I am old enough to remember the Stuart Smalley skits on Saturday Night Live with Al Franken gazing into a mirror and declaring “I’m good enough, smart enough and gosh darn it, people like me.” SNL was clearly poking fun at the psychobabble of the self-esteem craze of the 90s. It’s somehow always the comedians who see the problem before it becomes the dark cloud hanging over all of us. I was in high school in the 90s and I also remember watching Oprah, Dr. Phil and every sitcom under the sun leveraging the theme of self-love. We were told that until we love ourselves, we can’t love others well. With so much of the focus on loving the self, we never heard much about the second part of that statement. Instead, flash forward to today, and we have morphed into a full-fledged societal embrace of narcissism and hedonism. From Baby Boomers to Gen Z, the American Psyche has been on a slow drip of self-love poison down through the generations that has completely altered the way we look at life and love. It’s most obviously evident in the decline in religious worship and the breakdown of the family. Today, people worship themselves.

Over the last four decades, we’ve heard the message that we should “find ourselves” with an emphasis on self-fulfillment and self-reliance. It’s on social media, in countless books, music and art, even in our schools. If you don’t travel the world to find yourself before you get married, we are told, along with establishing a successful career, you are setting yourself up for failure. On my daily travels to and from my daughter’s school, there is a billboard for a family law firm that reads, “Oops, life is short, get a divorce.” What a terrible message! Instead of laying down our lives for our spouses, the world tells us that if they don’t make us happy by living up to our expectations, we should kick them to the curb and move on as quickly as possible. After all, nothing is more important than our happiness. Even in intact marriages, this poison seeps in, creating conflict and erecting walls between husband and wife, our spouses, the one other we are supposed to be able to completely trust. Not to mention, we know that children of divorce suffer immensely, often silently. They may never let their pain be seen by anyone, especially their parents. They have been told that the divorce is about their parents’ happiness and if their parents are happier apart, they will allegedly be better parents. Kids shove the pain way down inside where it festers. A vicious cycle of brokenness… broken marriages, broken children, broken people is created. We also know something far more unsettling, hurt people, hurt people. Love yourself first so you can love others, eh? It doesn’t seem to be working out so well.

Self-actualization is the psychological movement behind all of this focus on self. It’s based on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1954) and claims that it is the highest level of psychological development, where “personal potential is fully realized after basic bodily and ego needs have been fulfilled.” It’s interesting though, even staunch followers of these ideas admit these goals are unattainable for most people. We should also understand that there are deep philosophical underpinnings to these kinds of movements. After Frederich Nietzche declared, “God is dead and we killed him” human beings suddenly had no direction and nothing at which to aim. The meaning and purpose of our lives was called into question and the atheist, and perhaps satanic, solution was to replace God with ourselves. I say satanic, because of the cautionary tale in Genesis. It was the serpent in the garden possessed by the devil who first acted with not-so-subtle messaging to Adam and Eve that God wasn’t trustworthy, and they needed the knowledge of good and evil to “live their best lives.” The truth is, humanity has been replacing God with himself since the beginning of time, but today it has become the accepted ultimate goal of life. Whether it be blatant self-worship, or more insidious messaging that says, “do whatever makes you happy,” self-actualization is supposed to bring us to some kind of self-transcendence. But it’s a bold face lie.

Reality shows us the truth. It turns out that we are not so good at loving ourselves. Just 45% of Gen Zers report that their men­tal health is very good or excel­lent, accord­ing to the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion. All oth­er gen­er­a­tion groups fared bet­ter on this sta­tis­tic, includ­ing Mil­len­ni­als (56%), Gen Xers (51%) and Boomers (70%). There has been a steep decline in mental health affecting every walk of life and it is not simply explained away by a society that is more accepting of mental health. That is a cop out and a refusal to ask the hard question; “what are we doing wrong?” Mental health experts, having no other solution besides meds to numb the pain, will often double down on the self-love, self-esteem drip. Society says we all have to just be more accepting of ourselves and demands that we accept others, no matter our immoral behavior. Let’s really zoom out. What do we see? I see broken families where parents focus on making themselves “happy” and putting their spouse and children second. I see boys and girls growing up without father figures and moms stretched and struggling to put food on the table. I see kids raising themselves and addicted to technology. I see mothers carrying Louis Vuitton bags while their babies are at daycare fighting to be held. I see teens clamoring for online attention via eating disorders, self-objectification and various sexual identity crises. I see women “shouting their abortions” and calling killing their own children in the name of following their dreams, “mercy.” I see young men addicted to porn and unable to have intimate, loving relationships with real women because their brains have been wired to believe that love is pleasure. I see violence, anger and deep divides. Because we worship ourselves, our culture is sick. Sin is illness and our society is in need of deep, spiritual healing.

