If you can't love yourself...
We’re a big RuPaul’s Drag Race family—especially when our son Ian, aka Rouge, is home visiting. I enjoy the camp of it, but Martin and Ian dig deep. They know the names, personalities, styles, makeup habits and performing talents of queens across more than a dozen seasons (plus All Stars!). Their banter during Snatch Game is legendary.
At the end of each episode. Ru shares an iconic line…
If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?
The line is catchy, and particularly meaningful in the context of the silliness, the drama and the heartfelt stories of harm and isolation that are often shared by people who have spent a lifetime being misunderstood, unheard and, in many cases, abandoned and abused. In a world where hurt people often hurt people, learning to find value in who we are and what we bring to the world can be an important threshold to mental health and a catalyst to engaging with others in ways that are mutually enriching.
There is something about the notion of loving oneself as a prerequisite for loving others (which, of course, precedes RuPaul and exists in a variety of forms, contexts and cultures across the globe) that gives pause for a person like me. A person whose default is self-loathing. For whom years of progress and practice has brought me from dark, and often dangerous, self-deprecation to a working self-neutrality that may or may not ever reach the level of love (although I am open to the possibility). For people like me, having to wait to love myself before loving others feels more limiting than motivating. In fact, loving myself feels so foreign to me—and the pursuit of that end so daunting—that embracing it as an end goal would likely distract me from the practice of love rather than inspire me toward it.
That’s not to say that Ru and others who embrace this notion are wrong. Self-hatred leads to all sorts of internalize turmoil that can easily spark harm to self and others. Her message to the people on her show and those who watch it from home has inspired countless people, including my own child. I simply find the both/and version from wise poet, philosopher, author, and teacher John O’Donohue to be more accessible at this point in my journey. O’Donohue writes…
You can never love another person unless you are equally involved in the beautiful, but difficult, spiritual work of learning to love yourself
—Anam Cara, p. 50.
The nuanced difference between this quote and that of the magnificent RuPaul, is an important one for me, and perhaps for others who find pursuing self-love as a destination to be a combination of uninteresting and unattainable. Engaging instead in “the beautiful, but difficult spiritual work of learning” to love oneself invites mystery. And practice. It opens space for learning to love self while loving others—maybe even due to a committed practice of loving others—rather than as a consequence of pursuing self-love as an end in itself. It makes room for progress, not perfection. Exploration, not attainment.
Of course, I get it. “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna learn to love somebody else” rolls off the tongue much more smoothly than “If you are not involved in the beautiful, but difficult, spiritual work of learning to love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else” would.
So, Ru gotta stay Ru…and she and John might make for good company.
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