True freedom is learning to love yourself | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

True freedom is learning to love yourself


It is Best of the Year list time: best music, films, and concerts. The top fashion collections, celebrity looks and sneaker releases. The Best books, the Best of the Best. This being the end of the decade, we are also treated — or subjected, depending on your point of view — to the Best of the Decade lists.


But I'm not thinking about lists, I am thinking about love.



Before you roll your eyes and turn the page, please give me a few more sentences to state my case. I am not focused on romantic love, I am talking about the many forms of love that got me through this year, the loves that will get me through the next, this new decade, or 4.5 billion+ years of life on Earth. 


I will begin with family love. I am a survivor of childhood abuse, so I am not going on all fairytale-like. Yes, family love can be simple, pure, and true. But it can also be difficult, messy, and conditional — based on accomplishments, religion/faith, expressing your sexuality or gender in a certain way. There can be many barriers between an individual and their family, which can lead many of us to create and focus on a “logical family” rather than biological family. 


This year brought a new clarity about both my biological and logical families. People who cheered on successes. People who have helped me when I was sick, broke and/or sad. Friends who carried bags of clothing and ironed clothes in a NYC hotel basement for a fashion presentation. Family and friends who I happily showed up for and who exponentially increased my joy. 


The second form of love that got me through this year was a deeper understanding of my anger. Not a blinding rage — though some elements of that exists, how can it not? My anger comes from living in an unjust society that motivates me to work for real freedom for all, now. This anger simply drives me to expect justice for all. This anger insists on being called the name I chose for myself, to use a Kwanzaa term: Kujichagulia (self-determination). The root of the word is "Angr," the Old Norse word for "grief." I grieve for the lack of equity; I grieve that no one is really free. 


Self-love as survival — love No. 3 — is something I developed as a child, and for much of my life, it was my main source of love for self. Earlier this year, I dismissed this as “not enough love” to thrive, and it may not be, but truth be told it is how I still exist to this day. It is part of the base of my internal self-love source sauce, on the downest down days I can dip into its rich simmering broth and remember how I saved my life.


The final form is self-love as an absolute love: a highly concentrated rich gooey resin-like molasses compared to the gravy-thick survivor sauce. After graduate school, I returned to the United States in such a state that a friend said to me, “Tereneh, you need to see someone.” That someone was a therapist and after several therapy sessions, the counselor asked me a simple enough question that changed my life: 


“Do you love yourself unconditionally?” 


My reaction was physical. It felt as though an explosion started in my pelvis and moved down to my feet, then erupted back through my legs, coursing up my spine and bursting from the base of my neck then out through my mouth and eyes in the form of tears, snot, and an animalistic wail. It took me about a minute (or 30?) to finally form the simple one word answer: “No.”


Fast-forward several years and a friend of mine who had seen me at my worst just a few weeks before that fateful therapy session said, “Tereneh, your Patronis (Harry Potter reference to a manifestation of protection) is self-love.” This self-love is not the idea of self-perfection; this is unconditional love like all forms of love includes accountability. In the words of bell hooks, “Love is intention and action.” 


It may look happy, messy, angry, joyous, insistent, quiet or loud, but it is all love. 


And what I have learned is that love of self is a revolution. 

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