I held out the folder of photos to the guy behind the photo-copy shop counter. He shrugged and gestured over to the color printers.
“Yeah, you can just copy them over there, I guess,” he uttered before turning back to his pile of orders to ship.
On my tiptoes I could spy my dad’s car through the windows just beyond the bank of printers. His glasses perched on top of his balding head, his face buried in the newspaper. I hesitated and then moved further down to the color-copy printers.
I was eleven years old.
Clutching the pictures I had taken from my mom’s leather-bound 1992 album, I carefully copied them one at a time. Shooting out onto the tray one up on the other, my smiling face showed up as did my best friend’s. I stacked them, paid, and shuffled back out the car over the snowbanks. “All done,” I chirped as I clicked my seatbelt, pushing extra hard as the metal never caught the first time.
That afternoon as I poured over craft paper, the newly printed pictures, my markers, and a glue stick, my mom popped her head in my room. “Sure you don’t want help with that?” she asked and paused to smile before continuing, “I think she’s lucky to have a friend like you.”
The week prior on the carpool ride to gymnastics, my bestie shook her head. No, she didn’t want to hear my rendition of that song from KDWB, and no, she hadn’t seen me in the hallway at school when I had nearly passed out from waving to her, and no, she was sure we wouldn’t be on the same soccer team this summer. “Twelve year olds are with the older kids, not the younger ones, duh,” she snapped her gum and turned toward the window.
For as long as I had memories, she had been my best friend. A year older, a year smarter, and year prettier, a year more independent. Was I her best friend? Probably not, but I’d settle for friend, even. And as my own older sisters saw it unfold: the cycle of when she found me interesting, when her interest waned, and when I scrambled to regain her interest, they tried taking turns talking me out of it. My little stubborn heart rose and fell with her attention barometer, not theirs.
This photo book I pieced together of our first decade of life as friends, this proud physical affirmation of my worth in her life, it would make the perfect Christmas present. And as I walked it up to her front door, my oldest sister waiting patiently in our station wagon on the narrow street, double parked with her hazards blinking, I knew, just knew, that she would love me and care about us again. Just as soon as she opened it. That would make all the difference.
Her brother opened the door and called her down for me. I tucked my chin into my scarf and kicked the snow from one boot against the heel of the other. I exhaled and looked up. She stood at the door, laughing and calling out to what sounded like a party of girls in the kitchen, “I’ll be really quick! I’ll be right back. Hi! What is this?”
“It’s for you from me,” I stammered. “An early Christmas present. I was hoping you could open it right now.”
She set it on the ground behind her, next to her mom’s coat rack and her brother’s ice skates, and said she had to go, her friends were waiting, thanks, and bye bye.
If I had known how to love myself, maybe loving my neighbor with better proportionality would have been easier.
“Love your neighbor as yourself….” Whenever I read this Scripture from Matthew 22:39, I nod thoughtfully and solemnly. Yes, love your neighbor so much. I nod along as if that’s the ticket, that’s the key to charity, caritas, love. To love my neighbor to the nth degree, to do that task well, to be good at loving others.
Now these twenty-five years later since that little girl turned on the porch of that stucco house, turned and ran with tears blurring her vision, ran back to the station wagon and slid in the back seat to muffled sobs, now I know there’s a predicate to loving my neighbor.
I must love myself.
And not love myself in a self-absorbed way, or a self-obsessed way, or even a self-satisfying way. Love myself and honor my personhood because of who I am: God’s daughter made in His image and likeness. Love myself like He loves me, treasure and value the gifts He’s given me, respect myself and ensure others do, too.
This little girl, this former best friend, wasn’t a mean girl. She wasn’t even an unkind little girl. But the power I had given over to her over my own self-esteem was out of balance. It was disproportionate to the nature of our friendship.
And later, years later, when I talked through the whys and hows of the demise of the friendship with one of my sisters, she casually mentioned, “You don’t have to still try at the friendship. Some people just aren’t naturally going to be friends.”
The magnitude of her comment hit me because I had always thought being friends was part of Jesus’ commandment in Scripture. I had conflated friendship with love. And as adults, we all have come to know that we can love someone fiercely and not like them. It’s called family, right? We can hold these two things in tension: love and healthy boundaries. It is a critical thing to do as an adult, actually.
So for all the friends who have come and gone in our lives, for all the relationships we have chased, for all the times we’ve gone above and beyond and over the lines by handing over our self-worth to be determined by someone else, here’s our reminder.
God gives us our self-worth. We can try to derive it from our work, our furnishings, our fitness level, our relationship status, our vacation destination. But it’s inherent and fixed in our identity that comes only from God alone. Let us let Him love us and teach us to love ourselves, and then we can go on to love our neighbors (even the ones we don’t like), dipping into that same fountain of love: the source of all love, God Himself.
Nell O’Leary is the Managing Editor for Blessed is She, wife, mother of four, attorney-turned-editor, speaker and writer. She loves her chocolate in hot milk, her grilled cheese partially charred, and her laundry folded (preferably by someone else). She and her family live in Saint Paul, Minnesota and you can find more about her on wholeparentingfamily.com.