Monday, June 17, 2013
"The Golden Rule - Inside Out" - Sermon
The Golden Rule Inside Out
We all know that the Golden Rule is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Right? Well it turns out that the inverse of that rule is used just as often in religious traditions. And it appears that this Golden Rule inside out, as I have called it, offers us a quite a bit more guidance on how we might treat each other with compassion.
At its core the golden rule is all about reciprocity, an understanding of simple fairness. And it is a shockingly universal rule. Before this week I knew that it’s one of the few ideas that occurs within nearly every religious tradition. From North to South and East to West, there is some version of it everywhere. What I hadn’t realized though, is that many of these traditions use a particular formula to highlight the golden rule. They say that this single rule is the culmination of all the ethical teachings of that tradition, that this rule is a foundation for all other within their faith. Think about it, when several different religious traditions claim one thing not just in common, but as the bedrock of their ethical life, that’s about the strongest endorsement any ethical idea can get.
Within the Judeo Christian tradition the Golden rule comes across in the positive sense. Perhaps that’s why we know it most commonly that way in the United States.. Though it comes up in a few different places, it is known as the great commandment, and the summation of Christian teaching. In Matthew, when asked "which is the great commandment in the law?", the Bible reports that Jesus answered, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind and Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself". How many times have we heard versions of that?
Another proponent of the Golden Rule was the Chinese philosopher and teacher, Confusions. Around the 500 BCE, he wrote “never impose on others what you would not choose yourself.” Both of these guidelines are useful, but I want to focus especially on the second one today. Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you. And don’t say to others what you don’t want said to you.
Sometimes we don’t like to admit it, but the things that others do and say affect us deeply. In our book discussion group last week we shared some of the small moments in life that have stuck to us in this regard. It was incredibly moving to hear people share the tiny moments of their lives that made a big difference, for ill or for good.
One woman shared about being a small child, and a teacher telling her she really shouldn’t bother with art projects in school because she didn’t have any artistic skill. For years afterward she avoided visual art, not because she felt particularly ashamed, she just knew that she has been told she wasn’t any good. So why bother. Until her senior year of high-school when she needed one more elective class. The only thing that fit in her schedule was an art class. She begrudgingly took it, and she love it. She’s no great artist, but she found that she actually enjoyed making art. And she also found that for years she had sold herself short because someone else insulted her work. Another woman in the class told a nearly identical story about singing in her childhood.
For me, the unkind moment that stuck also came in childhood. And it happened through my church. I remember the moment so clearly. We were on a choir trip to San Diego, and our youth minister said really in passing, that I was spoiled. Of course I know that having a good conversation about privilege and wealth could have really opened my eyes. It could have helped me understand my world much more clearly. But this was no compassionate conversation. It was an off the cuff short remark, judging me in one word. The offender in this story is now a Unitarian Universalist minister. I know he didn’t mean to be hurtful, and I can guarantee he doesn’t remember the conversation. But that doesn’t make it any less real. I remember it like it was yesterday.
Neither one of these offenses is horrible. But they were hurtful. The truth is we are sensitive to what others say. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words, they touch the soul.” Of course there is something to be said for self-confidence and not taking the negativity of others personally. But we are all human beings after all. At the end of the day we want to know that we will be included in the group. We want to know that there is a place for us in the pack. To varying degrees, we all need to belong. It’s part of who we are as social animals.
Living more compassionately in our world means recognizing that our actions and words affect other people. Even when we are not intending to, especially when we are not intending to, we can inflict a pretty high degree of pain on the people around us. Of course the alternative is also true. In our class we also shared the moments in life that someone’s small gesture had meant a great deal.
One person shared the story of trying out for the football team having never played the game before. He didn’t know what he was doing at all and he got pummeled. But one of his classmates spent a short time with him that afternoon, and explained a few basic concepts to protect himself. That brief explanation saved him in the tryouts. He got on the team, loved the sport and had a pretty successful go at football thereafter. Though they weren’t close friends, he still remembers the name of the guy that helped him out that one afternoon. It wasn’t such a big deal, but it made a world of difference.
