It’s Eastertide, and something I learned from NT Wright is that if we give up something for the forty days of Lent, it’s a good idea to add something uplifting to the fifty days of Easter. I’ve been reading Mark Gregory Karris’ book Religious Refugees. I find it very interesting, and I’ll come back to it a couple of times, I think. But his section on self-compassion has really captured me. Having self-compassion leads to better health practices, which, of course, leads to better health outcomes. In fact, self-compassion seems to help in a whole host of situations from raising children, to body dysmorphia, or situations of chronic stress. Know anyone who has been experiencing chronic stress lately? I know I do. (Spoiler: me.)
Self-compassion, something we could define as loving yourself as you love your neighbor, is an important practice, but I’m not sure Christians talk enough about it these days. Simone Weil tells us, “God’s love for us is not the reason we should love him. God’s love for us is the reason for us to love ourselves.” Sit with that for a moment. The Infinite loves you. So you should probably go easy on yourself, too.
Kristin Neff, who wrote the meta-analysis in my second link, tells us the three main practices of people with high levels of self-compassion are “Self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.” Self-kindness is treating yourself as you would treat a beloved friend in the same situation. This may seem easy or trite at first glance, but I know I’ve beat myself up for things I know I wouldn’t have even thought about if a friend had done the same thing. Taking a moment to think about how we would respond to a friend who did or said the thing can be really helpful.
Common humanity is the recognition that all of us struggle, mess up, hurt others, and “do not do the good [we] want, but the evil [we] do not want” (Romans 7:19). Recognizing our common humanity can be difficult in the time of social media, when so many people work so hard to curate the image of a perfect life. But they’re just images. Graven ones, perhaps. Lets not worship them.
The third component, mindfulness, is something that has received plenty of attention, so I won’t belabor the point, but I do want to mention that contemplative prayer has been a part of the Christian tradition as long as there has been a tradition. I encourage everyone to try some form of the Jesus prayer (“Jesus Christ have mercy on me”). Karris has another mindfulness practice that is so beautiful that I’ll let him tell it:
If you experience suffering, close your eyes and allow yourself to feel the pain. Make note of the primary emotion that arises when you think about your suffering. And then be mindful of your body’s physical response to that emotion. Remind yourself, in that very moment, that you are not alone in this type of hurt and that even Jesus may have felt the very same feelings. Place your warm hands on your tender heart and gently repeat to yourself at least three times,
“I feel the sharp arrow of this deep hurt. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I be loved. May I be at peace. May I press on toward becoming who the Divine has called me to be in this world.”
This simple practice can tap into your inner drug store and release oxytocin, the neurochemical that triggers feelings of warmth, calm, trust, and safety.
Karris also has an lovely interpretation of “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear”(Eph 4:29). First, he encourages us to think about this quote in terms of self-talk. If we aren’t to be unwholesome to others, surely the Ground of All Being doesn’t want us to be unwholesome with ourselves. Secondly, he makes the point that “”unwholesome” doesn’t mean curse words, as I was always taught, but “rotten or bad”. The writer is telling us to not trash talk ourselves. That seems like solid biblical advice. When you notice your inner critic with unwholesome language about you, notice it. Maybe take a moment to pray the above prayer, and gradually that critic will become more compassionate toward you. As you deserve.
So I encourage you, dear readers, as I encourage myself. It’s Eastertide. Love yourself as God first loved us—deeply and compassionately. We are, none of us, an island.
Bart Hennigan has a Master of Public and International Affairs degree from the University of Pittsburgh. He is currently in year four of Sewanne's Education for Ministry and is pursuing certification as a spiritual director through the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. When not reading or discussing philosophy and theology, Bart is a stay-at-home father of three, which has taught him much about patience and the importance of silence.