The Other Side of The Golden Rule

It’s good to do no harm, but it’s better to make a positive impact

Growing up Christian, I understood the golden rule as one that cautioned against inflicting harm on others. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you meant “don’t hurt anyone.”

More precisely, I was raised Catholic, the religion of the half-full glass. The golden rule was a piece of cautionary advice to keep one from sinning, not as a way to channel enlightenment of any sort. In other words, good behavior meant NOT doing something sinful. You didn’t get extra credit for going above and beyond.

The golden rule is easy to follow when people refrain from doing their worst. But it’s not as useful when people merely fall short of doing their best.

The Ten Commandments is a list of things that will tarnish your soul if you don’t follow the rules. Moses brought these tenets down from the mountain and shared them with the Israelites. There’s nothing positive here, in fact, they’re almost all pretty scary, although as children in Sunday school classes, we learned all ten and kept them in the back of mind for future use.

So few really applied to me, I thought. But maybe someday when I grow up... I will make use of that one about adultery or stealing. Meanwhile, life goes on. My siblings and I rode our bikes and went to school and set the table before dinner… as innocent as the next child. We followed parents’ rules, not exactly god’s rules. Which of the commandments really applies to a ten-year-old, outside of commandment number four — honor your parents?

About 1300 years later, Jesus came along and neatly summed them up into two: Love God above all. And love your neighbor as you love yourself. Freedom.

All Faiths Share The Golden Rule

Turns out Jesus was in good company. Every major religion has a similar ethic, presumably discouraging people from drawing first blood and provoking a tit-for-tat retaliation with no end in sight. It seems to be all about keeping the peace.

Back in the early 60s, Norman Rockwell did some reading on comparative religions and listed ten of the world’s religions and their version of the golden rule. The painting that emerged from these insights, Golden Rule, would become the Saturday Evening Post cover on April 1, 1961. The civil rights movement was about to emerge in full color on the streets and news channels of America, and his painting stands as a reminder that there is a creator of peace within each person on the planet.

Alas, here we are 60 years later in the same struggle.

The allure of positivity

As a copywriter, I know that people tend to resonate with positive words. Powerful institutions in fear of losing control don’t seem to understand this. Power uses fear to control others. Fear is a powerful motivator, but most people tune out when you make them stay in the shadows for too long. If that’s your main message, you’re probably not going to be very popular.

Putting a positive spin on the big ten

I wonder what the Commandments would be like if they were written in a positive light, with no negativity. No offense to the original author, but if God and Moses had a copywriter, maybe they’d go something like this.

  1. There’s one god for everyone.
  2. Keep your sense of wonder. Look for god’s presence in the world.
  3. Choose your words carefully.
  4. Take a day off each week. There’s no need to work all the time.
  5. Respect your father and mother. [This one’s fine; no changes.]
  6. Everyone’s life is important here, so respect the lives of others.
  7. Love the one you’re with.
  8. Get your own stuff.
  9. Tell the truth.
  10. Enjoy what you have.

For a long time, I missed the part about doing unto others as a positive command as well.

When I think of it as a proactive command, things get interesting. There are a million ways to love your neighbor as yourself.

  • It means sticking up for others as you would have them stick up for you.
  • Visit someone when you yourself would appreciate some company.
  • Cut someone some slack when they’re a little off base. You’ve been there yourself. Instead, ask questions and try to understand.
  • Step in to help another in a difficult situation, whether in a communal or personal setting.
  • Offer help when nothing is expected of you and no reward or recognition is given.
  • Do your best even when no one is watching, or even noticing.
  • Stand up for good when you have everything to lose and nothing to gain.
  • Bring soup. Move a fallen branch from a driveway. Smile. Be nice to animals. That kind of thing.

It’s all about showing some grace in a sometimes no-good, nasty place. I like to think of grace as softening the edges a bit. There are plenty of hard edges in the world. Many people don’t even know where the soft edges are. The lines are distinct. You’re either on one side or the other.

We live in this legalistic world, afraid of the consequences. We make a social gaffe and then carry on paying the price of shame for years. We withhold support and praise for fear of being shunned by our peers. We play small because we dare not show our true worth. We cower under the threat of public ridicule. We follow the crowd.

This is partly because we fear the judgment of others. It’s also because we don’t treat others the way we’d like to be treated. Guilty as charged.

It occurs to me, maybe we don’t expect to be treated very well at all. Maybe our expectations of others are paltry because we do not expect to be treated with impunity.

There’s more to the golden rule
Photo by Ashley Whitlatch on Unsplash, edited by the author

Turning belief into action

Last week my 80-year-old dad drove from Tulsa to Texas for the first anniversary of my daughter’s death. It’s been a rough year, and he figured we could use some family since all our extended family lives in other states. I come from a family that values conversation about challenging issues, so Dad and I discussed the state of the world, as well as some of the policies and people that confound our reason and challenge our beliefs. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we don’t.

My dad is sharp. He founded — and still runs — a firetruck dealership. He is concerned about the direction of the country. Active in his church, he holds traditional, conservative values (a la 70s democrats) and is motivated to affect positive change in his community. He withholds comments among certain family members to keep the peace.

I only tell you this because overall, he’s an example of the kind of golden rule I’m talking about. Although he’d probably cringe at my telling this, here is the truth: Dad has a volunteer gig that illustrates the golden rule that sets a higher bar.

See, my dad is anti-abortion and carries his beliefs with gentleness, yet they’re always on his sleeve. He tells you what he thinks, but he’s not obnoxious about it. You always hear the stories about angry Christians and right-wing haters dead-set on taking away everyone’s rights. These days you also hear about angry leftists taking away people’s rights. We’re being pitted against each other.

But there’s another way.

My dad’s philosophy is old school: Actions speak louder than words, i.e “be the change.”

Dad models his belief into service to young, impoverished moms. A couple of Saturdays each month, he and a group of other car guys fix up donated cars and give them to single moms. “Wheels are everything when you don’t have them,” says the man who’s always had a reliable car. It’s a simple problem with a simple solution. His group simply provides cars to people who need them most.

But the volunteer thing is worth noting. It’s a small thing to Dad. It’s only a few hours a month, he says. Yet I don’t know many other people of any stripe who happily part with their free time like that.

It’s the golden rule… and more.

Mother Teresa says to start small. If you’re going to put the golden rule into practice, do something positive in small ways and close to home. If a busy 80-year-old can do it, who can’t?

Where the world is hard-edged, we can show how close and local the soft edges are. Where the world is legalistic and fearsome, we must be brave and show tenderness to our neighbors. When someone makes a mistake or needs some added buffer, we give it, knowing that we will need it ourselves one day. Tolerance is a good way to live life, but the golden rule means doing a little bit more than merely putting up with someone.

The golden rule is easy to follow when people refrain from doing their worst. But it’s not as useful when people merely fall short of doing their best.

For a long time, I missed the part about doing unto others as a positive command as well.

The other day, when I heard the golden rule expressed in a slightly different way than the way I learned it, I realized I was missing at least 50% of the point. I’m a piece of work. Most people in my life tolerate me. Many do a lot more than that, for which I’m grateful. I count myself among the lucky that there are people in my life and community doing more than not doing harm.

Curious mom, writer, & lymphatic massage therapist. I teach a persuasive writing course, too. Start here: https://www.jenmcgahan.com/power-words

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