Sunday, February 15, 2015

This Lent: Love Yourself

 Lent: that miserable time of self-deprivation and near-starvation for chocolate. Those inglorious 40 days where people eat cake in front of you and wince at the smear of ash on your forehead. No Facebook. No coffee. No Netflix. No fun. 

 As I mentioned before, Lent doesn’t have to be 40 days of deprivation, of not-having. It can be 40 days of having something new and better that improves your spiritual life and your personal well-being: add prayer, add reading spiritual books, add time volunteering, etc. Very nice, very good. We’ve heard this all before. 

But how about spending this Lent learning to love yourself?

Loving ourselves gets a bad rap. People often misunderstand loving yourself as doing the exact opposite of what we’re supposed to do during Lent: eating our favorite chocolate, kicking back and watching Sherlock, treating ourselves to lunch out with friends or a new book from Amazon. This is certainly one aspect of loving ourselves, and to be honest, we don’t do it enough. When was the last time you made some tea, curled up in a chair, and read your favorite book, just for fun? When was the last time you went swimming or skiing or played racquetball, just for the hell of it? When did you last kick back and watch a movie or your favorite show without mentally slapping yourself through the whole thing with thoughts of I’m such a lazy slob/I should be doing homework/cleaning my room/attending this club meeting/skyping my grandma/finishing The Grapes of Wrath for that book report.

It’s true: part of loving ourselves is letting go of all our hundreds of thousands of pressing responsibilities and allowing ourselves to relax and have fun every once in a while. In fact, more than every once in a while. I personally think you should set aside an hour every day to be kind to your body, let your brain untangle, and do something you truly love without feeling guilty about it. Ah, wouldn’t that be a perfect world. But we’ve become, and very sadly so, brainwashed by the Chant of the Almighty Schedule that hisses in our ear that we have to be doing something, rushing somewhere every moment, or else there’s something wrong with us and we are somehow a social failure.

So this is Lenten Challenge #1: Let yourself relax. Take time out of your day—even if it ends up only being 30 minutes—to do something you truly love, something that makes you happy, something that you actually care about. 

This is the kind of Lent I'm talkin' about!
The second aspect to loving ourselves is a bit more complicated. It involves a spiritual combat that is very hard to win, fighting against a mantra that has been literally engraved on our hearts since we first reached the age of reason: You are not good enough.

I’ve written about this before: how women are always hearing how they will never be loved unless they are more skinny/more buxom/more athletic/smarter/sexier. How men are accosted with the message that they will never “be a real man” unless they drink/drive big trucks/have a six pack/have a hot girlfriend/have a twelve-inch-long thingie. This is the disease of our generation that drives all our consumerism, our narcissism, our heartbreak: we are not good enough, so we treat ourselves like shit. We don’t deserve to be loved, so we settle for less in abusive, manipulative relationships. We don’t deserve to be respected, so we allow others to use us. We don’t deserve to have dignity, so we see our bodies and other people’s bodies as objects. We don’t deserve anything, especially not a Savior who lays down His life for us.

I often find myself looking at the cross and mumbling disgustedly to Jesus “How can I matter so much to You? How can You love me as You say You do? How can You?”

I am not worthy of Your love. I am not good enough. I am not worthy of Your love or Your trust in me. I am certainly not worth Your life. I wouldn’t die for me.

Yesterday I checked out a book from the library called Holy Sex. It was kind of a how-to manual about redeeming human sexuality and the marital embrace to what God intended it to be, and was replete with stories about loving couples who had allowed God’s grace and love to transform their entire relationship. Joe claimed that he loved Jane and her body and soul so much that he would die a thousand times for her. Betty stated that each sexual encounter with her husband Bob was like entering heaven itself. As I paged through these stories, I began to realize that I couldn’t read them because I was becoming angry—furious, in fact. This is all crap! I thought. Nobody loves their wife or husband this much. A man would never die for his wife. Sex isn’t anywhere close to a heavenly encounter. Where the hell are they getting this stuff? I returned it to the library within 30 minutes of checking it out (the librarian at the desk was quite befuddled, especially when she saw the title). 

I didn’t realize why I became so livid with that book until a few hours later. I had just climbed the rock wall at the gym and was struggling to peel off my sweat-soaked harness when I realized my turbulent mental state: I had just heaved my way up a 55-foot climb for the second time in my life, but rather than being happy and proud of myself, all I could think about was You could have done better. You could have climbed longer, faster, higher. You don’t deserve to be proud of yourself. I was angry because I thought I didn’t deserve praise. I was also angry with that stupid sex book because I thought I didn’t deserve the kind of love it described.

It’s true: I can’t believe that any man could ever love me enough to see beyond all my physical and mental flaws. I can’t believe that I could ever be a good mother, wife, or even a good friend. I’m just not good enough. I don’t have what it takes. I’ll never have what it takes. I’ll never be a satisfying sexual partner, a supportive spouse, or a successful parent. I’m just not good enough.

Kind of sad, isn’t it? Kind of familiar, isn’t it? I think we all do this to ourselves in one way or another.

This Lent, my prayer is that I can see myself how Jesus sees me: a woman worth dying for. I pray that I can remember that it isn’t my feelings that matter: it’s the truth, and God’s word is truth. The whole Bible is full of God’s pledges of love; you could say that it’s the longest and most beautiful love letter ever written. And God’s ultimate proof of His love is the cross. Talk about a husband dying for his wife! Jesus has that base covered.

When people ask you what you’re giving up for Lent, say “I’m giving up not loving myself.” That’ll throw them for a loop. A fruit loop.

Because I’m a practical sort of lass, here is a list of things you can do this Lent to put these words into practice.

1.     Practice defeating negative self-talk. I know, you’ve heard this before, but it’s a big one. If you hear yourself whining when you look in the mirror, stop yourself. If you trash-talk yourself in front of other people (“I’m so dumb! Sorry, I’m just stupid. Geez, I’m such a retard…” ) just cut yourself off mid-sentence. Remember what your mommy said when you were a kid: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say it!”
2.     Make a list of what you like about yourself. Be honest. It can be as general or as specific as you want: “I like my voice. I like my fingernails. I like my biceps (I do).” Also make a list of things that you love to do, whether you’re good at them or not (I like to dance but I have two, no, three left feet). Keep these two lists in a prominent place and look at them every day. Never mind if your roommate can see them: they’ll get over it.
3.     Pray more. You knew this one was coming. Especially spend time in Eucharistic adoration, letting Him look at you. Ask Him to help you see yourself as He sees you. Learn the Rosary or the Divine Mercy chaplet and say them daily. Crack open your long-neglected Bible. Do a Marian retreat/consecration. Come closer to the One who loves you just as you are.
4.     Learn a new skill. I learned how to rock climb just this past week, and now I’m addicted to it. Find a sport that makes you feel good about your body and stick with it: it could be running, weight lifting, rowing, badminton, arm wrestling, thumb wrestling…whatever floats your Titanic.
5.     Last, but not least, carve out some time for yourself every day. Literally, even if it’s only 30 minutes, do something that you love. Take a nap with your Target dog (mine is named Asta). Make a sketch of Mr. Darcy. Make rice krispie bars. Practice your hackey sack (are those things still popular? Damned if I know). Enjoy who you are and what you can do.

If we can’t love ourselves, we can’t let anyone else love us. Including God.

Happy Lent. Aloha.

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