Imagine with me for a moment a young child, sitting in a church sanctuary or perhaps a modest gymnasium with folding chairs set up in broken lines. He is largely unaware, as of yet, what the purpose of this weekly gathering might be…his concentration moves in and out of the service and the sermon, unable to follow the flow of the liturgy but catching snapshots here and there. Beside him sits his mother. He has yet to be socialized out of expressing physical affection towards his her and he finds deep comfort in her caring touch. Week to week, he receives this loving touch from his mother while his father, the pastor, stands at the pulpit and talks about a God who deeply cares about him. A God who sees him and knows him and takes a personal interest in his life.
His stage of development prevents him from absorbing much of the complexities of the theology presented from the pulpit. What he does absorb is the loving presence of his mother and pieces of a grand story where the creator of the world that surrounds him calls him beloved.
I was a young boy much like this once. And as I grew up, church and community continued to serve as a place of comfort. But as I formed my sense of self and independence, and eventually came out as queer in my 20’s, this was complicated by moments and seasons where my faith communities, my parents, my friends, my partners, my teachers, the institutions that surrounded me failed me and hurt me, repeatedly, in times of great vulnerability. So, while my everyday life could be perceived as quite ‘normal,’ you won’t be entirely surprised that my story, as with many LGBTQ+ Christians, also includes trauma, negative self-talk and self-hatred, depression, persistent gnawing questions, and self-destructive behavioural patterns.
Every once in a while, I find myself asking how it is that I can carve out a life of meaning—a well-lived life—with these complexities raging inside me. And so, as is my practice, I’ve immersed myself into various self-help and philosophical books and podcasts that attempt to respond to the question, “What does living well look like?” A consistent emphasis in almost all of these resources has been some form of radical self-love intertwined with the story of some higher power.
Brené Brown talks about ‘worthiness’, Pema Chödrön talks about ‘loving-kindness towards oneself’, Henri Nouwen talks about ‘coming home to our inner voice of love’, Melody Beattie talks about “having a love affair with yourself,” Mark Manson talks about “knowing and accepting our limitations.” None of these authors encourage us to see ourselves as blameless, innocent, perfect, special, extraordinary people. In fact, all of them advocate for deep humility and personal responsibility, acknowledgement of our imperfection and vulnerability, and learning to befriend our loneliness and reframe our understanding of pain and suffering. Radical self-love, to me, isn’t love that is blind to our flaws and failures, it is profound acceptance of them and proclamation in the face of them that we are enough, and in fact deeply worthy of love and belonging – first and foremost from ourselves.
I began this blog asking you to imagine a young child. Many wiser people than I, have spoken about radical self-love and healing involving a process of acknowledging, and welcoming home our inner child. What better way to do this than to identify moments (real or imagined) in our own personal narratives where our childhood-self may have felt, loved, secure, safe, and known. Reflecting on such moments, we can begin to ask, “How might we serve as that presence to the inner child that still lives within us, desperate for a place of stability, acceptance, safety, and love?”
The reason I chose the particular image of a young child in a worship service cuddling with their mother is because of its multi-layered nature.
Some things to reflect on:
(1) Perhaps, your inner child deeply desires to be intimately held, cared for, rescued, comforted, celebrated, and seen. As we grow up in the world, often our parents can longer play this role in our lives. For many of us, much of our life becomes a search for an external replacement for that parental figure. We search and long for it in our friends and partners. We feel that we lack the resources, skills, and resolve to do it for ourselves. This pattern can often lead to neediness, dependency, and controlling behaviour that can do harm to both ourselves and those that we love.
I’m still convinced that I we are unable to confront our loneliness and fear and cultivate wholeness or ‘wholehearted living’ (Brene Brown) without significant support from community – communities like Generous Space. This might mean that the journey to radical love of self involves cultivating interdependent relationships with healthy attachments and boundaries within the context of community. Another both/and. Both radical self-love and deep relationships in community.
(2) The second feature of the story might be equally important. The role of spirituality, faith and story.
According to Brené Brown, “Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of meaning, and purpose to our lives…Faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty.” (The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are)
For myself, radical self-love is made achievable by the persistent faith that I am beloved: that there is some higher power that has proclaimed me beautiful, worthy, and enough. The idea that I am participating in some bigger story helps to give my life meaning and purpose. Welcoming home our inner child isn’t just a matter of loving ourselves, but perhaps also involves understanding ourselves as part of some larger story, some larger community marked by love and compassion. God’s love offers me a home or a ‘solid place’, as Henri Nouwen articulates, to return to.
So, it seems, there might be two starting points for us in befriending our inner child and practicing radical self-love (both of which happen best in the context of community):
Cultivating ‘Wholeness’ within yourself. We can do this through practicing self-compassion and kindness, by accepting our imperfections and vulnerabilities, by viewing pain as a (perhaps unwelcome) teacher, and by treating ourselves as we would a lover – with excitement over our quirks, with curiosity & compassion about our failures & mistakes, and with generosity towards our need for care. Only within this tenderness can your inner child come home in yourself.
Proclaim your Belovedness. We can choose to practice spirituality by holding onto a faith in some higher power that has called you good, worthy, valuable, and beloved. I can choose to believe that I am participating in some larger story which leans towards love and compassion, and that participation in this story involves some sense of fulfilment.
How we speak about ourselves, how we treat ourselves, and how we love ourselves is not merely an individual matter. In the context of our relationships within community, radical self-love will be an essential part of contributing to healthy attachment, healthy boundaries, and deep flourishing. The opportunity we have to encourage, support, and celebrate one another in each step towards growing in radical self-love is an essential part of the gift of being in community together. Such growth is rarely a smooth, linear trajectory. Most often, it is marked by twists and turns, progress and regression. The practice of embodying and reminding each other of our Belovedness and our Belonging is one marked by kindness, patience, and lots of grace. Together we can practice gently calling one another in to radical self-love and locate ourselves within the story unfolding around us – being told by our steps along the Way under the comforting gaze of a God who calls us Beloved.
*As far as I can tell, the term “Radical Self-love” is attributed to Gala Darling – a Kiwi author, speaker and teacher who is “obsessed with showing women how to love themselves unconditionally” and she has a method she attaches to the term which overlaps with some of what I speak about above, but mostly I want to focus on her belief that: “loving yourself is a revolutionary act.”