"Love thy neighbor as thyself." When I reflected on these words today, after hearing them read in church for the millionth time, I began to think how impossible the whole idea is: how can I love others (except in general) when I dislike so many of them?
I hate to admit it, but I am a highly critical person who must work hard to overcome a tendency to find fault in others and not accept them as they are. I have truly loved only a handful of people in my life.
Yet the word "love" in English is inadequate to express the meaning of "love thy neighbor." Jesus probably means--unless he was using hyperbole to challenge his audience, knowing full well that it's nearly impossible to have the same feelings for people we hardly know as we do for ourselves--to care for those who need help. In other words, agape or selfless, spiritual love.
Love is essentially an act of the will, not a surge of happy feelings. That's eros or romantic love, which is different from the love for friends, to mention the more obvious types of loving.
Countless books have been written on all this, of course. Erich Fromm's The Art of Loving always seemed one of the best and clearest. Rollo May's Love and Will makes some good basic distinctions between romance and selfless love, which is what the Gospel message is all about. Both books are classics, for good reason.
Selfless love involves choosing to put aside my own comforts and help someone in need, or simply care enough about them to be compassionate, to pray for them. Even if I don't want to spend more than five minutes in their company.
Since I do some of this routinely, I guess I am not as self-centered as I thought; and I think I understand more of what "love thy neighbor" means, even if it seems at times like an impossible challenge.