In Genesis 1, God creates the world with the divine, truthful Word, generating habitable, paradisal order from the precosmogonic chaos. He then creates Man and Woman in His Image, imbuing them with the capacity to do the same—to create order from chaos, and continue His work. At each stage of creation, including that involving the formation of the first couple, God reflects upon what has come to be, and pronounces it Good.
The juxtaposition of Genesis 1 with Genesis 2 & 3 (the latter two chapters outlining the fall of man, describing why our lot is so tragedy-ridden and ethically torturous) produces a narrative sequence almost unbearable in its profundity. The moral of Genesis 1 is that Being brought into existence through true speech is Good. This is true even of man himself, prior to his separation from God. This goodness is terribly disrupted by the events of the fall (and of Cain and Abel and the Flood and the Tower of Babel), but we retain an intimation of the prelapsarian state. We remember, so to speak. We remain eternally nostalgic for the innocence of childhood, the divine, unconscious Being of the animal, and the untouched cathedral-like old-growth forest. We find respite in such things. We worship them, even if we are self-proclaimed atheistic environmentalists of the most anti-human sort. The original state of Nature, conceived in this manner, is paradisal. But we are no longer one with God and Nature, and there is no simple turning back.
The original Man and Woman, existing in unbroken unity with their Creator, did not appear conscious (and certainly not self-conscious). Their eyes were not open. But, in their perfection, they were also less, not more, than their post-Fail counterparts. Their goodness was something bestowed, rather than deserved or earned. They exercised no choice. God knows, that’s easier. But maybe it’s not better than, for example, goodness genuinely earned. Maybe, even in some cosmic sense (assuming that consciousness itself is a phenomenon of cosmic significance), free choice matters. Who can speak with certainty about such things? I am unwilling to take these questions off the table, however, merely because they are difficult. So, here’s a proposition: perhaps it is not simply the emergence of self-consciousness and the rise of our moral knowledge of Death and the Fall that besets us and makes us doubt our own worth. Perhaps it is instead our unwillingness—reflected in Adam’s shamed hiding—to walk with God, despite our fragility and propensity for evil.
The entire Bible is structured so that everything after the Fall—the history of Israel, the prophets, the coming of Christ—is presented as a remedy for that Fall, a way out of evil. The beginning of conscious history, the rise of the state and all its pathologies of pride and rigidity, the emergence of great moral figures who try to set things right, culminating in the Messiah Himself—that is all part of humanity’s attempt, God willing, to set itself right. And what would that mean?
And this is an amazing thing: the answer is already implicit in Genesis 1: to embody the Image of God—to speak out of chaos the Being that is Good—but to do so consciously, of our own free choice. Back is the way forward—as T. S. Eliot so rightly insisted—but back as awake beings, exercising the proper choice of awake beings, instead of back to sleep:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always —
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
(“Little Gidding,” Four Quartets, 1943)
If we wish to take care of ourselves properly, we would have to respect ourselves—but we don’t, because we are—not least in our own eyes—fallen creatures. If we lived in Truth; if we spoke the Truth—then we could walk with God once again, and respect ourselves, and others, and the world. Then we might treat ourselves like people we cared for. We might strive to set the world straight. We might orient it toward Heaven, where we would want people we cared for to dwell, instead of Hell, where our resentment and hatred would eternally sentence everyone.
In the areas where Christianity emerged two thousand years ago, people were much more barbaric than they are today. Conflict was everywhere. Human sacrifice, including that of children, was a common occurrence even in technologically sophisticated societies, such as that of ancient Carthage. In Rome, arena sports were competitions to the death, and the spilling of blood was a commonplace. The probability that a modern person, in a functional democratic country, will now kill or be killed is infinitesimally low compared to what it was in previous societies (and still is, in the unorganized and anarchic parts of the world). Then, the primary moral issue confronting society was control of violent, impulsive selfishness and the mindless greed and brutality that accompanies it. People with those aggressive tendencies still exist. At least now they know that such behaviour is sub-optimal, and either try to control it or encounter major social obstacles if they don’t.
