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.
5 responses to “golden rule, retooled”
Perfectly said… and, I might admit, something I have struggled with over the years myself. It is all part of the process of maturity and enlightenment. I’m not there yet, but I hope to be someday! 🙂
me too! oh, me too. ❤
I don’t know if I missed something here, but it seems like you started with the golden rule but then it turned into that other thing “Love thy neighbor as thyself”….are they part of the same?
They seem really different to me. I’ve thought a lot about the golden rule and have accepted it into my inner guidance. The other one – about loving your neighbor as yourself…I’m less familiar with. The golden rule seems really different in that it is focused on what you ‘DO’ towards others and basing that on your understanding of how you want to be treated by others.
I can base actions towards others on that even if I don’t like or love them.
The second one seems harder to me….because it is asking me to love others when I can’t command that of myself. It is a wonderful ideal to try to move towards. If I am not able to love someone,..or myself, then that is important information that I have something to ‘work’ on here.
I can totally relate to your line of thinking here and the way you inquire and look deeply. To me – that is a most important kind of spiritual inquiry or practice.
You’re absolutely right! My mind was wandering from the golden rule to the sermon on the mount to current human crises and so my exploration did too…thank you for pointing that out to me. Hopefully attention to the clarity of my written expression will establish a positive feedback loop with clarity of mind! The idea of treating others as I’d like to be treated and loving my neighbor as myself have always seemed like slightly altered articulations of the same principle, but I am realizing now that this is not necessarily so! I appreciate hearing your thoughts on this.
EEK! I am SO lucky that my neighbours are a goodly way away from me as I am prone to being a hermit. I love my own space, I am not a very good example of “love your neighbour” but here you are reminding me that it isn’t just an option, but a fundamental truth. There are always people put into our lives to remind us of how much we don’t know. They are put there to push our buttons, to drive us to the brink and to keep us in suspended disbelief that someone/ANYONE could be so bloody minded over something so inconsequential. Life is full of people who have given themselves over to selfishness, to inner contemplation that has resulted in an attitude of fear and loathing, not only for themselves but for everyone around them. It’s almost like they carry a dark cloud of introspection and distrust around with them and they suck the life out of any and everyone that connects with them. Life vampires…scary creatures…but we can only stand and stare from the outside and we don’t know what has made them turn on what makes life precious and become so bitter that they can’t even see outside themselves or their circumstances. What makes them distrust others SO much that they would apply the same lubricant of hate to everyone…something went wrong someplace and these life vampires are living every day in this morass of hate and selfish need and jealous neediness…I can only wonder at how awful living that kind of a life would be. Cheers for this poignant post and hugs from here to there 🙂