Two curious phenomena dapple Christian life in America today. The first is our tendency to criticize more than compliment. Listen in on conversations in coffee shops, living rooms, and churches. Pay attention to the pundits and the newsmakers. We tend not only to begrudge the value of others but to appear downright sad when a person is praised. Many hypercritical Christians quickly deny the presence of any value anywhere and overemphasize the dark and ugly aspects of a person, situation, or institution at the expense of their noble and valuable facets. They delight in exposing the flaws and imperfections of others and glory in the absence of goodness. Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas once commented on this insidious tendency in the news media: "That Puritan self-righteousness which is never far below the surface of American life has broken through the frail barriers of civility and restraint, and the press has been in the vanguard of the new aggressiveness."
The target may be the national government, the local police force, or the coffee shop waitress. It matters little. The focus is on the limits of reality, on what a person or institution is not. Shortcomings and character defects are cause for celebration because they allow us to feel superior and even noble. On the day of my ordination my father said to me, "Remember that it's impossible to overestimate the worth of anyone." His words fly in the face of our tendency to underestimate the worth of everyone.
The second phenomenon is not unrelated to the first. It is what might be called the preponderance of the negative self-esteem. Self-esteem consists of how we see ourselves reflected in the eyes of others. This in turn conditions our perception of the world and our interaction with the community. As Christians, those of us with negative self-esteem see ourselves as basically unlovable. We negate our own worth, are haunted by feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, and close ourselves off from the value of others because they threaten our existence. The exaltation of another is experienced as a personal attack. When a colleague is appreciated, we become upset and irritable, belittle their motives as vainglorious, and decry the perniciousness of personality cults. We say to ourselves in effect: "I am a clod, a wrong person; I'm in the way, nobody cares." In group gatherings we feel like intruders. We sigh, "Nobody loves me."
Negative self-esteem would not be so damaging except for the fact that we interact with others in terms consistent with our own self-image. We select from reality only those aspects that confirm our own dim view of ourselves. We single out the dimension of a situation that points to rejection. In a simple conversation with someone close to us, their lack of enthusiasm confirms what we already suspect: "I am a bore." On the street we pass a person whom we value. He ignores us. That night when we go to bed we ignore the pleasant, even beautiful experiences of the day and instead go to sleep dwelling on the one incident that enhanced our negative self-portrait. Consequently, every such encounter becomes a total proof or disproof of our entire being. Every incident becomes a blanket condemnation of self and a reaffirmation of worthlessness.
The ability to love oneself is the root and foundation of our ability to love others and to love God. I can tolerate in others only what I can accept in myself. Van Kaam writes, "Gentleness toward my fragile precious self as called forth uniquely by God constitutes the core of gentleness with others and with the manifold created appearances of the Divine in my surroundings. It is also a main condition for my presence to God."
Ironically, our self-loathing too often leads us to damage the self-esteem of others. Andrew Greeley writes:
God's mission in the world and his mission in his relationship with the individual believer is essentially a mission of overcoming self-hatred. For self-hatred is a barrier to love. We hate other people not because we love ourselves too much but because we are not able to love ourselves enough. We fear and distrust them because we feel inadequate in our relationships to them; we hide behind anger and hatred because in some deep recess of our personality we do not think we are good enough for them.