Dignity and Respect
Middle school students taught me some of the most important things I know about love.
Before becoming a college philosophy instructor , I was a middle school humanities teacher for many years. Early on in my teaching career, I discovered that middle school students have a great deal of energy that needs to be channeled in the right direction. When their energy is channeled well, middle school students can be extremely creative, thoughtful, and even critically sophisticated. If their energy is not channeled well, middle schools students can quickly become chaotic, destructive, and inventive in all the worst possible ways.
I decided that for me, the best way to channel this frenetic energy of middle school students was to hold high expectations for them and believe 100% in their ability to achieve these expectations. I adopted three guiding principles for my students and our class community:
- Treat everyone with dignity.
- Take responsibility for your education.
- Help to create a positive learning environment.
To be honest, when I first started teaching, I was not totally sure that all of my students could accomplish these goals, but I decided that I would just assume they all could. I believed that no matter how ornery or angry or withdrawn students seemed, they carried a Light within them that was their original goodness, dignity, and beauty. (This is something that almost all world religions and ethical systems speak of in one way or another).
I focused on cultivating and nourishing students’ Light every day. I consistently held them and myself responsible for upholding our classroom standards, and I sincerely praised them for all of the good things they were accomplishing in class. I noticed that when I conducted my classroom in this way, class became a peaceful, productive, and creative environment.
Love and Nurture
Of course I had students who were ornery, sullen, and who misbehaved, and of course I had to discipline students sometimes. I discovered, however, that if I needed to discipline students, it was important that I honor their Light, even in the midst of disciplining them. I reminded misbehaving students of all of the good things they were currently doing, rather than focusing solely on what they were doing wrong. In addition, I discovered that it was very helpful to ask misbehaving students how their actions violated our class principles and what they could do differently to uphold them.
Given time to reflect on and dialogue about their actions, students could almost always pinpoint what they were doing wrong and give suggestions for how they could act differently to uphold our classroom principles. When I disciplined students in this way, they often self-corrected and set themselves on the right course.
If I forgot to engage in peaceful dialogue and reflection with students and instead scolded and humiliated them for their bad behavior, it usually increased this behavior and caused the student to self-adopt the label of “bad student”. Once a student had labeled themselves as “bad” they began to act in all sorts of unskillful and unhelpful ways to live up to this label.
I learned that honoring students’ Light and nurturing them with unconditional love cultivated more good and beautiful actions, while failing to honor their Light and depriving them of love brought forth the opposite results.
Four Lessons about Love
I am not suggesting here that teachers must adopt my teaching methods and class principles. I am also not suggesting that I am a perfect teacher or that my teaching methods are the solution to all pedagogical problems.
What I am trying to say is that middle school students taught me, or reminded me of, four really important lessons about love. They taught me that
- We are all bearers of a beautiful Light.
- We all deserve unconditional love and nurture because of this Light.
- The more we nurture ourselves with love, the greater our Light grows and expresses itself.
- When we treat ourselves with harshness, disrespect, and self-loathing, we cut ourselves off from our Light and we began to act out in all sorts of self-destructive and unskillful ways.
Living according to these principles in my classroom brought about beautiful results for both me and my students.
A Big Surprise
Imagine how surprised I was when I discovered a few years later that although I had adopted these important lesson of love towards my students, I had almost completely failed to adopt them in my relationship with myself.
While I treated my students as though they were bearers of a beautiful light, I treated myself as though I was flawed, horribly imperfect, and not to be trusted.
While I treated my students as though they deserved unconditional love and nurture, I treated myself as though I only deserved love if I met a long list of extremely high (and often impossible) external standards.
It was like I was constantly walking around with this awful “To Do List”–which was actually a “You Might As Well Give Up List”.
While I believed that the more I nurtured my students with unconditional love, the more their Light grew, I treated myself as though I was generally undeserving of love and nurture.
While I knew that if I treated my students with harshness, disrespect, and loathing that I would make it difficult for them to remember their Light, I treated myself with harshness, disrespect, and self-loathing every day.
It took me quite a few years to figure out how badly I was treating myself, and when I finally did, I thought, “Why I am acting this way? Why do I treat myself all the time like I hate myself?”
The Love We are Looking For
I have increasingly realized that my situation was not unique or unusual. I believe that almost all of us struggle to love and nurture ourselves unconditionally, and it is no wonder. We are constantly surrounded by messages that we are flawed, gross, not beautiful enough, not successful enough, not thin enough, not good enough. We are never good enough. Here are some of the most common ways we are told these things, directly and indirectly:
Advertisers constantly tell us that we are flawed or lacking and that we need to buy their product to fix ourselves.
Distorted media images tell us that there is always someone more beautiful, thin, fashionable or athletic than us and because of this, we will never have the love we want.
Distorted religious teachings tell us that we are horribly depraved and evil and that God is constantly ready to punish us because of this.
