This morning I listened to the TED talk of Karen Armstrong, a former nun turned religious scholar and advocate for compassion. Her message was simple: at the core of every religion lies the same message to do unto others as you would have done unto you. So simple, which I can appreciate. However, as I scrolled through the corresponding comments on the TED site, I saw that others were having a more difficult time appreciating the simplicity of both Karen's message and the Golden Rule. As usual there is a torrent of opinions but one exchange especially caught my eye. It reads as follows:
"...the golden rule does not rate as correct or even wise for SOME people. I want to be treated in a certain way...examples exist where a number of people do not treat me as I would prefer that they do. It follows that I do not treat them in a way that they prefer - which differs from what i want in the way of treatment. Thus I submit that the golden rule rates as wrong - sometimes. However I suspect my view does not rate as a popular one."
"Let me see if I correctly understand the argument and then follow it from there.
Person A wants to be treated in way A.
Person B wants to be treated in way B.
So if they both follow the golden rule they are both treated in a way that they would not want to be treated, person A in way B and person B in way A.
'always treat all others as you'd like to be treated yourself'
This appears to be a major problem with the golden rule, untill (sic) you shift perspective.
The way I interpret it is this;
How would you like to be treated?
As the other person wants to be treated or as you like to be treated.
Compassion comes with understanding. Its a major part of the equation.
Without understanding, there can be no compassion.
Understanding comes from empathy, the ability to place yourself in another person place.
You might ask yourself why it isn't worded differently; 'treat all others as they like to be treated'."
Let's start with the first comment. I empathize with his confusion because at face value, this seems like a legitimate flaw with the Golden Rule. How can I consistently know what will make others happy? I am different from him, who is different from her, who clashes with her, who I don't understand...on and on against formidable odds. Yet Person Two asks: why, then, isn't the Golden Rule worded differently? Why is what I want a part of the equation?
Then it hits me: In order to know what you want, I must know what I want. I must know what I want. This, friends, explains why we can't wrap our minds around the Golden Rule. We are all really bad at figuring out what we want ourselves! One step further, we are all really bad at figuring out what is good for us, and it's at this point my entry takes a titular turn: Is what is good for me, by chance, good for you to? If I begin to understand myself, will I start to understand you?
I think it is incredibly important to start noticing what makes you really happy (see previous post). I've begun doing so and it has changed my life. What strikes me is really how simple and basic these things are. (Again, see previous post). No matter what the day brings, if I can keep these end goals in mind, I can be happy. But this is not an easy process, mainly because we are told all the time the things that should make us happy. Or we only think superficially about it. Being with friends makes me happy. Eating a hamburger. Taking a walk. And then, there are those moments of high that are random and fleeting. A smell. A taste. A memory. We don't even try to figure them out. We just accept that this is the extent of happiness. But how can you get more happiness if you can't pin down the source? And isn't it liberating to know that the source is, in fact, simple and totally obtainable? Right now, even?
So if the answers are this simple for me, aren't they simple for others too? Along the same lines, if I struggle with finding happiness, doesn't it follow that others are struggling too? And if I can keep this in mind at all times, might this not be the true path to compassion? (So many questions!!) In this way, matters such as religion and atheism, any differences really, fall to the wayside. They become irrelevant! In the end, they are all just different manifestations of our search for the basic things that make us happy. An atheist wants people to listen to her just as much as a Catholic. Everyone wants to be nurtured. Everyone wants to be a part of something bigger. Everyone wants significance. It is difficult to see this in some people, (really difficult in extreme cases), but we can try to stay aware of these innate desires. We empathize because we are the same. We suspend judgment because we gain perspective. I think this might be what Karen is getting at. Compassion is living your life in such a way that makes you happy, then recognizing that others are simply trying to do the same.
Let's be honest, most people never take full responsibility for their happiness. It's easier to have someone else tell you what should make you happy and then be pissed because it doesn't work. Or think that you are weird or unlucky or inferior and be pissed about that. So it makes sense that we can't even begin to imagine what is good for other people. If our own happiness is so unreachable and unreliable, then how could be possibly begin to guess what would make someone else happy?
Before we can take Karen's mission to heart, we all need to take some time to figure out the "as you would have them do unto you" part of the Golden Rule. Be completely honest with yourself. Do the superficial things you think make you happy really work? Does it really make you happy to have the last say, assert superiority over someone else, be in a conflict, create negativity...or do these give you a fleeting "high" that you've come to crave? If we can sort through all this, perhaps, just perhaps we would discover that the same things make all of us happy. There are a million ways to get there, but the goal is always the same. Nurturance. Simplicity. Natural order. Intent. Creativity. Connectedness. Balance. We recognize the desire for such things in ourselves and grow to recognize it in others. We learn that just as it is important that I have the freedom to create and benefit you, it is important that you can create and benefit me. I need you to listen, you need me to listen. Interactions become easier because we can recognize these core desires in others. You don't have to say anything, but you will feel it. You will like people and people will like you. We are all the same! Isn't that incredibly liberating?
And as long as we're on the topic, isn't it suggestive that if what is good for me is also good for you, then perhaps we are all much more connected than we think? If we all share core desires, then maybe, just maybe could we all be small parts of a much bigger organism? But enough for now. So many questions. Let's just take some time to let it all sink in.