Come, my friends, 'tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Sometimes I feel like a broken record on this blog. I get going on the ideas of not mis-imagining people, and remember that your neighbor is fundamentally and completely human, just like you and just like me. Often, I feel like I'm just repeating myself over and over in different ways because that is what my fundamental philosophy comes down to: recognizing that when Jesus said to "love your neighbor as yourself," he meant that your neighbor was not just the person whose dwelling was next to you, but that your neighbor is every single person you meet on every single day, and loving them means remembering that they are human beings. But I've slowly been realizing that this means, even so, much much more.
The "as yourself" has always been a little confusing, because "loving oneself" is usually interpreted as a narcissistic "me me me" sentiment. We don't want to say that we "love ourselves" because that gets interpreted in weird and twisted ways - the picture I get is a tan jock in a sport coat with perfectly white straight teeth and perfect hair smiling as he puts on sunglasses and says to himself in the mirror: "Hello, you sexy beast." Or, y'know, Jack Donaghy.
And I think, to some extent, that's the picture Western culture has ingrained in my generation - loving yourself means indulging. It means looking your best at every moment. It means getting Starbuck's, watching Snooki on TV, and basically being a self-indulgent jerk because "If you don't love yourself, who will?"
And I think that's infected our rhetoric in the church. It's all about what you can do to draw closer to Christ, how you can go to that poor country and help the brown people, how you can improve yourself by reading the Bible everyday, how you can grow in understanding.
And those are, in some respect, good things, in moderation. It is important to make selfish decisions once in awhile.
But I think we've also inserted a few words between the "as yourself" in Jesus' statement. He is not, contrary to popular reading, saying "as you love yourself." No, he's saying "as yourself."
Here's how I like to read it: "Love others as though they are a part of you."
We focus too much on parsing the statement into the two separate bits, which I think is a failed interpretation. Separating the sentence into "Love your neighbor" and "as yourself" makes it far too easy to focus on one instead of the other - how can I love my neighbor if I don't love myself first? And then we end up back at square one, concentrating on our own lives and improving our own lot, and putting loving our neighbor in the secondary position because if we don't know how to love ourselves, then how can we love our neighbor in any meaningful way?
But if we're putting ourselves first, we're not loving our neighbor. We're loving ourselves, and our neighbors are an afterthought. They are still this "other" being that is worthy to receive our love once we have our stuff figured out.
But let's put it a different way: Our neighbors are us - by loving them, we love ourselves.
I never feel as alive as I do when I forget who I am.
Everyone knows those moments - when something totally earth shattering happens that causes you to redefine how you see the world around you. It could be something as simple as realizing that you like a food you previously thought inedible. It could be as big as your brother and his wife having a baby. It could be sitting down on the train in India and realizing that "they" are just as concerned about the things you're concerned about - that "they" like to play cards, or "they" enjoy reading Sherlock Holmes as much as you do.
And then you realize, slowly but surely, that the divide between us and them is being chipped away. We can never, really, live life as another person. I am the sum of my experiences to a great extent - South Dakotan, highly educated, unable to remember a time when I couldn't read and write, a world traveler, someone who gets an incredible, inexplicable joy out of being able to put words together in a meaningful manner - and therefore can never be another person than what I am.
The same goes for every single person we encounter in life - they are the sum of everything they've experienced and lived.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson writes in his famous poem about Homer's Ulysses: "I am a part of all I have met; / Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough / gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades / for ever and for ever when I move."
I am a part of all I have met.
In this poem, Ulysses is an old man reflecting on his life, his past, and deciding to go out for one last big adventure - leaving his young son in charge of his kingdom, and basically abandoning his wife and family. It's at the same time inspiring and disheartening, but every time I read it, I find myself more inspired than saddened. It seems that Ulysses knows exactly what's up when it comes to The Other - when it comes to realizing who you are in relation to others.
Who I am and who you are is a fluid, ever changing, vastly diverse complexity that defies simple explanation. When we say to people "you are the poor and I am the rich, and I will help you out of your situation," we deny their complexity, and subsequently, shoot ourselves in the foot when it comes to loving our neighbor.
We are not separated into neat little boxes of us and them. There is not "the poor" and there is not "the rich," though these categories may make political discourse easier to digest in soundbyte mode (unless you're Rand Paul - then the idea just gets confusing).
There is only us. There is only a vast community of people, intertwined and working together to somehow become better, as a community. As a people. As an "us."
I've never been much for individualism and independence, at least not in the sense that it means I put myself and my career above other people. My niece may only be a few months old, but she is already a part of me, and even more so a part of her parents. And I would be doing her a disservice if I chose to see the world as little separate units of people grouped into particular areas - here we have the poorest of the poor, here we have the somewhat developed world, here we have developed nations who have major problems, here we have the Europeans, the Americans, the Canadians, the Japanese, the Indians.
Forget who you are as an individual, and love your neighbor as you should - as though she is a part of you. Because she is a part of you, just as you, if you drop the pretense of "helping" and begin being a friend, will be a part of her.
"That which we are, we are
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."