The first step of love: ‘We love ourselves for ourselves’
When St Bernard writes about this first step he sees it as inevitable that we put our physical needs and natural desires first. We need to physically survive, and so we do all we can to ensure that. Love is part of our natural make up and to begin with it is self-orientated, so we look after ourselves. St Bernard understood that as part of this first step of love we can extend this same love towards others. He warns against keeping things for ourselves, and urges us to share with our neighbour. If we begin to share the things we need for our physical well- being with others then this opens us to God. This may be particularly true if in our efforts to give to others we start to appreciate our own loss – that we then have less or even not enough – and so we turn to God for help.
In our present times and culture because most of us have physical shelter, warmth, and food, we might say that the first step of love is when we are in a frame of mind where we only aware of ourselves, or that we are self-preoccupied. We haven’t really got the time or the capacity to give to others nor the emotional space to think properly about them. Clearly loving ourselves is a good thing – indeed in the commandment Jesus reminds us ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:39), but in contemporary terms the first step of love may be more about a distorted form of self- love that does not really involve anyone else at all. Everything is filtered through the narrow lens of what it does for us, for our personal or professional development, and everyone we meet is assessed in terms of what they can do for us. Alternatively the form that our self-love takes can be one of negativity and hatred – no less preoccupying. We are taken up with our own misery – the ‘poor me’ frame of mind, and can find meaning in hurting and hating ourselves and through that others. One time we love our self, another time we hate our self but the focus of our energy is firmly focused on us.
It’s certainly a stage we all directly experience – perhaps especially when we are adolescent and that we often retreat to as adults – usually when we are feeling under attack or stressed – and it happens even when we feel we are sorted! We all can feel narcissistically vulnerable and wounded – our sense of who we are is threatened, and so we react and protect ourselves. And of course there are many reasons to get stuck at this first step. Some of the reasons will belong in the past, and yet still cast a long shadow affecting our present and future.
The Muslim mystic Rumi likens the self-preoccupied state of mind to a prison
Why when God’s world is so big,
did you fall asleep in a prison
of all places?