We are admonished to love our neighbors as ourselves. I have always understood this to mean that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We should wish for them the same things that we have or wish or wish to have for ourselves: love, community, good health, adventure, challenging work, abundance, etc. This is hard to do sometimes, as we don’t see our neighbors as we see ourselves. We see our “insides” – all of our thoughts, wishes, fears, insufficiencies and inadequacies – but only their “outsides” – their accomplishments, the face that they turn to the world.
And vice versa. They don’t know our vulnerabilities, our failures, our insecurities. They only see the face that we show the world, the face we don to protect ourselves. I wonder how we would react to the “us” that others see? So Robert Burns writes “oh, the gift that God would give us to see ourselves as others see us.” Or to love ourselves as others love us. Because sometimes we find another person who seems able to penetrate our defenses, to see through the walls we use to protect ourselves. Someone wo can see beyond the face that we turn to the world and see right into our wounded hearts. What a rare grace that is, a communion that can feel God-given, to have someone see us as we really are and to love us unconditionally.
In Margery Williams’ classic children’s tale “The Velveteen Rabbit”, a stuffed rabbit became a real rabbit both metaphorically and literally. It happened because he was truly loved. It’s the metaphoric transformation though, that is usually quoted when referring to this work. “He didn’t mind how he looked to other people, because the nursery magic had made him Real, and when you are Real shabbiness doesn’t matter.” I believe that this is the love that we all seek.
Another way to understand “Love our neighbor as ourselves” is to understand it to mean that we should love our neighbor as our true selves. As who we really are, not not as someone or something else. Not as who we want to be, or as who we want others to think we are, or as who they want us to be, or as they see us. But who we really are: imperfect, gifted and flawed, trying our best, trying to do better, trying the patience of others.
In order to do this, we must open ourselves to others. We must show them the “insides” that we normally protect. We must become vulnerable. In becoming vulnerable we also become real. In becoming vulnerable, we invite others into the place where we truly live. We open ourselves to having the love we offer our neighbor returned, giving the possibility of a communion of souls that (as we see above) is rare.
What do we need to do to love our neighbor as our true selves? How can we do this? We need to be able to sit in the fear and vulnerability that come when we let our walls down – not an easy thing. How can we as Quakers create a community where Friends can do this? What in our meetings signals that it is safe (or unsafe) to let down our walls? What in our meetings needs to change for Friends to be able to be their true selves?
How can we create the sacred space that lets us love our neighbor as our true selves, a space where we can be who we really are, warts and all, and still feel loved? A space where we can become our God-loved selves?