“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:12, NRSV
“I would never do that.”
These words recently crossed my mind in two different interactions with two different friends, and, momentarily setting aside the problems with comparing ourselves to others (thinking we’re better or worse isn’t particularly healthy for our relationships or our character!), these experiences were thought-provoking, moving me to more deeply consider what many of us know as the “golden rule.”
My first experience took place when I attended a funeral with a friend. By the time we arrived, the gathering space was packed and the service was on the cusp of beginning. We took what felt like the last two seats available, only to realize upon sitting that the sun landed directly in my friend’s eyes.
“Let’s move,” she whispered.
Seeing few empty seats and knowing that I’d feel uncomfortable making a scene at a funeral, I resisted, suggesting instead that we swap seats with one another. I knew that sun would bother me less than it would my friend (we all have our thing, right?) so this seemed like an easy solution. But after our quick shuffle, I found myself thinking that if the roles had been reversed, I wouldn’t have taken my friend up on the offer. Someone had to have the sun in their eyes, and though it bothered me less than it did my friend, it still wasn’t pleasant. I would have felt funny about compromising someone else’s comfort for the sake of my own.
In my second experience, I noticed and commented on the ring encircling one of my good friends’ fingers.
“This ring has a story,” she stated, and went on to describe how the ring had been casted by one of her former teachers. He advised the student newspaper, and handcrafted rings were his parting gift to the students who formed the paper’s editorial staff. In an unfortunate turn of events, the teacher died a few years ago, and at his memorial service, the former student journalists gathered together. Many of them wore their special rings, but one young woman lamented that she had lost hers years before.
“Here,” my friend said, removing her ring from her finger. “Take mine. You were closer to him than I was and you should have this.”
Though the woman resisted, my friend insisted.
She didn’t expect to see the ring again, but a few weeks before our visit, the woman returned it by mail with a note of thanks for my friend’s kindness several years ago. I was glad to hear that my friend had gotten her ring back, but more than that, I was struck by the fact that she had given it away in the first place. It was an act of generosity that I don’t think I would have mustered.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
I learned these words in grade school, and I can still picture the small poster that my mom kept hanging in our downstairs bathroom listing the golden rule as it appears across world religions. I thought I followed the golden rule, but my recent experiences with friends pushed me to see that I actually only keep one side of it. I don’t do to others (lie, steal, cheat, take their better seat at a funeral) what I wouldn’t want them to do to me. But I have a much more difficult time taking the positive step: doing for others (buying coffee for the person behind me in line; taking the middle of the night soothe-the-baby shifts when we travel; giving something dear to me away) what I would want for myself.
Not doing and doing: it’s the difference between not taking money from a homeless person on the street and giving them money; not hurting a child, and playing endless games of hide and go seek with them; not telling a lie to get out of an undesirable circumstance, and making time to spend an afternoon with a social outcast. Not doing something that causes pain, sadness or even just irritation to another is human decency. Actively going out of your way to make some else’s burden lighter, life sweeter, and heart fuller — likely at your own expense — that is true generosity of the golden variety.
If we really want to keep the golden rule, we need to keep both sides of it. Until we do, we’re missing something.
Reflect: Who do you know that could use golden treatment? If you were in their shoes, what would you want done for you? Could you extend yourself in a way that gives them this gift?
Teresa Coda works as a Director of Faith Formation at a Catholic Church, dabbles in interfaith hospital chaplaincy, and writes about life and spirituality. She has a Masters in Divinity from Harvard Divinity School where she studied theology and pastoral care and counseling. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband Caleb, her daughter Esther and her Boston terrier Bean.