by Megan Torgerson
I guess you could say I’m a gray kind of girl. To be fair, in many things I’m more blue than gray: I like my sky clear, not cloudy, and I’m more apt to wear robin’s egg blue than charcoal. But outside of color preference, you’ll usually find me in gray. That is to say that I find things to rarely be strictly black or white, but colored in shades of gray.
Perhaps we can chalk this up to my life-long Lutheranism. My whole religious life I learned that we were simultaneously sinner and saint, saved by grace through faith, called and sent, living in the now but also in the not yet, and more of those dicey dichotomies that seem to epitomize the Lutheran flavor of Christianity. From my earliest, fuzziest memories, I soaked in the truth of not a world that is not either/or, but distinctly both/and.
Life as balance
Admittedly, this lens on life can sometimes be a major pain. I have trouble deciding what to have for supper, since almost all options have merit. (Well, aside from a peanut butter and marshmallow sandwich on white bread, but even that at least has protein.) I can’t be the deciding vote when a group of friends splits on which movie to see. Those rank pretty low on the importance scale, though. When it really counts, understanding life as a balance between two equally important and valuable points makes a whole lot of sense.
Take, for instance, a cornerstone principle of Christian faith: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, reiterate this commandment from Leviticus 19 as the greatest commandment, set alongside full and complete love of God. In other words, to live as a fully obedient child of God, you must love God with everything you’ve got, and you must love your neighbor as yourself. It is that second half of that statement, the “love your neighbor as yourself” part, which must be walked as the most delicate of tightropes.
When you take the statement apart, you realize that loving your neighbor as yourself means doing two distinct and vital things: You must love your neighbor, and you must love yourself. The truth of Christian faith lives in the balance between self-love and other-love. If we lean too hard on one or the other, we fail to live into the abundance that the God we love wants for us and for others.
Think about what happens when you cheat one for the other. Often times, earnest and well-intentioned faithful women lean hard on other-love. We take extra responsibilities at work to cover for our sick co-worker. We serve on another committee at school to ensure each child gets a quality education. We commit a few more hours a month to our favorite charity to promote justice in the world. We offer to cook a meal to give our friends or family a chance to get together. Slowly but surely, the hours in the day slip away.
All of these jobs have merit, of course. So why do you sometimes feel so cranky and overwhelmed? Why are you sometimes sick and exhausted? Likely, you have slid the weight to the other-love side of the scale, throwing the whole thing off-balance. You have not taken the time to love yourself. I can’t even chastise you for it, because if I’m honest, I’m more likely to expend my energy loving others and short-changing myself. It feels like the most upstanding thing to do.
The truth, however, is that when I’ve exhausted myself serving others, I’m so tired that I don’t love myself very well. When I’m exhausted from loving others too much and too long, I start to get really bad at loving others. I get resentful and half-hearted. There’s no room for half a heart when the work of loving God, neighbor, and self asks all of me.
The danger of not being good enough
I also find that loving others too well is a great way to hide from how little I love myself. Maybe you know that feeling, too. When you take a long, hard look in the mirror, you are blinded by what you don’t like about yourself. Instead of realizing you are your own harshest critic, you hide your self-loathing in a martyr-like constant service to others. This might be the greatest lie we live as Christians. God called you just as you are, with all your faults and foibles, regardless of what you may or may not do with your life. When you live the lie of not-good-enough, you deny that God loves you. It’s a dangerous, unsafe way to live.
There must be room in your heart for self-love, alongside God-love and other-love. Of course, we all know what happens if we take that self-love side too far. If the trap of abundant other-love is a sort of exhausted self-loathing, then the pitfall of abundant self-love is petty narcissism. It’s pretty near impossible sometimes to fight the temptation to go all-in on the self-love side. It might sound cliché to say we’re bombarded by media messages, but I find that things only sound cliché because they’re so true so much of the time.
Turn on the television, open a magazine, browse the Internet, drive past a billboard. No matter where you go, you hear the constant, pounding message: You’re worth it. You’re better than everyone else. Prove how beautiful, how savvy, how attractive you are. Spend more money and more time and more energy on yourself. You deserve it. Slowly but surely, you have no room in your heart for the God who created you or the neighbor who needs you. You can only spend all your energy on maintaining your all-consuming self-love.
Love cannot be a black-or-white lifestyle. Love does not permit us to make easy decisions. Love calls us to a constant balance of life lived in the gray of self-love and other-love, measured always by the fullness of our love for God and the ridiculous abundance of God’s love for us. We must ask every day how we will dance in the space between loving our neighbor and loving ourselves. Both you and your neighbor, created by God in love and for love, deserve all of your best.
The Rev. Megan Torgerson is the associate pastor at Augustana Lutheran Church in West St. Paul, Minn., her first parish and arguably her first “real job.” She went to school at Concordia College and Luther Seminary. She was Miss Minnesota 2003, which was actually excellent preparation for ministry (aside from having a very different wardrobe). She has two dogs and two cats of unknown breed, an unending desire to find the world’s best macaroni and cheese, and an incredibly patient husband.