Beyond The Golden Rule

July 30, 2012

Cleopatra by Alexandre Cabanel

Treat others and you would wish to be treated yourself. Reasonable enough. Irrefutably logical. Every religion has it as part of its creed. Atheists, humanists, liberals all agree on it in principal. Then why is it that so few humans live up to it? What is missing?

John, a friend who is an avid bicyclist, related this story: he had locked his bicycle on a stand along the sidewalk. When he returned from his errand, someone had chained her bicycle to his. He was livid. When the woman did show up, he could see she had mental health issues, and his anger evaporated. He mentioned this incident on his Facebook page. A dozen of his friends immediately wrote comments insulting this woman’s behavior. The most vitriolic of which was from one of his friends who has HIV/AIDS. I found that surprising. Here was a man who expects unconditional compassions from others, he demands that he not be judged on why or how he acquired his virus. Yet he was quick to express contempt for the woman’s shortcomings. Of course, he is one of a billion examples. It seems that to blame is a reflex but applying the Golden Rule is just a philosophical ideal.

Perhaps that is the key. Can it be that blame is an emotion, a primitive reflex, whereas the Golden Rule is embedded in the rational brain? Critical thinking is slower, it takes time and energy and intention to summon. Emotions happen by instinct. Dogs, cats, monkeys have the same reflexes. We blame first, and if we are immature, we are content with that. If we are a little smarter, we blame first, then regret it, perhaps even apologize. Surely, the wisest eschew blame and apply the Golden Rule first and foremost. But how to get there?

It was my sister who first gave me a clue. In those days we still had door-to-door salesmen, which I found as annoying as telemarketers are today. My sister declined each one politely, without the slightest rudeness. I asked her why she did that. It turned out that our older brother had once worked as a door-to-door salesmen, when he first arrived in the UK, a fact I had not known. What she had done, inadvertently perhaps, was apply the Golden Rule by proxy.  She treated each salesman as she would have wanted her brother to be treated. I thought that very smart.

One of the beautiful aspects of Hindu culture is that all elders are referred to as “Aunty” or “Uncle”. Sometimes, women of the same age are referred to as “sister” by the men. Even small girls are referred to as “Amma” or “Mother” by very cultured Brahmins. When such an epitaph is used, a shift happens in the consciousness. The baser, primitive emotional reflexes are supplanted by the deep feelings of love, respect that the words mother, sister, uncle symbolize for the speaker. While this tradition may be impossible to transplant in a Western social setting, the principle behind it can still be utilized, as my sister discovered. Remove the sense of ‘otherness’ by proxy. Any relationship where you have reverence will do. At school there was a boy who was a vocal racist, but he loved Jazz. Hence, he made an exception for African peoples within his racism. In a basic way, it seemed to me, this boy was seeing his Jazz idols in all African peoples. It’s a good start.

It actually takes very little effort to find a connectivity with most people you encounter. He is a male just like me. He is of my age group. She looks as stressed as I feel. Any excuse, no matter how flimsy, works. Even the love for a vapid celebrity (during the Michael Jackson crazy Eighties, many pretty white girls dated skinny black men sporting Gerri curls).

What is wonderful about applying the Golden Rule is that we lose the habit of assigning blame. By blame I do not mean the legal sense of responsibility, but the emotional sense of helplessness, coupled with a contempt for the other. Blame is not only illogical, it is most destructive for health and well-being. It is a shade of anger which, when left to fester, morphs into vengeance and violence. As far as I see, blame serves no useful purpose. I can’t think of an example in my life where blaming someone has helped the situation. And most importantly, I detest being blamed by others so much that why would I inflict that on  another? That would be illogical.


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