I can’t recall when I first learned the Golden Rule, but I’m sure I’d heard it plenty by kindergarten. I didn’t know it had a biblical basis until a bit later, and I was well into adulthood before I realized Christians hadn’t cornered the market with their primary rule of engagement: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:1).
It’s a fine rule, from preschool through old age. It works in a variety of circumstances including, but not limited to, the sandbox, the schoolhouse, the home, the church, the workplace, Congress, and social media. Its versatility is complemented by its clarity: if you like being treated with respect and kindness, treat others that way. No caveats, no disclaimers. The Golden Rule is elegant in its simplicity.
The Jews presented the same thought with a twist over a hundred years earlier: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it” (Hillel the Elder, Talmud, Shabbath 31a). In one of many of its explicit incarnations of the Golden Rule, Islam hinges this ethic to true belief: “Not one of you truly believe until you wish for others what your wish for yourself” (The Prophet Muhammad, Hadith). Further east, the sentiment is repeated by the Buddhists: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful” (Udana-Varga 5,1). Confucianism offers this version: “One word which sums up the basis of all good conduct… loving-kindness. Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself” (Confucius, Analects 15.23). And so go the Hindus: “This is the sum of duty: do not do to other what would cause pain if done to you” (Mahabharata 5,1517).
The Golden Rule is also known as the ethic of reciprocity, and regardless of the belief system, the message is one of empathy followed by compassion, respect, and kindness. This ethic of reciprocity, expressed in all faiths, extends beyond belief, existing as a principle of living in community that crosses religious and political boundaries. Thus, the Golden Rule serves as a common ground for those of differing views about deities and theology. As a Unitarian Universalist who draws truth and meaning from many spiritual practices, the Golden Rule provides a unifying theme that reminds me that no single belief system corners the market on ethics.
So what’s the problem? So why are so many of our encounters filled with anger, distrust, fear, and loathing? Why do we fail to treat others with the compassion, respect, and kindness the world’s belief systems agree upon? We teach this principle to our children by age three, expecting them to follow it in encounters with friends and siblings. Then as adults, we abandon it, or at least only practice it with a selected circle. What’s going on here?
For me fear and anger are the emotions that lead me to choose a route other than that of compassion. Fear of what is uncomfortable or different. Fear of losing what I have (authority, security, validation from others, whatever). Many of my rants at my kids come from my fear, generally fear about what their future might hold. When one son hurts the other, either physically or verbally, my mind reels, fearing that this child will go on to treat others this way, losing friends, alienating loved ones, risking incarceration… I’m very good at letting fear drive my mental train. Schoolwork not done? Fear jumps in the driver’s seat as I worry about opportunities five, ten, twenty years down the line missed because of a moment of negligence today. Yes, fear leads to many less-than-compassionate encounters with my children.
Anger takes turns, too. The third interruption in a ten minute phone call makes alarm bells go off in my head. Brushing aside how I’d like to be treated if I were the interrupter, anger trumps reason and the yelling begins. Does the interrupter need to understand why he act is so annoying and inappropriate? Yes. Does he really need to be berated for it? If that were the solution to the interrupting problem, it would have worked a good ten years ago.
It’s easy to lose sight of the ethic of reciprocity to treat those close to us. They are so close that we wrap them into our minds and hearts, often losing track that they are their own people with their own hearts and minds. Heck, we even unload on them when we’re really mad at ourselves.
What about our missteps with the Golden Rule and those not so close? Why do we jump all over the stranger, the co-worker, or the faceless person online? I’d bet fear and anger are the root of these missed chances for connection and compassion, too. It’s easy to hold onto our own beliefs and truths so tightly that any comment or action by another that contradicts us raises the fear and anger alarms in our brains. If we don’t pause to realize this event, we may forget to practice empathy — the cornerstone of the compassion — and lash out at what we fear or what makes us angry.
What happens on the individual level happens on larger levels. As part of a group, it’s even easier to forget that the members of another group are, indeed, as human as we are. Cut them, and they bleed. Shout rhetoric and hate at them, and they feel as fearful, angry, and hurt as we would feel. Nation to nation compassion is no less needed. The rule of reciprocity works on every level.
So what do to? I start with myself, and I start over each moment of each day. When I slip, treating another in a way I’d not want to be treated, I try to apologize. I’m a lousy apologizer, often justifying my wrong as I bumble through my apologies, but practice improves my apologies, and the process becomes easier. Better yet, I try to pause when gripped with fear or anger. A pause of even a few breaths can give me time to remember the Golden Rule and to practice compassionate speech, even when the message I have is in conflict with another. After all, it’s not the act of disagreeing that is without compassion, it’s the way that message is delivered, including whether the message acknowledges the other as fully human. Even bad news can be delivered with compassion.
The Golden Rule. The ethics of reciprocity. Whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Unitarian Universalist, Humanist, or just human, those ethics are the same. Let’s remember that when we engage with others, at home, in our community, online, and in the bigger world. Let’s make that one rule bind us all.