Certain economic systems tell us that we are only valuable if we produce a lot, make a lot of money, and beat the competition to claim the place at the top.
Misguided teachers tell us that we are only deserving of love if we get “it” and get the A.
Misguided friend, family members, and significant others only give us love or treat us with respect when we please them.
These types of messages are incredibly common in our culture, and because of this, we run around, terrified that we are not good enough, that we are deeply flawed, and despairing that we will never have the love we so desperately desire.
We constantly try to do more and be more, hoping that eventually we will be the kind of person who deserves love, and we will be able to soothe the pain we carry and fill the empty space in our heart, at last.
But nothing we do is ever enough, and no one’s love is ever enough, because what we want the most is actually our own Love. We will only be able to Love ourselves when we realized that we don’t have to do anything to deserve love. We are already deserving of Love right now.
Honoring My Light
When I realized how disrespectfully I treated myself on a regular basis and how I regularly deprived myself of unconditional Love, I was shocked, and I decided to change. I made a pledge that I would always love myself, treat myself with respect, and stick up for myself. I promised to give myself unconditional Love. I also started spending time consistently connecting with my Light through reading books and sacred scriptures that reminded me of my Light and by spending time in peaceful silence or meditation. While I had read good books and sacred scriptures my whole life, I had somehow used them to beat myself over the head, rather than connect with my Light and the Love inside me.
What amazed me is that the more I showered myself with Love and connected to my Light, the more I began to heal old patterns of anxiety, self-loathing, sadness, loneliness, and despondence that had been a part of my life for a really long time. In learning to Love myself, I finally found the Love I had been looking for.
You Don’t Have to Do ANYTHING
Dear Friend, I want to tell you today that right now, you are absolutely and completely deserving of unconditional Love. You do not have to do anything to deserve it. I also want to tell you that in your True Self, you are already perfect, whole, complete. You are Love.
You have a beautiful Light in you that is full of Love, compassion, wisdom, joy, and creativity (to name a few wonderful things). We often become aware of this Light in moments of peaceful silence, in times out in nature, in connecting with pets, and in the joyful, Loving moments of connecting with the Divine or other Loving people in our lives.
If you believe in God, you may think of this Light as God’s Love in you that is what is most YOU and is also like a vast ocean of Love that you belong to.
If you do not believe in God, you may think of this Light as something greater and more powerful that you are a part of: the dignity that everyone bears. You might think of it as Loving rationality or Lovingkindness.
In whatever way you think of it, it is helpful for us to realize that the Love we are looking for is that Light, presence, peace inside of us. The more we nurture it, the more we grown the seeds of Love, compassion, wisdom, joy, and all other good things that we already possess. This brings out beauty and Love in all areas of our lives.
You do not have to do or to be anything else. You just have to remember who and what you already are.
More Love, Not Less Love
It is also helpful for us to remember that when we do bad things and start acting in unskillful and destructive ways, what we need is more Love, not less Love. When I say that we need to love ourselves more, I do not mean that we should ignore our bad behavior or pretend that it is good behavior or overlook how our bad behavior hurts others.
Love does not enable destructive behavior. Rather, Love recognizes that destructive behavior is almost always a misguided attempt to aim for something good. We are all searching for safety, goodness, Love, and meaning in our lives. When we are cut off from our Light, we become confused and scared and search for it down unhelpful and misguided paths.
The purpose of Love is always to reconnect us to our Light, which is the Love we have been searching for all along.
Lately, whenever I find myself engaging in self-destructive behavior, I ask, “How can I Love myself more?” When I do this and follow up with loving and nurturing practices, this always makes the situation better.
Remembering Who We Are
At one point or another, almost all of us get caught up in trying do or be more to earn the love that we so desperately crave. One of my greatest hopes is that we can learn more that we already have the love we are looking for. It is the closest thing to us, and all we need to do is remember.
 It is referred to, in different systems, as the imago dei (the image of God), our Buddha nature, our Atman, our rationality.
 I capitalize Light because whether we think of our Light as something Divine or as something all human share, our Light is something that is bigger and grander than one person. That deserves a capital letter.
 Look, we all know we do bad things, but that is only half the story, and it is not even the really cool part. Every major religion teaches us that we were originally good and beautiful (a ray of God’s light, more or less), and that all of the evil we do comes as a result of forgetting and being cut off from our true nature. Our salvation, which is spoken of differently in different religions, comes from becoming awakened to, or reborn into, our true nature and the connection with the Light in us. Friend: God is not angry with you. Love longs for you to return to Her/Him/It.
 Once again, I certainly believe that other people’s love is a wonderful and beautiful thing. I am FOR us having all the possible Love we can have. I am merely suggesting here that if we do not give ourselves our own Love, nobody’s else’s love can make up for this lack.