The biblical concept, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” has embedded within it a presupposition. Normally when preached, this statement is outwardly focused. You (subject) shall love your neighbor (object). Good.
Stop. By whatever means you think you are loving your neighbor, cease temporarily. The hidden presupposition in the phrase is in the end.
Before you can consider loving someone else, you must first properly love yourself. Kierkegaard calls this, “self-love.” We hear celebrated poetic language of service and sacrifice. But many who speak to such grandiose things often find themselves deflated. Or, they feel unable to love others well. Perhaps the fault lies not in the means, but rather the self.
The biblical phrase is not entirely different that the basic metaphysics of cause and effect. The effect cannot have more power than the cause. The effect also cannot cause itself, for to do so would be to have the effect precede the cause, an impossibility. When applying this analogy, two conclusions can be drawn. (1) others need our love. Even though it is possible (obviously) to love yourself, humans are relational beings. They need love from others. But (1) is entirely dependent on (2). In order to properly love another, you have to first care and love for yourself. If you love yourself only partially, then you will only love another in part, not whole. Just as the effect cannot possess more power than the cause, the recipient of your love cannot receive more than you are capable of giving.
Quoting Kierkegaard, “when the activist wastes one’s time and powers in the service of vain, inconsequential accomplishments, is it not because one has not rightly learned how to love oneself?” Further, for the person in constant despair, “When a person surrenders oneself to despair because the world or some person has left one faithlessly betrayed, what then is at fault except that one does not love oneself in the right way?”
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Who is my neighbor? This is the common question. The church answer, obviously, is everyone. Good. Yes.
Neighbor is not merely some “other.” Viewing your neighbor as some “other” deprives the command of its essence. The “other” is someone who is not yourself. If you are to love your neighbor as yourself, your neighbor ought not be viewed as some “other.” Your neighbor is you. Your neighbor is a duplication of yourself. As Kierkegaard writes, in the command “the neighbor and other need not exist.” Drop the distinctions. This does not mean embrace all lifestyles, sinful and otherwise. No. It means to love the person as you love yourself. In all of the distinctions in life, there remains but one common denominator: we are all each others neighbor. We all suffer the same depravity. We all need the same savior.
So how then shall we love? How does love not ultimately wane? Love is a duty. We are commanded to love. This is no mere ordinance given by some human government. The love to be embraced for oneself and subsequently one’s neighbor is the eternal love of God. It wavers not.
Why does love between two people often end in heartbreak? For the heartbroken romantic, love was not eternal, but spontaneous. It had a lifespan. It was romantic, erotic, but lacking the eternal. With the eternal love comes duty. Non-eternal love can change. Kierkegaard says it can change to hatred – love’s opposite. Just as the same tongue can bless and curse, so the same heart can love and hate. Such is not possible with the eternal love. The eternal love is a duty. It remains steadfast in its duty. Even though the “shall” in the command presupposes the choice to love or not love, when love is surrendered to the eternal, the “shall” is forever decided. Your love for yourself is forever secure.
Love is a duty. You are to love your neighbor. But first you must love yourself. By properly loving yourself, you recognize your own position. Despite unique characteristics, each human has the same binding essence. This essence disposes of uniqueness. There is no “other.” There is only the duplication of yourself.
Maybe the command to love can simply be put read as: Love.