Another person in the class recently lost her brother. And she got a card from another person in the class. It wasn’t a huge deal, but she said that receiving a hand-written note made her know that someone was thinking of her in her time of grief. That small gesture made all the difference in the world to her.
What I want you to hear in these stories, and what I want you to understand today is that we each have the power to impact other people’s lives. Whether we want the responsibility or not, the way we interact with other people will bring more suffering or more joy into the world. In her book “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life,” Karen Armstong spends a great deal of time and attention explaining that living compassionately is more than simply doing the right thing. Compassion is a mindfulness that gets cultivated with time and attention. Being aware of the impact we have on others means noticing how “carelessly we inflict pain; sighing impatiently over a minor inconvenience, grimacing when the clerk is slow at the check out line, or raising your eyebrows in derision at what you regard as a stupid remark.”
We all get tired and irritable. We all say things that we don’t intend. We all inadvertently hurt other people. But if we spend a little time and effort, we can do that less.
The golden rule is to do unto other what you would have done to you. And the rule inside out is, don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you. Now we are each a little different, we each have our own needs and wishes. So I want to pause for a moment. If we are going to abide by this rule after all, we have to know what it is that we want and don’t want in life.
What is it that you truly want from others? Make a mental list of it. Mine would include: being heard, getting a second chance, being invited to participate, a respect for my time and resources. But what is important to you? Think about it for a moment. What is it that you truly want from others?
And what are the ways you don’t want to be treated? What are the slights that have hurt you? For me they include belittling my life choices, mocking, questioning my ethics or intentions, and generally feeling judged by the people I am closest to. Make a list in your mind. How do you not want to be treated?
I’m willing to bet that the simple signs of respect and appreciation that we each want cost little time or money. And the things that really hurt you most avoidable, if we paid a little more attention to the way we treated one another.
Well now is your chance. As Karen Armstrong so beautiful says it, “The Golden Rule is not a notional doctrine that you agree with or disagree with. It is a method, and the only adequate test of any method is to put it to practice.” As Unitarian Universalists we know that the way we live our lives is more important than the theory behind the action.
Living Compassionately isn’t as simple as you might initially think. It requires an awareness that we are deeply interconnected. Our words and actions impact others in profound ways. Living compassionately requires reflecting sincerely on how we want to impact those around us, and having the self-awareness to pause before we act of speak. And THEN we act, we make our intentions manifest in the world around us.
Compassion is a way of being in the world that happens every day of our lives. It’s not simple, but it is a habit that, like any other can by built. Today we have talked about the first phases, about the power of our words and actions, about the impact that we want to have in the world. But now as we go back to our daily life, the time comes to live out that golden rule with one another.
As I said last week, no one becomes a saint overnight. We are called to ease into this exercise gradually. Armstrong suggests aiming to act once each day with the positive notion of the golden rule. Do something for someone that you would have wanted for yourself. When you are able to do that, then act once each day in the negative version, catching yourself before you make that funny but wounding remark. Remember, each time you succeed with the golden rule inside out, you have made a small victory over your ego. And it will get easier and easier.
At the end of your day, brushing your teeth or crawling into bed, reflect back and see if you were able to execute this most basic of ethical commandments. Did you do something for someone? Did you refrain from those sharp words? If you did, that’s great. If you didn’t, remember we are all human and that this is a lifelong journey
When these steps become habit, aim for two enactments of the positive form of the golden rule and two enactments of the negative version. And then three and then four.
The goal of course is to behave consistently with compassion. But behavior is built on habits, and habits are an accumulation of individual acts. We choose how we will act in this world. Whether you like it or not, it is our responsibility to choose how we will encounter the world around us. This is the gift and burden of human awareness. We can choose to care more fully for the people we love; we can choose to make our world a better place. It all starts with an awareness that our words and actions matter, and requires us to slow down to ask the simple question, “Is this how I would want to be treated?”