Saturday, April 6, 2013

Variations on a Universal Theme: The Golden Rule

If you live in the western hemisphere, then chances are you've heard, or even quoted, the Golden Rule, a la Christianity: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31) Those of you from this tradition, and who are not versed in other religions, may not be aware that many traditions have very similar sayings that predate the Christian one by hundreds and even thousands of years. Indeed,  a negative version of this concept can be found in the Hebrew faith that informed Jesus (Leviticus, chapter 19 of the Bible and Shabbat, 31a of the Talmud).  This should in no way minimize your appreciation of the saying of Jesus. In fact, it is hoped that knowing how long this maxim has been in circulation might encourage you even more to follow this basic principle for living. All major religions and cultures have taught it. How well each of them have lived by it is a matter open to debate, given the often repressive nature of some of those religious traditions. 

Among major schools of thought where this reciprocal guide to relating to one another can be found are: Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Zoroastrianism. One of the most ancient occurrences is in ancient Egypt. The quote that follows is from the Wikipedia:

An early example of the Golden Rule that reflects the Ancient Egyptian concept of Maat appears in the story of The Eloquent Peasant, which dates to the Middle Kingdom (c. 2040–1650 BCE): "Now this is the command: Do to the doer to cause that he do thus to you."[18]*

While this version of the concept sounds as though it might have been drafted by an ancient Egyptian lawyer, it does illustrate the long history of a universal idea. I personally like the Wiccan version of it with its slightly different, free-spirited nuance to it: "An' ye harm none, do as ye will." It sort of sounds like the  Beatles' version of the Golden Rule. It makes me want to kick back and just "let it be," but the point is made. You have to be aware of how your actions affect others. 

While there are many ways to say it, the message remains the same. How you treat your neighbors should be grounded in an empathetic and respectful consideration of others. There's no way we can know how each person around us would like to be treated exactly, but how we treat them needs at least to begin with our basic understanding of ourselves and how we wish to be treated. Granted, there are people who claim to like pain and suffering, so how you treat a masochist might be a little different than how you wish to be treated. Yet basically there is this understanding that a foundation of peaceful relationships is to be discovered in what I think of as the mirror concept of relationships. Before you take action that has an impact on other people, ask the face in the mirror this question: Would I like it if someone did that to me? If the answer is a strong no, then you really need to rethink your plan of action. If what you are planning to do involves harming another being or restricting their freedom in some way, then your best bet is to steer clear of that path and search your heart before proceeding any further. Bear in mind that your rights end where your neighbor's rights begin.  You're free to flail your arms and swing your fists around until you enter someone else's air space and get near their nose.  

Following the Golden Rule requires us to examine our hearts to know how it is we ourselves wish to be treated. It also requires that we open our hearts and listen for a minute to the heartbeat of another being, whether they are a family member or a stranger we encounter randomly. Our actions have consequences, and one of those consequences is that how we treat others, ultimately comes back to us anyway. It's in our own best interest to "Do unto others as we would have them do unto us," because whatsoever we do unto others, we are doing to ourselves too anyway. That is referred to as the law of karma or even the law of attraction. One popular way of saying this is, "What goes around, comes around." In other words, beware of what you're putting out there into the universe by way of your actions and energy because it's going to come back to you, eventually or immediately, but it will come back. 

Since this concept is present in all religious traditions, I'd say it was safe to say that it belongs exclusively to none of them. It belongs instead to the entire world as a way of determining how we should treat other people. If we predicated our legal system on this principle rather than on all the ways we can restrict each other's behavior, we would not only have fewer laws, but we would also get along better. But we don't need to change our entire legal system right away. That would result in a lot of chaos and confusion. However, if each of us started to make decisions about what legislation and legislatures to vote for based on the Golden Rule, or some variation of it, we would gravitate more naturally to worrying less about what our neighbor does that in no way impacts us personally. Does it truly harm us, or are we merely attempting to control others based on our desire to make everyone around us just like we are because we are afraid of difference? If we can't make room for difference in our lives and society, it is most likely because we are afraid to grow. Growth requires us to change and change can be scary. Wherever we are, we can start to get along better with our neighbors, friends, family members, and even our life partners, if we look in the mirror first and ask ourselves, "How would I like it if someone were doing this to me?" 

So take your pick of flavors of the Golden Rule, since there are many to choose from. Perhaps the variety and nuances are a sign that not even the Golden Rule should be engraved in stone but should allow instead for personal freedom and growth.