Self-Acceptance and Practical Application of Goodwill
To want less fear in the world must mean to want more people in it who are capable of love. This, in turn, must mean to want more people who are free enough from anxiety about themselves to be able to enter into productive give-and-take relationships with others. Perhaps the most important thing we can undertake toward the reduction of fear is to make it easier for people to accept themselves; to love themselves.
It has become hard in our modern culture to gain a firm sense of 'local' belonging. The more distinction we create the more easily we can lose track of our inherent synthesis and integration with and as each other. The old-standard of competitive success has robbed the modern individual of what we might call "natural status" and has left us feeling that we have to "earn" approval, love, friendship, popularity, a place in the human enterprise—much as we 'earn' a daily living. Even the infant often lacks basic emotional security—for they enter the parents' home as a "problem;" an expense; an invader of their other interests; a restraint upon their freedom of movement. Because it has become so hard for people to win a simple affirmative response from others, it has become hard for them to relax their anxiety about themselves.
Love is fully as important as the crooners, cosmetic vendors and writers of soap operas say it is. It is not, however, the sort of thing they chiefly say it is. It is not an abrupt, errative, exclusive emotion that takes hold of life when boy meets girl. Love is a seasoned capacity to affirm other human beings as important in their own right. Only the person who has matured beyond the initial "getting" stage can give love; and if we can 'give' in love, we will give, not exhaustively to one person, but in a multitude of good-willed attitudes and behaviours that are shared across all our endeavors and relationships. We may be 'more intimate' with the one or the few than with the many. But if we are capable of loving anyone, it will be because we are free enough from self-preoccupied fear, guilt and shame to love life; and the love of life is an embracing, not an exclusive, experience.
The first means by which we can increase people's self-liking and self-respect may sound sentimental in bare statement; yet it is of basic practicality. We can like people into liking themselves. As Harry Stack Sullivan has noted, the self is "made up of reflected appraisals." The person, for example, to whom others listen with interest feels interesting. With anxiety about one-self thus relieved, we can become more responsive to our world. This is the principle we have to work with: that the attitude we show toward another person tends to be incorporated into our self-appraisal and therefore in our behaviour.
The person at whom we smile, may smile back. In one sense, they smile at us. In a deeper sense, their smile reports the sudden well-being we have offered into their experience. We have, so to speak, picked them out of the crowd. We have differentiated them and given them individual status. This is what we do, in one way or another, whenever we lend our approval and interest, however briefly, to a fellow human; and it is an important thing to do in today's world, where far too many people, performing routine tasks within loveless situations, are hard put to feel that they matter.
Peter Viereck describes our modern "limbo" as a place where ...humans are filed in their own filing-system with frayed manila folders for their souls, Once labelled GOD'S OWN IMAGE: USE WITH CARE but now reclassified as OBSOLETE.
What we do, psychologically, when we give our good-willed attention to another person is to re-label them as significant. The sense of being loved becomes in them a sense of being worthy of love.
We cannot, in one human lifetime, draw reassuringly close to all the people who stand in emotional need of acceptance and approval. We can, however, incorporate in our own habit-system, for use in every situation we enter, the principle of courtesy toward human nature as that nature is embodied in individuals. We need not, on behalf of man's goodwill toward man, bustle around “loving Humanity”. We need, rather, to accept people as themselves, as deserving of a chance to show to their best advantage, as deserving of our interest and courtesy.
The second thing we can do to encourage self-acceptance is to let people take, and help them take, a realistic attitude toward their limitations and errors. Since human beings are fallible, the individual who cannot tolerate themselves as fallible stands a slim chance of remaining on good terms with themself.
We can do several things, wherever our influence counts, to create an atmosphere where errors and shortcomings are treated as real but not as disastrous; where they are treated as something to grow beyond rather than as something over which to brood. At this point it can be of vital importance to realize that we grow in relation to our group progress not our individual status. A cell in our bodies that wants to 'grow and become' beyond the integrity of the group to which it belongs creates an imbalanced state - something we call a cancer.
We can make only such demands upon people as they have the power to meet. In an effort to encourage a high level of performance, parents sometimes set such high standards for their children and tell them so often that it will be a great disappointment if they do not measure up, that they virtually force those children into an exaggerated fear of failure and exaggerated self-dislike when failure occurs. Such anxious self-centering does not make for sustained performance or inclusive goodwill. Often, it is a large factor in "nervous-breakdown" apathy, psychosomatic illness and regression.
We can help people accept their shortcomings and grow beyond them. To give as much attention to what they do well as to what they do badly. That part of a person's total performance to which others attend becomes almost inevitably the part that looms large, in our own self-appraisal. Where an individual is habitually rebuked for error but rarely praised for accomplishment, the balance of self-estimation is tipped by the one-sidedness of the 'other's' response. In many homes, schools, and places of employment it is still unfortunately true that criticism is prompt, frequent and sharp, while appreciation is almost wholly lacking.
Another way in which we can help people to live well with their own fallibility is to let them know that mistakes go with learning and that it is psychologically more fatal to stop learning than to make mistakes.
Then said Almitra, Speak to us of Love. And he raised his head and looked upon the people, and there fell a stillness upon them. And with a great voice he said:
When love beckons to you, follow him, Though his ways are hard and steep. And when his wings enfold you yield to him, Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you. And when he speaks to you believe in him, Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden. For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning. Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun, So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth. Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself He threshes you to make you naked. He sifts you to free you from your husks. He grinds you to whiteness. He kneads you until you are pliant; And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast. All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart. But if in your heart you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure, Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor, Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears. Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself. Love possesses not nor would it be possessed; For love is sufficient unto love. When you love you should not say, “God is in my heart,” but rather, “I am in the heart of God.” And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course. Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself. But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night. To know the pain of too much tenderness. To be wounded by your own understanding of love; And to bleed willingly and joyfully. To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving; To rest at the noon hour and meditate love’s ecstasy; To return home at eventide with gratitude; And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.
Text taken from "Understanding Fear - In Ourselves and Others" by Benare W.Overstreet (Harper Bros., New York 1951) - adapted to a modern audience.
Poem from Kahlil Gibran.