What word is more overused than “love”? Well, maybe none, but I'll wager “self-esteem” runs a respectable second, especially in America.
Or there was that class my daughter once took in which she was asked to describe herself in a poem. One classmate’s effort began:
"I love me. / I'm cool as can be."
It went on in that vein, and it didn’t get better, either. It became a sort of anti-legend in our house, an archetype of How You Kids Must Not Turn Out.
And yet, there’s clearly such a thing as healthy self-esteem, or rightly ordered self-love: God commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. He doesn’t want us so paralyzed by self-loathing that we’re robbed of any peace of mind, any happy sense of accomplishment.
But what about contempt of self? Isn't that an old and venerable virtue? In the end, don't we have to choose between love of God and love of self? After all, St. Augsutine, in his City of God, says
“Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly city by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.”
It’s hardly just a theoretical question: pride, after all, leads straight to Hel—and humility is so easily misconstrued. Many well-intentioned people labor under the illusion that God wishes us to be perpetually disgusted with ourselves. Firmly focussed on their own awfulness, they find it impossible to marshal the mental energy to do whatever they were put on earth to do, never mind the joy or peace they'd like to spread to everyone else. But the only alternative seems to be a vacuous “I’m OK, you’re OK” indifferentism. They know that can't be right.
So how in the world are we supposed to manage simultaneous self-love and self-contempt?
Fr. Michel Esparza, a priest (and now musician, too) with a background in both medicine and philosphy, plus plenty of pastoral experience, addresses these questions in his book Amor y Autoestima (Love and Self-Esteem). It’s not yet available in English, but if you read Spanish, even slowly and reluctantly, you'll find this book is worth it. If your Spanish is not up to a whole book, you can find the Spanish transcript of a short interview with the author here. In the meantime, here are some salient points (in English--although the links will take you to the Spanish transcript. If I succeed in finding an English translation of the interview, I'll fix that.):
Sooner or later, we all run into the truth about ourselves. It turns out we aren't as talented, or charming, or holy as we thought we were. Two unappetizing choices present themselves: discouragement and despair on the one hand; self-deception and escapism on the other.
“We insist, and rightly so, on cultivating a positive attitude towards the self,” says Fr. Michel, sounding decidedly John-Paul-II-esque, “but one shouldn’t do so at the cost of the truth about oneself. Self-deception does not liberate.”
Neither discouragement nor escapism brings peace, self-confidence, or receptivity to others.
But self-esteem (self-love, rightly understood) and humility are only apparent opposites. We tend to equate self-esteem with egotism, but in fact both the haughty, arrogant person and the one continually preoccupied with his own failure to measure up are egocentric. Neither is at peace, and both are woefully unavailable to others.
The humbe person, by contrast, is self-forgetful--which is not at all the same thing as being preoccupied with self-loathing and self-rejection. His company is refreshing: he knows how to laugh at himself, and he doesn't take himself too seriously. He can give and receive love freely.
The despondent person does see a partial truth: his own wretchedness. The escapist does, too: he senses that he was meant for joy, not misery. He can never be at peace, though. As the effectiveness of each remedy wears off, he has to keep devising new and intensified forms of distraction and escapism--a well-known recipe for tragedy.
The key to the "humble self-esteem" Fr. Michel talks about is the conviction that Somebody knows you really, really well--infinitely well--and loves you unconditionally anyway.
“Whoever knows that, despite his own wretchedness, he lives under the constant affectionate gaze of a Father who loves him as he is will enjoy an unshakeable inner peace. His personal mistakes will not rob him of this peace, because he knows his Father is delighted to forgive him every time he asks. Knowing himself to be the object of such love, he will love himself and, freed from his personal problems, he can dedicate himself fully to loving others."
Are we cool as can be? Nah. Not on our own, anyway.
But knowing that the King of the Universe has such a soft spot for us gives us permission to quit running around trying to mpress anyone else, including ourselves. It can free up our puny energies to get on with the joy of knowing, loving and serving Him in this life and being happy with him forever in the next.