“Love your neighbour” doesn’t mean what we think
Hey. This one is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, but never quite put into published writing. The reason is I struggle with shaking tables. On one hand, there are several ideas I hold that might seem table-shaking, but I’m not interested in shaking tables, just in sharing helpful ideas that are easy to miss. (You kinda have to shake tables with your title, though, sorry.) Anyway, enough preamble. Enjoy this one!
“Love your neighbour as yourself” might be the most popular statement attributed to Jesus Christ—and, in the last few decades, the most misunderstood.
The misunderstanding is the common idea that the statement is really telling us we can’t truly love others until we’re able to love ourselves. And the effect of misunderstanding it in this way is that we lose sight of a massive psychological insight embedded in that statement: that we are naturally driven by love of self. And we are being enjoined to extend to others the love we already have for ourselves.
But Ayomide, how on earth can you say people love themselves when so many people don't like or feel good about themselves, sometimes to the point of harming themselves?
Because the idea that if you love yourself, you’d feel good about yourself—that's a modern interpretation of love. Which is fine—meanings change, that's how language works. When I was a kid, “tweet” was simply the sound a bird made. But we want to avoid importing contemporary meanings into the context of ancient documents. You wouldn’t expect anyone to assume “tweet” in a 1960 book was referring to social media.
Similarly, by importing our modern understanding of “love” into “love your neighbour” we not only end up missing its insight, we also end up in precisely the direction it’s pointing us away from.
There's no way “love” in that statement is a reference to feeling good about yourself—those simply weren't the categories ancient people thought in. Heck, they’re not even, to this day, the primary categories for many cultures outside Europe and North America, except they're Westernised. Growing up, I understood my parents loving me and my brothers meant, above all else, that they wanted the best for us. It wasn’t that they didn’t feel emotion for us—of course they did. It was from watching reruns of American TV shows like The Cosby Show and A Different World that I first started to think of love more in terms of emotion. For my parents, however, like those of many others I grew up with, their love wasn’t defined by how they felt as it was defined by why they did what they did. Love, for them, and for many around the world and throughout history, wasn't just an emotion, but also a disposition.
It’s how you feel, but more than that, it's why you act.
The implication of that was that you showed you loved someone, not so much by displaying emotion as by demonstrating action: pursuing their interests. To say, “I love you above all else,” meant “Your interests come before those of any other.” And to love yourself would be to act in your own self-interest, irrespective of how you feel about yourself.
Putting it all together, then, we might paraphrase the statement, “love your neighbour as yourself” as:
Act in your neighbour's interest, as if it was your own.
The underlying assumption is we are naturally driven by self-interest. And rather than deny that, or even suppress it, we’re being told to actually use it—for our neighbour. To believe that we can’t love our neighbour until we love ourselves would therefore be to miss the point that we’re already driven by self-interest. So let’s begin with objections to that idea and then close with how we can use our self-interest for others.
The self-interest drive
No one would seriously dispute that self-interest drives much of our behaviour. What gives people pause is suggesting that it drives all of it. And to be clear, by self-interest, I don’t mean selfishness: that’s what you get when you pursue self-interest to the deliberate exclusion of others’ interests. So let’s look at the two broad categories of behaviour often posed as contradicting self-interest: self-harming behaviour and self-sacrificing behaviour.
Self-interest in self-harm
On the face of it, self-harming contradicts self-interest. That would apply whether it's physical self-harm like cutting, attempts at suicide or harmful lifestyle choices, or emotional self-endangerment like remaining in an abusive relationship. You might point to either of those and say, “How is that driven by self-interest when the person is obviously in pain?”
But look closer and you see the problem: we're again focusing on the emotion around the behaviour (pain) rather than the motivation for it. Once you consider motivation, it’s plain to see that even when people are harming themselves, there’s the underlying wish to benefit in some way. That benefit might be freedom from pain, relief of some other distress, or the belief that the pain they experience is preferable to pain of trying and failing to escape.
And they might be mistaken, but the point is they're acting to gain in some way that to them at the time seems to hold potential for benefit—or at least minimise potential for pain.
