The sentimentalist in me came out last week upon learning of the sudden demise of the singer Whitney Houston. I grew up listening to her music. Searching my iTunes playlist, I listened wistfully to her powerful and emotive singing, and tried to understand how someone who shot to stardom and riches in such a meteoric way could end up falling the same way.
When my ears landed on the words of “The Greatest Love of All”, the phrase that caught my attention was “… learning to love yourself, is the greatest love of all.” In a way, that is the truth of life in a nutshell, apart from the fact that this love has to stem from the fact that we know that we are first loved by God and love him as our first love. The royal rule of “love your neighbour as yourself” is a corollary to loving God first. If this love is inordinate in any way, it can easily turn into a very egocentric and self-serving love. The problem I have with Ms Houston is that I am not truly convinced that she meant what she was singing. True, her rendition was flawless. All emoted at the right places, and with a tone that was rich and velvety at the same time. Besides, she had the armfuls of Grammy Awards to prove it. But whether she loved herself in a healthy and positive way is something that many struggle to believe.
Why do we need to love ourselves? For the simple reason that God finds us lovable. The "Choice" programme, an offshoot of the Worldwide Marriage Encounter movement, has a very pithy but real statement that says, “God does not make junk”. It was one of the first things that I recall being fundamental when I took part in my Choice weekend about three decades ago. I am sure that the writers and founders of the programme knew that teenagers often grow up in an environment where there is so much self-doubt and negative self-image. Today’s youth are not that much a different bunch. I have seen this with my own eyes.
When we do not grow up with a healthy self-love, based on the fact that we are first loved unconditionally by God and given the grace to love, it becomes very easy for us to look to anyone, anything or substance to find the validation that our human nature seems to crave. Good parenting is evidently at work when children grow up confident (and this is different from being arrogant and cocky) that they are loved, and it gives them the strength and ability to love others with a confidence that doesn’t demand a return of love. This is rare in people, both in youth and in adults, and even great saints struggle with altruistic love.
Truth be told, as Henri Nouwen said, our lives seem to be a moving from living in a house of fear, to living in house of love. In this regard then, a saint is the one who dares to make that determined albeit difficult move from one house to the other without looking back at what he or she has left behind.
But most of our lives are instead a constant shifting between the two houses. While we hope that there is some magical formula or easy way to help us to attain that healthy love that Jesus talks about, unfortunately, that is wishful thinking. Loving ourselves healthily is never automatic. Moving to that second house is a hard task. It takes hard work, and it helps when our parents and the village that it took to raise us up are demonstrative examples of how to love both God and neighbour.
Then and only then, can we really sing the last line of Ms Houston’s song when we can “… find (y)our strength in love”.