According to the conventional wisdom, it is easy to love oneself and hard to love others, and it is easy to hate others but impossible to hate oneself. But I have in mind a certain self-hatred that afflicts almost everyone, and a certain self-love that is every bit as difficult as the most generous love of others. Pope Benedict was pointing to this natural self-hatred and this difficult self-love when he wrote: “Is it good that I exist? Is it good that anything at all exists? Is the world good? How many persons today would dare to affirm this question from the heart–to believe it is good that they exist? That is the source of the anxiety and despair that incessantly affect mankind” (Principles of Catholic Theology, 80). If you are not convinced that it is good that you exist, then you cannot love yourself, you cannot gladly and gratefully accept your existence, and in fact you are liable to live with some degree of self-hatred.
Of course, you always love yourself in the sense that when you feel pain, you try to get relief from it. It seems almost impossible that, when you suffer from a severe pain, you would not want relief from your pain, whereas it seems natural enough, though regrettable, that when you see another person suffering the same pain, you may not be willing to do what it takes to relieve his or her pain. In any case, you don’t have the same instinctive and irresistible aversion to the pain of another that you have to your own pain. The same holds for some immediate threat to your life; you shrink from a threat to your life with an instinctive immediacy that you do not feel with respect to a threat to another’s life. But this is a completely different level of self-love from the one I have in mind. You may feel plenty of self-love with regard to pain and danger and still not really believe that it is good that you exist. In this case you have self-love at a certain instinctual level but lack self-love at the level of your personal existence. You suffer from a self-hatred which exists not as a disorder in your instincts but as a sickness of the spirit.
Man is the being who puts himself into question; instead of living in a natural solidarity with himself, instead of taking his existence for granted, he is a problem to himself. You know that you could as well have never existed. Does your existence make any difference? Is it good that you exist? Is your existence “justified”? You desperately need to feel justified in your existence, but you are troubled by feeling as if you were a cosmic accident. If this is your spiritual condition you are in no position to love yourself, for your spiritual distress comes from wondering whether you are loveable at all.
Perhaps you seek some self-justification. You set out to achieve good things, to make something good of your life, so as to be able to love yourself. You hold yourself to certain standards and ideals, you model yourself on certain exemplary persons, you aspire for great things--and in the end you feel keenly how far short you fall. You feel yourself to be a shadow of what you ought to be, or might have been. There are many people who on the outside seem to be highly accomplished, yet feel on the inside like failures, as if they have nothing to show for their lives. They have not succeeded in justifying themselves; they come before themselves with empty hands. They have more self-condemnation in their hearts than self-love.
There is only one way to self-love, and that is to be loved by another. And to be loved not just for your accomplishments but for yourself; to be loved with a love that is not earned but freely given as a gift. The love of a mother or a father or a spouse or a friend can do for you what you could never do for yourself, it has the power to assure you that it is good that you exist, to enable you to be grateful for your existence. It is not that these others confer the goodness of your existence on you, it is rather that, all alone with yourself, you cannot access this goodness of your existence; you can experience it and come to love yourself only together with others who first experience it and first love you. Self-love, paradoxically, is not achieved in solitude. (But the instinctive self-love whereby we avoid pain is entirely solitary; each of us experiences it in himself and without needing any support from others.)
But it is one thing to be loved by others, and it is another to receive this love in such a way that it penetrates your emotional system, so that you spontaneously live out of self-love, out of the inner peace of a deep self-acceptance. Your being loved is constantly at war with your deep-seated anxiety about your lovability and with your desperate attempts to attract and to earn the love of others. Even when your being loved is raised to the highest power in God, even when you believe that God loves you personally by creating you and redeeming you, this anxiety continues to eat away at you. The will to justify your existence on your own terms and by your own efforts does not immediately die in you as a result of being loved by another, any more than sexual concupiscence immediately dies in the chaste person. This is why deep and abiding self-love is rare, and in fact just as rare as the generous love of others.
Sometimes people are aware of their deep insecurity about the goodness of their existence, and they want to find the inner peace that comes with real self-love. It is very important that we not discredit their concern for a right relation to themselves by calling it “selfish.” We would speak like shallow moralizers if we blamed such persons for being too influenced by the culture of narcissism, and if we admonished them to stop thinking so much about themselves and just commit themselves to the service of others. The aspiration for a well-ordered self-love has nothing to do with selfishness, and it has everything to do with having a self. There is a selflessness that is admirable, and there is a selflessness that is a mutilated state of a personal self.
Besides, the admirable selflessness is only possible in a person who is self-centered in the sense of having authentic self-love. As long as you are trying to earn the love of others by impressing them with your accomplishments, you are trying to get something from them–to get some confirmation of your worth--and are not free to love them with a generous heart for their own sakes.