The Ends Justify the Memes

We seem to be living in a meme-driven culture. The word “meme” did not exist when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. In fact it was invented in 1976 by renowned atheist, Richard Dawkins, to describe a means of transmitting cultural ideas and/or norms much the way a gene transmits information in a biological body. Common usage has shifted the definition slightly, from Dawkins’ original intent, to broadly mean any image, pictoral or graphic, and usually humorous or sarcastic, that reduces a complex idea to simple terms and makes it easily reproducible.

Like emojis, memes have become a common shorthand for expressing ideas and opinions. As a meme goes viral over the world’s information systems, it first informs, but as it becomes ubiquitous, it begins to influence. And that is where the problem lies. For, to the creator of the meme, that is its ultimate goal. To influence. The meme creator has a situation in mind, generally a situation of which he or she disapproves. Without laying out reasoned arguments as to why that situation is bad, a meme ridicules the notion, appealing to emotion rather than logic. As the meme is copied and distributed, i.e., goes viral, spinoff memes, either in support of or opposed to the original are created until the original concept itself becomes “common knowledge” and thus indisputable.

I did not intend to write a treatise on the development of the meme. Instead, I had been seeing a number of memes on the feeds of friends and family that have been raising red flags. Those are the memes regarding self-care. On the surface, the memes advocating for putting oneself first, avoiding “toxic” people and circumstances and being gentle with one’s own flaws and peccadillos, seem harmless and even beneficial. But are they?

I’m a Christian. I was raised in the Church, and not only the Church but in a parochial school organized, administered, and taught by nuns and priests of the Dominican Order. In the Roman Catholic Church, after the Jesuits, the Dominicans maintain the strictest academic rigor and discipline. Or, at least they did through the 1960s and into the 1970s. During the nine months of the school year, I attended church six days a week. I received religious instruction five days a week. Beside the institutional rules and regulations of the Church, the most frequent topic of instruction was the parables and words of Jesus Christ. One-hundred and eighty days a year times twelve years. minus a few sick days, equals more than 2,100 days of instruction. That tends to stick with a person.

So what did Jesus and by extension, my teachers have to say about self-care in the 1960s. Well, in the red letters, Jesus says, “whoever seeks to save his life will lose it.” He tells the parable of the landowner returning after a long journey. The landowner says to his servant, “Prepare me a meal. Serve me. Then you can go have your own meal.” Jesus then says his followers are to consider themselves like that servant and when commended respond, “I am only an unworthy servant doing my duty.” Jesus tells men who say they wish to follow Him, but have other needs to take care of first, that they are not worthy to become His followers. The Apostle Paul tells us to be imitators of Christ. And then Scripture reminds us that “Christ, being the fullness of deity, emptied Himself to become a man.”


Duty, discipline, putting others first…that does not sound like self-care. So where did this idea arise? In the mid-1970s, as a college student, I began hearing many teachings on the Greatest Commandment. You know the one: “Love the Lord, your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength.” The instruction went on to the Second Greatest Commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The Bible study leader invariably went on to explain, “a person cannot love his neighbor until he first loves himself.” For someone raised on the pillars of duty and discipline, that was an eye-opening interpretation. It was a valid and salubrious correction to legalism. If it had remained as just that, all would have been good.

However, it did not remain there. In the ensuing four decades, “loving yourself” has gone from understanding that we should have the same image of ourselves that God has, i.e., that we are creatures He loves and values and therefore so is everyone else, to idolization of the self. Having God’s perspective of our worth is strong and necessary medicine for a person who had endured abuse of one form or another. Loving oneself as God loves the individual is the only path to healing for someone who has been degraded by another. For an abused person to be able to say, “I did not deserve abuse. The abuse was not my fault. I will no longer tolerate being abused” is a healthy and good thing.

Airline safety instructions say that in case of an emergency, oxygen masks will drop from above. If a passenger is traveling with a child or disabled person, the passenger must first secure his or her own mask before attempting to help someone else. In other words, the person must first take care of him or herself before attempting to aid someone else. That is common sense. I hear that rationale applied now to everyday life. “I cannot be a good wife/husband/father/mother/adult child/employee, etc., unless I see to my own needs first. But what are those needs? Basic physical needs…food, water, clothing, sleep…of course. Yet now I see the list of “needs” ever expanding: affirmation is required for everything one does, says, or believes. Like C. S. Lewis’ drunk on a horse, we have gone from falling off on the side of legalism and being a doormat to falling off on the side of selfishness. And our culture is celebrating that mindset.

We need to find the balance once more. We need to have God’s perspective of who we are: loved and treasured by Him. Then with that knowledge firmly planted within our minds and hearts, we need to learn from Christ’s example. To heed the words of the Apostle Paul, and not esteem ourselves more highly than ourselves. To give ourselves in service and obedience to Jesus. To not only tolerate but love those “toxic” people. And in doing so, find that God Himself will take care of us and store up treasure for us in heaven.


By kathykexel

I've been writing from close to the time I learned to read. Fortunately, almost nothing exists from those days. Throughout my working life, I've jotted down bits and pieces here and there. But now that we m retired, I've run out of excuses not to write.

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