“Love your neighbor as yourself.” – Mark 12:31
One of the traditions I experienced for many years in the Baptist church was Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting. After a gigantic potluck meal of “cooked to death” Southern meats and vegetables and every conceivable casserole known (and some unknown) to humanity, each starting with “a stick of butter,” we got down to the business of offering up prayer requests. The pastor would ask who needed prayer and congregation members would share news about fellow church members and folks in the community going through difficult medical situations. I must confess that, as we argued over the intimate details of Mrs. Sadie’s gallstones, our dialogue crossed the border from genuine compassion for others to engaging in outright gossip. The HIPAA (health privacy) police would have had a field day with us! But one thing I noticed in years of attending these sessions, almost no one asked for prayer for herself or himself.
Baptists are not alone in this phenomenon. We Episcopalians, along with those of other religious traditions, find it easier to offer prayer or ask for prayers for someone else rather than ourselves. Part of it is our unwillingness to make ourselves vulnerable by acknowledging that we are even in need of prayer. But I think it goes deeper than that. Very few of us have cultivated (or given ourselves permission to think of) self-compassion as a spiritual practice.
Scott & Ardelle Walters gave me and others a gift by recommending a Compassion Cultivation Training program that they participated in several years ago. As is most everything these days, we’re doing the course over Zoom and I’ve enjoyed connecting and reconnecting with clergy colleagues from around the country. One of the focuses of the class has been cultivating a sense of self-compassion. It makes sense. Thupten Jinpa, a former monk and deep thinker in cultivating compassion, wrote, “Prioritizing self-compassion is like the airline safety announcement: ‘If you are traveling with children, make sure that your oxygen mask is on first before helping your children.’ The strength of character, courage of heart, and depth of wisdom to be there for other people depend on our compassion for ourselves.”[i]
Today marks the halfway point of 2020, which has to go down as one of the strangest years in memory. Our lives have been turned upside down by COVID-19 and by coming to terms with racial inequality and injustices. It has been a gut-wrenching season of grief, uncertainty, confession, and fear. We are jolted, jarred, and jagged. It takes me back to a low point in my life when these feelings were very raw for me. I saw a grief counselor who wrote out a prescription for me at the end of our session. When I left her office, I opened the prescription note and found two words: “Nurture self.” I began taking long walks in nature and gave myself permission to pray for me. It was liberating, healing, restorative, and hopeful.
Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Not “instead of” yourself. What are some ways you can give yourself a little kindness this week? Where are the tender places in your soul that need nurturing? What is the prayer have you been longing to lift up for yourself?
[i] Thupten Jinpa, A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives, 152.