I don’t know about you, but I find it much easier to preach the Golden Rule than to actually go to the trouble of living it out. The momentum of popular culture, crowds, and psychology – not to mention and blame hormones, tiny as they are – make following it virtually impossible, pie in the sky, something to ignore and left to wither and die on the roadside. Stop bothering me! So why, then, are we brought back to this same principle of the Golden Rule again and again by so many religious traditions such that it has become the most important articulation of intentionality that calls out from our human capacity for relationship? Why do people think that the Golden Rule is the key to everything important and worthwhile? Does it apply to my life today, right now?
After he had said to his followers “Love your neighbor as yourself”, Jesus was asked “Who is my neighbor?” His answer was the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), where someone went out of his way to help a person he could have very easily left alone in the ditch, beaten and robbed. One major difference between the Good Samaritan and the others who passed by is that the Good Samaritan saw the actual person, not the superimposed thing. When you truly – TRULY! - see another as a person, it’s impossible not to help him/her, not to treat them as you would want to be treated. The trouble is that most of us haven’t quite been able to train ourselves to habitually see others as real persons. Our more prevailing habit is to be self-centered, ego-trained, seeing everything through me, myself, and I.
As a result, it has generally been easier and perhaps more fun, to treat another person as a thing, as a non-person whose only real role is to serve my needs, to answer my desires, to do or be what I want them to do or be. They are not what I am; they couldn’t be. They are what I want them to be. That’s it; crossed arms; stern face; no compromise. I can use you as a thing, because I am the most important thing….uhhh, person in my universe. Think pornography, bullying victims, intentionally vicious gossip, even an angry stare or dismissive gesture – all involving people that you really do or could know better. Every self-deception disappears into regret as soon as we think of or come to know those others as real people, persons with mothers and fathers, with problems and worries and rent to pay, with quiet evenings of loneliness because of mistakes made or decisions lamented, with a deep hunger for the only thing that makes any real difference – genuine caring, or kindness, or concern from others. And if you don’t think that you will ever be in such a place yourself, one that is uniquely your own, then you’re just not paying attention. The world is great, but it’s full of real people, and you’re one of them – just one.
The problem with the notion that I can treat others as things (in effect and approach) is that it cannot hold, depending almost entirely on the goodness of others who do not share that notion as fiercely or as completely. Character blossoms when “me” turns into “thou” and “things” grow into “persons.” It happens most dramatically when love is ripped open like a ripe fruit, through parenthood, love at first sight (or its equivalent), an impulsive kind gesture to someone in need, a service trip, a drive to change society for the better. It happens steadily and deeply through problems shared and joys celebrated, mysteries encountered and wonder ignited. The Golden Rule is golden only when it rules. At all other times it lies covered, hidden or forgotten, awaiting its time in the sun of my ego, where it may come to shine more truly than anything that I might be able to create or imagine on my own, especially myself.
I can think of several very specific cases right now – as you do – that call out, deserve, and even demand the Golden Rule within us. Perhaps one of the simplest and best ways to bring it to life is by refusing to condone “person as thing” attitudes, perspectives, or manifestations: “No, I won’t look at that. Delete it.” “No, I won’t say that. You shouldn’t either.” “How about if we do something positive for him/her instead?” The alternative is to completely shut out out the Golden Rule – “If I don’t think of it, it won’t be true.” However, doing that runs the very real risk of becoming the “things” that we treat as such, losing the unlived gift of personhood and never finding the gold inside the rule, or even inside ourselves.
As with most things, the worthwhile and important “rules” of good living require some effort. They also have unexpected rewards that are inversely proportional to the amount of words required to articulate them. Perhaps that’s why the Golden Rule tops them all. Try it and see.
- Islam: “Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.” (The Prophet Muhammad, Hadith)
- Buddhism: “Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” (Udana-Varga 5.18)
- Hinduism: “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.” (Mahabharata 5:1517)
- Taoism: “Regard your neighbour’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbour’s loss as your own loss.” (T’ai Shang Kan Ying P’ien, 213-218)
- Christianity: “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Jesus, Matthew 7:12)
- Judaism: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary.” (Hillel, Talmud, Shabbat 31a)