Recently I was reading one of those books that tells us we must first learn to love ourselves, then we can figure out how to love our neighbors. I've always taken issue with this progression.
The Lord says: "Love your neighbor as yourself."
He doesn't say, "Love yourself so you can love your neighbor."
The distinction seems obvious to me. He assumes that we love ourselves, and therefore we already know how to love others: do to them as we would have them do to us.
Where this tends to get hung up is when we witness self-loathing in some people. "Oh, I'm a rotten person, I hate myself, the world would be better off without me." Surely this person must learn how to love himself before he can be expected to love others.
But I think this is not really the issue, not at heart. I think the person who claims to loathe himself is actually mired in a kind of improper self-love, an inversion of arrogant egotism. I say this, by the way, as one who has been through -- and still goes through far too often -- the self-loathing litany.
Consider: the egotist obviously loves himself improperly because he thinks too highly of himself. He shows off in one way or another, drawing attention to his wonderful self and expecting everyone to bow before his brilliance. What is this but an inordinant self-absorption?
The one who claims to loathe himself may actually think too little of himself. Or he may actually think quite highly of himself: oh, poor me, nobody appreciates me the way I should be appreciated. Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, think I'll go into the garden and eat worms. In any case, his self-loathing is a means of drawing attention to himself, of expecting everyone to cater to him, to feel sorry for him, to bow down to his neediness by telling him how wonderful he really is. What is this but another kind of inordinant self-absorption, a self-love that is just as improper as that of the egotist?
In Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis says that the humble person doesn't go around thinking of himself as less than he is (a talented musician doesn't pretend to be untalented or a pretty woman to be plain), trying to make everyone think he isn't arrogant. The humble person does his work for the Lord and his neighbor the best he can and is unconcerned with himself. If he does his best with what he has, he is content. If someone else does better, he is content. His focus is not on himself but on the Lord and others.
I'm also reminded of Lewis's discussion of gluttony, in which he points out that the person who refuses to eat what is put before him, demanding "less" and putting everyone out by "not wanting so much" or "so rich" food, is just as much a glutton as the person who stuffs himself -- because he has made food his idol. It seems to me that the self-loather is as much an idolator of self as the egotist, in a similar way as the dainty glutton is an idolator of food.
The cure is the same for the egotist and the self-loather: stop focusing on the self. It will not help the egotist to stand in front of the mirror saying 1000 times "I am not the center of the world," nor will it help the self-loather to stand in front of the mirror saying 1000 times "I am a person of infinite worth." What they both need is to get out from in front of the mirror!
That doesn't mean that some salutary understandings of value (I am of value to the God who gave His Son for me; but I am of no more value than my neighbor) aren't ever in order. But I have found that for me this comes most clearly when I stop studying about my value and focus my attention on the Lord and on serving the neighbors He brings into my way. When I do this, I generally find that without realizing it I have stumbled into a balanced understanding of my own value -- and also that it really doesn't matter that much anymore because I'm doing what I was designed to do in the first place.