy that defines people's "worth." Consequently, masses of humans feel pretty worthless, which is reflected in their circumstances. They put up with being treated as if they were horribly inferior.
The idea of actually accepting ourselves, liking ourselves, and even loving ourselves really hasn't been widespread in the human species at all. In culture after culture, we've been told for millennia that it's wrong to put ourselves first, wrong to want to promote ourselves, wrong to think of ourselves highly.
We have been a species riddled with self-doubt. We have been plagued with a lack of self-worth. We have suffered greatly from not feeling good about ourselves.
Today, some don't buy this "putting down of ourselves" any longer. Not just humanists, but churches such as Unity, New Thought, Science of Mind, and much of the field of psychology—not to mention some Eastern ways of believing—tell us we ought to value ourselves.
Instead of seeing humanity as evil, as the teaching of original sin has emphasized, these traditions prefer to see us as creatures who are a "work in progress." Some even go so far as to tell us we are "perfect just as we are."
Now here is something that is really quite surprising when you ponder it for just a moment:
Whether you are in the camp that thinks we are fundamentally flawed, even "sinful," if not downright evil, or whether you are in the camp that believes we are just fine and need to accept ourselves, in both cases the reality is different from what we say we believe about ourselves.
Let me take the second group first—those who believe we are just fine. As I talk with people who make such a claim, it's evident that in reality—no matter what they may say about being "perfect" or about "accepting ourselves" and "loving ourselves"—many don't even like themselves very much, and certainly don't like their life as it is right now much at all.
The discrepancy between what we say we believe, and what we actually feel and experience, is evidenced in all the ways we're constantly "working on ourselves."
Everywhere I turn, people—no matter what they may say—are trying in some way to "fix" themselves, feel better about themselves, pick themselves up. Yes, I'm including those whose beliefs tell them that they are "already perfect" and "don't need fixing."
You see, at some deep level, we really all know there is something just a bit "off"—that, when we are honest with ourselves, we actually do have some areas of our life that we aren't happy with.
Now let's turn to the first group I mentioned, the literally billions on our planet who think of themselves as "sinful," or something of that kind, and who would tell you that to love yourself, feel good about yourself, and especially promote yourself is wrong and "prideful."
Would it surprise you to hear that this group, comprising the vast majority of humans, actually love themselves—even though they don't feel good about themselves and, in fact, believe they ought not to feel good about themselves?
The proof is easy to see. Just start putting someone down, telling them how worthless they are, what a mess they are, even what a disaster they are. Something rises up in them in protest!
There are exceptions. Those who feel really badly about themselves may tearfully and apologetically agree with what you are saying about them. "Yes, I am such an awful person. I am horrible. I'm a total failure."
But when all of that is over, something in such a persons responds, "But I'm really trying, and I'm doing the best I can. And I want to improve and do better. I've been this way all my life, and I hate being this way!"
What you are hearing is the voice of self-love. The person really doesn't feel this awful about themselves—they just don't dare not feel awful about themselves, because this is how they learned to feel about themselves when growing up. They believe they are supposed to feel awful about themselves. "Isn't that how a 'sinner' should feel?" they would say.
The fact is, at a deep level—and all our beliefs aside—none of us can help loving ourselves. Simultaneously, none of us can help feeling flawed!
So what's going on here?
Well, our understanding of ourselves is faulty, whichever camp we are in. It's our belief that's the problem.
Now I want to state something that may really surprise you:
The answer to this dilemma, for both groups, is an understanding of a facet of our human condition that the ancients called "original sin."
No, I'm not talking about something passed on in our genes, not talking about sex being "dirty," not talking about something inherently wrong with us.
All of that kind of thinking is a distortion of what the idea of original sin is really all about. It has been distorted for centuries, especially thanks to influential figures such as St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa in the fourth century, who had some major sexual hangups that he first acted out as a libertine and later as the original member of the "Moral Majority."
The teachings that have been bedrock to the Christian tradition didn't arise without reason. They arose to address something that the early followers of Jesus realized was an issue we needed to look at because it's something that occurs universally.
In the weeks ahead, each Sunday this column will take a look at the key teachings of Christianity down through the centuries, showing what issue they arose to address, and what they really mean once the distortion of centuries is removed from them.
One such teaching is the idea that humanity is sinful, and that this sinful condition is something we are born into. But what Jesus and his followers understood about this is very different from how most have understood it.
Our "original sin" isn't that we believe in ourselves, promote ourselves, feel good about ourselves—which is how it's usually been seen, as if this were somehow "pride."
Our original sin is that we don't believe in ourselves, don't love ourselves, don't even like ourselves all that much.
The reason we call it "original" is that it's not something we caused, but a condition that existed before us and has subsequently infected us.
Believing in ourselves has been a problem for our species ever since we crossed the threshold into self-consciousness, as Ernest Becker shows so ably in his Pulitzer Prize-winning psychological study The Denial of Death. Anxiety about ourselves is built into the very nature of our existence.
All of us, without exception, have "missed the mark" when it comes to ourselves—which is exactly what that ancient word "sin" means. It's a term used in archery. You miss the bull's eye. In humans, it means we fail to be the fabulous creatures we are. We fall short of being the reflection of divine glory, which is what we are intended to be.
Why do we have such a problem loving, and even liking, ourselves?
Because from the moment we were conceived, we began to be infected by all the negative vibes of the world into which we were to enter, which began affecting us even in our mother's womb (as science is today clearly showing us, with studies of how a fetus responds to its mother's experiences, emotions, state of mind, body chemistry, and so on).
You and I are fantastic creatures—according to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the spitting image of God. But we come into a world that isn't very conscious, aware, and in which those who are here and will raise us are deeply anxious about themselves.
The result is that we don't grow up very conscious of our true being or very aware of our capabilities. We see ourselves in an extremely limited, impoverished way. So we live lives that are less than we are capable of.
There is nothing inherently flawed about us. It's just that we all, to varying degrees, believe we are inadequate—and what we feel about ourselves, we live out, no matter what we tell ourselves, which is why the world is such a mess.
Our original sin is that we learn from our inception that we aren't okay, aren't good enough, aren't acceptable. Then we live this way.
David Robert Ord is author of Your Forgotten Self Mirrored in Jesus the Christ and the audio book Lessons in Loving--A Journey into the Heart, both from Namaste Publishing, publishers of Eckhart Tolle and other transformational authors. He writes The Compassionate Eye daily, together with his daily author blog The Sunday Blog, at www.namastepublishing.com.