The Golden Rule: Completely Misinterpreted

I was chatting with a friend recently. She was really upset because despite her best efforts to be kind and respectful in a particular situation, she was treated pretty badly in return. I could sense her bewilderment, her confusion as she wondered why this had happened. There was a childlike innocence in the way she’d been expecting that being nice would have got her the same in return - or at least, in her distress about the fact that being nice did not get her the same in return.

It was rather like seeing a child open a lovely birthday present and find a toy she’d wanted forever, and then discovering that it was broken. She said something like, “I was minding The Golden Rule, being as nice as I could be and I don’t understand why they treated me like this anyway!”

Well, I guess I could say a few things in response to that. The first is that understanding it doesn’t change the fact that it happened. Even if someone has had a terrible day, just received awful news, for example, and rips your head off for no apparent reason, that person is still responsible for his or her actions. There is no way to take back hurtful words or actions.

The next thing I would say is that you don’t have any control over what other people do or don’t do. Honey may attract more flies than vinegar but ultimately, the fly still gets to do the choosing. Just because you’re being sweet, it doesn’t mean you’ll get what you want or that you'll be treated with the same respect as you are giving.

But to be honest, I think the biggest problem with my friend’s situation, and the millions of others who have the same experience, is that they’re misunderstanding or misinterpreting The Golden Rule.

Look at what it says:  ”Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

It’s suggesting that we treat people a particular way. Full stop.

But somewhere along the way, a whole other section has been added:  ”And then people will do unto you as you did unto them.”

In reality, it says nothing at all about the other person’s actions. The focus is only on what we should do. Yet for some reason, we seem to think that those words contain the promise of a pleasant reaction in all cases every time we’re nice to other people. And so we’re surprised or bewildered when it doesn’t go that way. We feel hurt and disappointed, and sometimes wonder what we did wrong, or what we did to warrant such treatment.

But nowhere in The Golden Rule is there anything that should lead us to the expectation that other people should behave in a particular way because of something we do or don’t do. If you think about it, that’s rather arrogant (and somewhat controlling) of us to decide what is the correct way for someone else to behave in a given situation. It says “You do not have the right to free will – but I do.” It says, ”I made my own choice but I am not letting you make yours.”

It is unreasonable to project your reactions, responses and sensibilities onto others. It is a mistake to expect people to give you the same consideration, courtesy and respect that you naturally give them because quite often, they won’t. Don’t slide into the comfortable illusion that everyone else will be as nice to you as you have been to them.

Accept that no matter how respectful you are to other people in the first place, they are free to be as rotten to you as they want. Be prepared for it, so if and when it happens, you aren’t disappointed, hurt or bewildered.

I'm not suggesting that you should expect them to be rotten. It's just that having expectations of any kind is unreasonable and unfair. It also means you're inviting disappointment, at the very least.

It’s great to do your best to be kind and respectful to other people, but be sure that you don’t take it personally or feel crushed when you don’t get the same in return. To me, that’s just the most sensible approach, and it saves an awful lot of grief.

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