The Golden Rule has gotten me into a lot of trouble. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It sounds so simple. Such a helpful, obviously correct guideline. Except when it isn’t. The thing is, in trying to maintain a warm, unassuming, unconditional love for my “neighbor”, I have at times driven myself deeper and deeper into resentment, despair, and martyrdom. There are, in this world, people who will take the loving intention of the well-meaning and manipulate it to achieve their own ends, caring not for the suffering of those whose resources they are subverting. How does one apply the Golden Rule to those who will take advantage? How does one forgive oneself for an inability to love these neighbors? And what is the value of a rule, however Golden, if it cannot be universally applied?
There is a particularly intransigent fellow in my own life who has called into question every belief I ever had about myself, about “goodness”, about relationship. I watch in stunned amazement as, once again, he emerges from the background to bring into my own life the shadows that play across the world stage. This is a man I have tried to love as my neighbor, only to watch each of my good intentions twisted into ammunition that is used against me. This is a man whose needs and emotions I have tried to consider, only to see my consideration treated as a weakness and exploited on the battlefield of our interaction. This is a relationship to which I have applied every tool in my experience: listening. attention, meditation, space, lovingkindness, forgiveness, nonresistance, understanding. All met with reactions varying from hostility to abuse.
I stand before this man as if before a dark mirror, watching all of my own faults spit back at me larger, more gruesome, more hideously apparent. I am not faultless in this exchange. All of my uglinesses are drawn forth by this interaction, making the accusations he slings at me more than partially true. It is true that I stand between him and what he wants. It is true that I will not do as he asks. It is true that I have some culpability in the misery he has made of his life.
What does a person do when her moral code fails her? How to proceed when even the Golden Rule proves ineffective? Are there simply problems we face as people, as communities, as nations, as a species, that will never be resolved? Or is there something here that I am missing?
As I sat in meditation this morning it occurred to me that a rule considered Golden for much of the written history of humankind might in fact be equal to my titchy problems. Might it just be possible that I’m the one failing it ? From a very young age I’ve assumed that loving my neighbor as myself meant to love my neighbor with boundless compassion, unconditional love and understanding, and complete forgiveness.
But the Golden Rule says to love my neighbor as MYSELF. Since when did I ever love myself with boundless compassion? Hmm. Unconditional love? HA! Complete forgiveness? Never.
If I were to love my neighbor as I love myself, it would be with constant criticism, unceasing awareness of my neighbor’s faults, constant expectation of failure, intense frustration with lack of potential achieved, and anger at faults displayed, mistakes made, important deeds left undone.
If I were to love my neighbor as myself it would be in rueful resignation to the fact that, flawed as she is, she’s all I have, and I must make my peace with her daily if we are to go on.
If I were to love my neighbor as I love myself, it would mean carrying the knowledge that today she is not at her best because she didn’t sleep well last night. It would mean knowing that this day makes her sad because it is the anniversary of her grandmother’s death. It would mean cutting her a little slack on certain days of the month and understanding when she snaps at her kids it is not because she does not love them. but because this is the seventy-second time today they have asked her this exact same question and she has already answered it with love and patience seventy-one times.
It would mean, in short, seeing her humanity. It would mean being aware of her shadow, her faults, her imperfections, and forgiving her just enough to live with her every day. It would mean a constant wariness tempered with the enduring hope that she may improve. It would mean, if she is in a cruel mood, I keep her away from my children. It would mean, if she abuses sugar, I try not to keep any in the house.
If I loved my neighbor as I love myself, I would never let her off the hook. But neither would I completely write her off.
Looking at the golden rule through this lens, I can see how I have erred in the past. I have forgiven this man transgressions that I would never forgive in myself. I have allowed him to behave in ways it would horrify me to have acted. I have loved him, not as myself, but as some imaginary perfect being, even in the face of his obvious imperfections. That is not love. That is stupidity.
Throughout the long and gruesome dance I have danced with this man, I have held this question:
If I cannot find peace in this one interaction, what hope can I have for the world?
There are players on this world stage that I find very difficult to love. There are actions I find nearly impossible to forgive. What manner of love can we hold for these callous aspects of humanity that destroy people and planet alike–what world can we build that includes this particular scrap of shadow?
Well. Here I stand, again, on the same ground, wrestling the same demons, and I don’t have any answers. But it feels a little more possible to love these enemies with the kind of fierce get-it-together-or-else love I have for myself than it does to unconditionally forgive them.
And if I am asked to love my neighbor as I love myself, perhaps that means I ought to spend some time contemplating how to love myself better, too.