No one is immune to the slow drip of self-love messaging. When we look to define ourselves by the job we have, a sport we play, the friends we hang out with, a political party we follow, the material things we have, or even in the way we call ourselves spiritual and but not religious, we intrinsically know that there is more to our stories. Once when I was a sophomore in college, when I was supposed to be finding myself, I felt lost. I had no idea what my purpose in this life was or what I was aiming for. I certainly wasn’t living a virtuous life and I was unsure of who I was becoming. Life felt meaningless. So, I decided to take a walk by myself late at night to our campus bike trail and looked up at the sky full of stars and spoke with my heart, “God, what am I doing here?” I kept thinking, how am I supposed to figure it out when God never talks back? A few moments later I noticed two young men riding their bikes toward me. I started to feel very vulnerable. I was a young woman, alone, in the middle of the night and no one was around. As they approached, they began to slow down, and I knew they were going to stop and talk to me. One of them asked me, “Do you know God?” A bit surprised, I replied, “well actually I was just sitting here talking to Him.” The young man then handed me a small Bible. Without another word, they rode away. I took the Bible back to my dorm room, quickly glanced through it, put it on the shelf of my desk and I never opened it again. I never read a word of it. I just went on about my life not realizing that God does speak. He was asking me to trust Him, and I was too blinded by my own pride and vanity to see it. Even so, it wasn’t long after that night that I would meet my future husband and the entire trajectory of my life would change forever.

In The Reed of God by Caryll Houselander she writes: “Fed in this soil of vanity and fear and folly, the love for material things grows like a fungus in the soul and destroys the loveliness of the human heart utterly. The remedy for fear is trust in God. If we fear for ourselves or if we fear for others, it is all the same: trust in God is the only remedy.” And that’s really it, isn’t it? It’s all fear. Fear of who we really are, fear of who we will become. Fear that we will never measure up to the expectations that we have for ourselves, or of others. Fear that there is no God, and this life is all that there is. Fear is ultimately what leads us to not trust and strive to satisfy our happiness with things other than the Perfect Love we all truly desire. 

In that little book, nearly twenty years later, I would discover that there was a message waiting for me. It wasn’t “find yourself, love yourself, make yourself happy.” It was “deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow me” (Matthew 16: 24-26). Nowhere in scripture or tradition is it said that we should love ourselves first. Reading the Bible for the first time I found real love is other focused. “Love God first with all your heart, mind and soul and strength is the first command and the second is love others as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31). It’s not that we shouldn’t love ourselves or want to be happy, it’s that without knowing and loving God first, we don’t even know who we are, where our dignity comes from or what true sacrificial love is. This is a radically different message than what I had been hearing my whole life. Upon understanding it, my heart felt healing for the first time, and it was reflected in all of my relationships. Authentic happiness is realized when we understand the full flourishing of what it means to be human.

Our culture threw out God and made the self the center of the universe. It’s not that we don’t believe in God, it’s that we ignore Him. We put Him on the shelf and go on about our lives as if He doesn’t exist. Because we never allow Him to love us, we don’t know who we are or what we are aiming for. We are constantly seeking an identity or other things to fill the hole in our hearts that burns for the perfect love of God. It is a restless yearning to truly understand that we are beloved children of God made with a purpose, unique and unrepeatable. Our souls are infinite, our time here is short, and eternity in Heaven is the real ultimate goal. It is only by surrendering the striving to save ourselves and putting our complete trust in God that we are finally able to truly love others as ourselves. Loving others is duty, loyalty and sacrifice. Real love is always sacrificial, it’s willing the good of the other. It’s only when we finally put down the mirrors breaking the gaze of ourselves and look up when we will see who we are. Then, by lovingly serving others, our hearts will overflow with real joy. He came so that we could have life and have it abundantly. (John 10:10).

There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment. The one who fears has not been perfected in love. We love because He first loved us. (1 John 4: 18-19)

Let’s seek Perfect Love.