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Is there a right way to love ourselves? Thomas Merton gives us some insight on that:

“We do not exist for ourselves (as the center of the universe), and it is only when we are fully convinced of this fact that we begin to love ourselves properly and thus also love others. What do I mean by loving ourselves properly? I mean, first of all, desiring to live, accepting life as a very great gift and a great good, not because of what it gives us, but because of what it enables us to give others.”

Essentially, Merton contrasts two different ways to love ourselves.

The first way: try to be the center of your world, the center of attention.

And to be honest, this has some appeal. When we’re the center of attention, it feels warm and exciting, like things are happening! But what do you do when the spotlight goes off and the crowd goes away?

Merton then points to another way of loving ourselves. In essence, he suggests that we trade “trying to be the center of attention” for “trying to pay attention to the things that are central in life.”

As Edward T. Hall says:

“This is what intelligence is: paying attention to the right things.”

But what are the right things? The central things?

Most people would agree on a list something like this: compassion, kindness, gratitude, peace, joy, courage, wisdom.

These things are free, yet they have the power to help make our life worthwhile. They often get lip service, but not enough real attention. And that’s unfortunate, because nothing can improve and enhance and enrich our experience of life as much as paying attention to these “invisibles.”

Imagine a person who makes this shift from “getting attention” to “paying attention to the right things.”

She is at ease out of the spotlight. Comfortable with herself. She knows what she wants from life, but she’s more interested in what she can contribute to the life around her. She’s less interested in being right and more interested in seeing clearly. She’s less interested in getting credit and more interested in making a difference. She’s not naïve, she sees the problems and failures—and that’s why she looks for the good in life and in others and seeks to encourage that. Rather than feeling entitled, she feels grateful for each day. Loving herself in this way makes her easy to love and fun to be with.

Bottom line: to love yourself properly is to pursue the things that make your life matter.