But now, also, another problem has arisen, which was perhaps less common in our harsher past. It is easy to believe that people are arrogant, and egotistical, and always looking out for themselves. The cynicism that makes that opinion a universal truism is widespread and fashionable. But such an orientation to the world is not at all characteristic of many people. They have the opposite problem: they shoulder intolerable burdens of self-disgust, self-contempt, shame and self-consciousness. Thus, instead of narcissistically inflating their own importance, they don’t value themselves at all, and they don’t take care of themselves with attention and skill. It seems that people often don’t really believe that they deserve the best care, personally speaking. They are excruciatingly aware of their own faults and inadequacies, real and exaggerated, and ashamed and doubtful of their own value. They believe that other people shouldn’t suffer, and they will work diligently and altruistically to help them alleviate it. They extend the same courtesy even to the animals they are acquainted with—but not so easily to themselves.
It is true that the idea of virtuous self-sacrifice is deeply embedded in Western culture (at least insofar as the West has been influenced by Christianity, which is based on the imitation of someone who performed the ultimate act of self-sacrifice). Any claim that the Golden Rule does not mean “sacrifice yourself for others” might therefore appear dubious. But Christ’s archetypal death exists as an example of how to accept finitude, betrayal and tyranny heroically—how to walk with God despite the tragedy of self-conscious knowledge—and not as a directive to victimize ourselves in the service of others. To sacrifice ourselves to God (to the highest good, if you like) does not mean to suffer silently and willingly when some person or organization demands more from us, consistently, than is offered in return. That means we are supporting tyranny, and allowing ourselves to be treated like slaves. It is not virtuous to be victimized by a bully, even if that bully is oneself.
I learned two very important lessons from Carl Jung, the famous Swiss depth psychologist, about “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” or “loving your neighbour as yourself.” The first lesson was that neither of these statements has anything to do with being nice. The second was that both are equations, rather than injunctions. If I am someone’s friend, family member, or lover, then I am morally obliged to bargain as hard on my own behalf as they are on theirs. If I fail to do so, I will end up a slave, and the other person a tyrant. What good is that? It much better for any relationship when both partners are strong. Furthermore, there is little difference between standing up and speaking for yourself, when you are being bullied or otherwise tormented and enslaved, and standing up and speaking for someone else. As Jung points out, this means embracing and loving the sinner who is yourself, as much as forgiving and aiding someone else who is stumbling and imperfect.
As God himself claims (so goes the story), “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” According to this philosophy, you do not simply belong to yourself. You are not simply your own possession to torture and mistreat. This is partly because your Being is inexorably tied up with that of others, and your mistreatment of yourself can have catastrophic consequences for others. This is most clearly evident, perhaps, in the aftermath of suicide, when those left behind are often both bereft and traumatized. But, metaphorically speaking, there is also this: you have a spark of the divine in you, which belongs not to you, but to God. We are, after all—according to Genesis—made in His image. We have the semi-divine capacity for consciousness. Our consciousness participates in the speaking forth of Being. We are low-resolution (“kenotic”) versions of God. We can make order from chaos—and vice versa—in our way, with our words. So, we may not exactly be God, but we’re not exactly nothing, either.
In my own periods of darkness, in the underworld of the soul, I find myself frequently overcome and amazed by the ability of people to befriend each other, to love their intimate partners and parents and children, and to do what they must do to keep the machinery of the world running. I knew a man, injured and disabled by a car accident, who was employed by a local utility. For years after the crash he worked side by side with another man, who for his part suffered with a degenerative neurological disease. They cooperated while repairing the lines, each making up for the other’s inadequacy. This sort of everyday heroism is the rule, I believe, rather than the exception. Most individuals are dealing with one or more serious health problems while going productively and uncomplainingly about their business. If anyone is fortunate enough to be in a rare period of grace and health, personally, then he or she typically has at least one close family member in crisis. Yet people prevail and continue to do difficult and effortful tasks to hold themselves and their families and society together. To me this is miraculous—so much so that a dumbfounded gratitude is the only appropriate response. There are so many ways that things can fall apart, or fail to work altogether, and it is always wounded people who are holding it together. They deserve some genuine and heartfelt admiration for that. It’s an ongoing miracle of fortitude and perseverance.
In my clinical practice I encourage people to credit themselves and those around them for acting productively and with care, as well as for the genuine concern and thoughtfulness they manifest towards others. People are so tortured by the limitations and constraint of Being that I am amazed they ever act properly or look beyond themselves at all. But enough do so that we have central heat and running water and infinite computational power and electricity and enough for everyone to eat and even the capacity to contemplate the fate of broader society and nature, terrible nature, itself. All that complex machinery that protects us from freezing and starving and dying from lack of water tends unceasingly towards malfunction through entropy, and it is only the constant attention of careful people that keeps it working so unbelievably well. Some people degenerate into the hell of resentment and the hatred of Being, but most refuse to do so, despite their suffering and disappointments and losses and inadequacies and ugliness, and again that is a miracle for those with the eyes to see it.
