Since I was a teenager, a very long time ago, I’ve been on a quest trying to understand faith. After much reading, listening, debating, contemplation, and so forth with several dozen religions and a few cults, I had an epiphany. Suddenly the niggling confusions became non-confusions. The core of just about everything came together. Surprisingly it was applicable whether or not you pursued any particular faith and it was able to be said in just nine words which will be referred to as “the Rule”:
Be good to others; try to not be afraid.
That was it. A combination of what all the versions of the “Golden Rule” try to say combined with a catch-all acceptance that most of the things we think of as bad: bigotry, hatred, violence, etc. stem from one common cause — fear. The thing that I find most profound is that this Truth isn’t bound by arbitrary absolutes, and that makes it useful in those gray times when a situation requires some flexibility.
Being good to others is a basic tenet of faith. Most religious and philosophical belief systems carry with them a version of the “Golden Rule”. This idea seems to be central to understanding the essence of that-which-is-greater-than-us. The idea that others should be treated well, though not necessarily how we would personally prefer to be treated, is paramount. Historically, the idea that you treat others well because they might be divine entities in disguise is found in many stories and traditions — from Greek myths to tales in the Old Testament.
Unfortunately, this “Golden Rule” gets corrupted by the idea that, “Those who are like me, who believe as I do, are more worthy of my good will than others.” Fear often rises from this point of view. It’s understandable — it’s a basic survival instinct that outsiders are a threat to my survival and to the existence of my descendants. From here, the protection of my family group got extended to a protection of my small community of other family groups. That then expanded to a protection of my village/town/city/country and more esoterically, those people with whom I share my faith. But if you are different, if you are “other”, then my fear of you corrupting or destroying my designated groups validates my not treating you without suspicion.
We have many fears. Some are justified: if a jaguar is about to pounce on you, fear can be a very good thing indeed. When your life is immediately in danger, it’s perfectly natural to have to rely on fear. After all, the Rule says that you should, “try to not be afraid,” it doesn’t say that you should never fear. Fear is important as long as it’s immediate and is literally life-or-death. But, more often, we have time to consider situations. When that is done, things like reason, compassion, and understanding can totally wash away the fear if we allow it to. Doing this, we can realize that the mandate of that-which-is-greater-than-us is one of building and not destruction.
I often smile at George Bernard Shaw’s criticism of the “Golden Rule”:
Do not do unto others as you would expect they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.
This is where the balance found in the Rule is sublime. The good it asks of you is not dependent on the tastes of the giver or the recipient but upon the understanding that we do the best that we can and that we are gracious about the intent.
A key point of the Rule is that it doesn’t include an “or else” clause. Why? Well, honestly, people who are not morally/ethically damaged (either through nature or intent) to think otherwise, know the difference between good and bad. Even a young child trying to get an extra cookie knows the difference. It’s visceral. For everyone older, the moment you consider if an act is good or bad — even if only for an instant — shows that you know the difference and know what is right. You don’t need someone in robes shaking a finger at you. You know. The power is always within you to hold by the Rule or not. But if you do not, then you need to ask yourself, why not? Why do you fear doing good?
I know this all sounds like some Pollyanna idea that we should all be paragons. That’s unrealistic. We all have our failings. The Rule only asks that we try to overcome our fear, to understand that fear is a part of each and every one of us in some form. The important thing is for each of us, each day, to try to hold ourselves up to the ideal. To be good to others. To try to not be afraid. The effort — the honest effort — yields worthwhile gifts.
If you look at what your faith says, you can see the Rule staring back at you. That it can can do that shows its universality. Some would say that it’s a manifestation of Truth (big “T”), but that may just be hubris. What it does say is that we humans are very much alike in our needs and how we prefer to be treated. Many of the fears and threats we carry are not supernatural but of our own construct. If we choose to, we can change. That’s all the Rule says. With every decision, try to do the good thing…the right thing. For as simple as those nine words are, they can be simplified even further: love.