A prominent part of Jesus’ message is that we should love others as we love ourselves. Sometimes, though, it is unclear how this plays out in practical terms. What does it even mean to love others as we love ourselves? In my opinion, loving others involves empathy, compassion, and care. And I think we must begin with ourselves.
Beginning with Ourselves (and God)
If we do not love ourselves very well, then we are not prepared to love others fully. We carry baggage like pain, guilt, and low-self-worth, and instead of caring for ourselves we often fall into self-destructive patterns. How can we love others as ourselves if we do not feel lovable?
But once we realize that God loves us as we are—without condition, that God understands our personal issues, and that God desires the good for us—then we can see ourselves as God sees us and begin to really love ourselves in a wholesome and positive way.
Truly loving ourselves is quite different from selfishness. Selfishness reinforces self-destructive attitudes and behaviors, while reflection on God’s love gives us empathy, compassion, and care for ourselves. And it is only when we care for ourselves appropriately that we can effectively love others.
So let God help you to love yourself.
Continuing by Loving Those Closest Around Us
As we begin to love ourselves, we can better love those close to us in appropriate ways. This includes family, friends, and associates – anyone with whom we have interactive relationships.
There is plenty of opportunity here to express empathy, compassion, and care as we often have friction with people close to us—disagreement, personality conflict, disparagement, competition, manipulation. This can cause us pain and also prevent us from loving them, but it is also a good place to practice empathy, compassion, and care in daily life.
We should remember that God loves them and cares for them—unconditionally—just as he loves and cares for us. Those in our life with whom we have conflict are not enemies; they are fellow humans and we should try to see them as God does.
Focus on empathy. How does the other person see themselves and their situation? What problems or past experiences impact their personality and behavior? (We can also ask these same questions in self-analysis in order to better understand our own motivations).
To have empathy for others is to relate to their humanity, their shortcomings, and their pain. And empathy leads to compassion—the desire to see their situation improve. Compassion leads to care—the desire to help them in their difficulties. Those closest to us provide the best environment in practicing empathy, compassion, and care (love) for others.
Let me say a word about manipulators, abusers, or endless wells of need. These folks need our love, but they might also need professional help or police intervention. While we love them, in some cases we must also set personal boundaries.
Expanding Our Love and Care to Strangers
There are also random strangers all around us. We can’t develop close relationships with everyone we meet, but we can treat people as worthy of God’s love. They may be strangers to us, but they are not strangers to God who cares for them.
The least we can do is be pleasant, friendly, and accommodating. People who need a little help constantly approach my wife. She is tall, so she can get groceries from the top shelf. When asked, she is happy to give directions or provide a bit of information. She treats people as people—all kinds of people, and they seem to know it from her open demeanor.
Sometimes we have tense situations with strangers. A slow driver, or someone cutting into the road ahead of us, can create instant road rage; but rather than assuming bad things about them, empathy will reflect that they could be unfamiliar with the area and are making quick decisions, maybe they need desperately to find a bathroom, or perhaps they are involved in some other crisis. Do we ever face similar situations?
We don’t know what’s going on with other person, and our terrible assumptions of them are often completely off base. And even if our assumptions are correct—what difference does it make? Empathy considers the possibility of a real need. People we encounter are not enemies, they are human—people whom God loves and cares for.
No matter where friction and conflict occurs with strangers, we can respond with empathy, compassion, and care. When people insult us, yell at us, or try to intimidate us, we can still see them as people whom God loves and cares for. We need not do battle with them; they are not our enemies, so we can resist playing that part.
Discovering Those in Special Need of Empathy, Compassion, and Care
Sometimes we encounter those in special need of empathy, compassion, and care within our family, among our neighbors, and in random encounters; but an additional step is to systematically search out those needing help. We can check with our local shelters and food pantries, donate to worthy local, national, and international charities, or become involved as volunteers with helping organizations.
The key is to recognize that God loves everyone as he/she loves us, and we can love them too. We can’t reach out to every person in need, but we can all make a great difference to some. Next time, I will list a number of specific suggestions on loving others as ourselves. Please share your own ideas in the comments, and I will add them to that list.
Go with love!
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