Humanity, in total, and those who compose it as identifiable people deserve some sympathy for the appalling burden under which the human individual genuinely staggers; some sympathy for subjugation to mortal vulnerability, tyranny of the state, and the depredations of nature. It is an existential situation that no mere animal encounters or endures, and one of severity such that it would take a God to fully bear it. It is this sympathy that should be the proper medicament for self-conscious self-contempt, which has its justification, but is only half the full and proper story. Hatred for self and mankind must be balanced with gratefulness for tradition and the state and astonishment at what normal, everyday people accomplish—to say nothing of the staggering achievements of the truly remarkable.
We deserve some respect. You deserve some respect. You are important to other people, as much as to yourself. You have some vital role to play in the unfolding destiny of the world. You are, therefore, morally obliged to take care of yourself. You should take care of, help and be good to yourself the same way you would take care of help and be good to someone you loved and valued. You may therefore have to conduct yourself habitually in a manner that allows you some respect for your own Being—and fair enough. But every person is deeply flawed. Everyone falls short of the glory of God. If that stark fact meant, however, that we had no responsibility to care, for ourselves as much as others, everyone would be brutally punished all the time. That would not be good. That would make the shortcomings of the world, which can make everyone who thinks honestly question the very propriety of the world, worse in every way. That simply cannot be the proper path forward.
To treat yourself as if you were someone you are responsible for helping is, instead, to consider what would be truly good for you. This is not “what you want.” It is also not “what would make you happy.” Every time you give a child something sweet, you make that child happy. That does not mean that you should do nothing for children except feed them candy. “Happy” is by no means synonymous with “good.” You must get children to brush their teeth. They must put on their snowsuits when they go outside in the cold, even though they might object strenuously. You must help a child become a virtuous, responsible, awake being, capable of full reciprocity—able to take care of himself and others, and to thrive while doing so. Why would you think it acceptable to do anything less for yourself?
You need to consider the future and think, “What might my life look like if I were caring for myself properly? What career would challenge me and render me productive and helpful, so that I could shoulder my share of the load, and enjoy the consequences? What should I be doing, when I have some freedom, to improve my health, expand my knowledge, and strengthen my body?” You need to know where you are, so you can start to chart your course. You need to know who you are, so that you understand your armament and bolster yourself in respect to your limitations. You need to know where you are going, so that you can limit the extent of chaos in your life, restructure order, and bring the divine force of Hope to bear on the world.
You must determine where you are going, so that you can bargain for yourself, so that you don’t end up resentful, vengeful and cruel. You have to articulate your own principles, so that you can defend yourself against others’ taking inappropriate advantage of you, and so that you are secure and safe while you work and play. You must discipline yourself carefully. You must keep the promises you make to yourself, and reward yourself, so that you can trust and motivate yourself. You need to determine how to act toward yourself so that you are most likely to become and to stay a good person. It would be good to make the world a better place. Heaven, after all, will not arrive of its own accord. We will have to work to bring it about, and strengthen ourselves, so that we can withstand the deadly angels and flaming sword of judgment that God used to bar its entrance.
Don’t underestimate the power of vision and direction. These are irresistible forces, able to transform what might appear to be unconquerable obstacles into traversable pathways and expanding opportunities. Strengthen the individual. Start with yourself. Take care with yourself. Define who you are. Refine your personality. Choose your destination and articulate your Being. As the great nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche so brilliantly noted, “He whose life has a why can bear almost any how.”—
You could help direct the world, on its careening trajectory, a bit more toward Heaven and a bit more away from Hell. Once having understood Hell, researched it, so to speak— particularly your own individual Hell—you could decide against going there or creating that. You could aim elsewhere. You could, in fact, devote your life to this. That would give you a Meaning, with a capital M. That would justify your miserable existence. That would atone for your sinful nature, and replace your shame and self-consciousness with the natural pride and forthright confidence of someone who has learned once again to walk with God in the Garden.
You could begin by treating yourself as if you were someone you were responsible for helping.