On the other hand, an important protective factor in suicide is having some relationship that you feel you need to remain alive for. That is, the interest of others is considered important enough to prioritise over yours in that moment. But then that proves to be in your own interest, as suicidal impulses for many are intense in times of overwhelming distress but then might subside if not acted on. In such instances, the interest of others in those moments proves to be in the interest of the person in the next moment, when they realise they want to remain alive.
Self-interest in self-sacrifice
“Okay, say I agree that self-harm is often driven by self-interest—how can you say that of self-sacrifice, though? I mean, the very definition is I’m myself up.”
Indeed. And to that I’d ask again: But what's the motivation? What drives your self-sacrifice—which, by the way, sounds right in line with “loving your neighbour as yourself.”
To which you might respond, “I’m driven by the interest of the other person, you dolt!”
I’d reply, “But why does the interest of the other person matter to you?” And why, of all the people in the world, that person? It might be because it’s a loved one in need or distress, and so to help them is really to help yourself. That’s why you love your kids, your spouse, your city—it’s partly because they’re yours. Or it might be a stranger, but the act of sacrificing for that stranger reinforces your self-identity: “I'm a good person, and a good person will risk themselves to help someone else in this kind of situation—I couldn't possibly sleep at night or live with myself if I didn't try to do something to help.”
You get the idea. Again, the motivation is self-interest, except that here, what the self is interested in is different: it’s often less about obtaining tangible things and more about maintaining an identity that you’re invested in, a way of seeing yourself that has become fundamental.
And this isn’t a bad thing. What would be bad, in fact, is how easily we can convince ourselves that we are doing things for others, when we are really doing them for ourselves, which is how “niceness” often becomes manipulative.
Which brings us to how we can use our self-interest for others.
To act in your neighbour's interest as if it was yours is to tie your self-interest to theirs. It's to recognise that I'm only better off if you are, and not before. We might even take it a step further to say I'm most happy when you are happy. We are selves. And part of what it means to be a self is to want the best for that self. The problem is we are often short-sighted and only think in terms of our individual selves, as if we are not connected to everyone and everything else around us. Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Nonviolent Communication theory captures this well:
”Our survival as a species depends on our ability to recognize that our well-being and the well-being of others are in fact one and the same.”
But why is this important?
In Nigeria, many people grow up in compounds—basically your regular block of flats, but with a fence around it. My parents could afford for us to grow up in two-family compounds, but I lived a while as an adult in an eight-flat one. One of the key rules that made compounds work (when they did!) was that everyone was expected to contribute their bit. This would often take the form of a monthly contribution to some cleaning fund or weekly work of some kind. But it was also things like watching over others’ kids, and intervening as a group when things were going wrong in one flat.
Think of it as the original “compound interest”. If each person looked after the interests of the other, then everyone would end up with their interests being taken care of. In practice, it often worked less well, and tensions and infighting would often break out, fuelled by, and fuelling, robust compound gossip. (All the same, I miss it here in the UK where I'm lucky to get the occasional “hi” from the neighbours. The devil you know, perhaps?)
So “loving your neighbour” is neither about denying self-interest nor focusing even more on it, but about having a larger view of it, in which “what’s best for me” becomes about more than just me. More than just a feeling about the self, it’s a way of engaging with the world, and especially with our myriad relationships within it. It’s about recognising myself as both a self and part of a network, not just one or the other.
That was my fundamental insight from my Christian faith: that we are driven by self-interest, and that's both potentially the best and worst thing about being human.
And in light of that, we should not be trying to eradicate or suppress our self-interest. Neither should we focus even more on ours as a prelude to others’, nor abandon ours for theirs. We should rather seek to reinterpret and redirect our impulse to self-interest. That in turn takes us deeper into empathy: recognising the other person as connected to you and embracing that connection.
A favourite quote captures perfectly how we love ourselves in loving our neighbour:
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”—Australian Aboriginal activist groups, 1970s (often misattributed to activist Lilla Watson)
To rephrase that in terms of self-interest, that quote is saying: “Actually, I don’t want you to seek my interest simply because it's good for me—I want you to seek my interests because you recognise that doing so is in your interest.”
I want you to love me as you love yourself—and in doing so to find true love of self.