Do Unto Others and Really Mean It

I posted a few days ago about the Golden Rule and how, despite its prevalence in a wide variety of religions and philosophies, humanity seems to struggle mightily with actually living it.  I found a blog which did a 30-day series of posts highlighting the various versions.  Some focus on the aspect of not harming others in ways you wouldn’t want to be harmed, such as in Buddhism, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, and Baha’i.  Some focus on bestowing the good you wish for yourself on others, such as Islam.  Christianity and Jainism espouse a more generally empathetic approach to acting towards others, simply asking us to think about how we’d feel in the other person’s shoes.  Still others simply bring attention to the ways in which we are all connected and united in existence, such as Taoism, Sikhism, Native Spirituality, and Unitarianism.

The problem clearly isn’t in the concept.  

Not only are modern humans bad at empathy in general, we’re especially bad at empathy when we view the other person as “other”.  And we’re really good at justifying our actions and thoughts, especially if we can hide behind some sort of rule or strong belief.  

The Golden Rule in all its forms fails as soon as we allow ourselves to pretend that we are above the transgressions and offenses committed by others.  The Golden Rule fails as soon as we draw lines and standards which set us on a pedestal above other humans.  The Golden Rule fails as soon as we allow ourselves to pretend that, were we to sink so low as to do what these other people do, we would wish for someone to correct us and steer us back to what’s right.

The fact that so many major religions have specifically called upon followers to act with empathy, to put ourselves in the shoes of those we might otherwise treat as lower or lesser, should demonstrate to us that this is a very important element of human existence.  If we can’t master this one thing, we fail at being a good human.  

Maybe instead of teaching dogma and rules, doctrine and ritual, we teach empathy as the central tenet of all human faith.  Maybe then we’d finally start to get it right.

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The Chain of Manipulation

There are not many religions or spiritual paths active in humanity today which I would say I oppose out of hand.  There are facets of many religions and spiritual paths which strike me as singularly destructive and damaging to people, to humanity as a whole, however.  

Evangelism and mission work is one of those facets.

I wrote a few days ago about how easily the act of helping or accepting help can be twisted into manipulation, and mission work is just about the most blatant example.  I have a really hard time with the idea that any spiritual outcome is so important that it justifies holding a real need in front of another human like bait, luring them to your beliefs.  

It didn’t take much searching to find a blog post by someone committed to missionary work, talking about their experience and drive to engage in it.  The post goes in depth about the motivations for mission work which, clearly stated, boils down to the need to convert others and turn them from their existing spiritual beliefs in order to save their eternal souls.  There is no beating around the bush about it, either.  The fact that the missions experience detailed in the post was to earthquake-devastated Nepal and the idea that we should be called to lift others out of poverty and starvation were only mentioned in passing.  The physical help, the actual work of healing the sick and feeding the hungry and housing the homeless is just a means to an end.

How can we not be troubled by the idea that, when huge disasters happen in the world, groups of people swoop in to tell the victims that the state of their eternal souls is far more important than their physical life?  How is it okay to provide help to those who obviously need it and, in the process, try to undermine the spiritual underpinnings of their lives?

The blog post I linked above had one particularly troubling passage which described how, because the writer felt uncomfortable “darkness” while in a Buddhist chanting room, he decided that his long-held opinion that other world religions were harmless was clearly wrong.  This uncomfortable feeling reinforced a conviction to use the needs of the world to manipulate others into listening to religious propaganda.

Help should be provided when needed, when we are able to provide it, and never as a means to a different end.  Feed people, clothe people, give people shelter, teach people skills not because they might then come to agree with the way you think or because you get a reward out of it, but because they need it.  Simply that.  No strings attached.

Celebration

In my blog post about celebration being the root of spiritual practice, I left out a significant reason we tend to celebrate in our lives:  accomplishment.  We don’t often think of it as a spiritual activity, but when you think about it it’s those things we put effort into, those successes we get excited about, which paint the clearest picture of the people we’re trying to be.  Those moments when we are so pleased that we’ve finished a task or reached a goal that we stop everything else and take time to celebrate are the moments where we recognize that we are changing and transforming ourselves for the better.

Then there’s the idea that taking time to recognize and savor our life experiences and accomplishments allows us to appreciate the beauty of life.  I would agree, and stopping to celebrate accomplishments and milestones in our lives forces us, in a way, to stop the frantic rush onward.  Celebrations become a moment to recenter ourselves, to readjust to the changes and progress we’ve made, before continuing the journey.  

And even more than that, celebrations are a measure of the people who are important to us.  The ones we gather to us, share our joy with, are the ones who are significant in our lives.  The people with whom we choose to celebrate are our community, our extended family, our sphere of influence.  They are our spiritual cohorts.

Taking the time to actually think about how and what we celebrate and who we celebrate those moments with is an activity with profound spiritual implications.  

Irreversible Changes

A few days ago I posted about death and the afterlife, but mostly about how it shouldn’t really be the thing which preoccupies our spiritual thoughts.  Spending one’s life focused on what happens after it’s over is like not fully focusing on school because you’re focused on what your job will be like when you graduate.  You end up ill-prepared.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have a strange relationship with death.  My father worked for several years as a funeral director, and both of my brothers took grounds-keeping or night guard jobs at the funeral home as teens.  Even when my father went back to preaching, he continued to be a resource for the funeral home whenever a family didn’t have a minister or musician in mind for their service.  I grew up with a white board magnetized to the fridge with a list of “Dad’s Funerals” for the week on it.   Death was a nearly daily event, even if I never really experienced the grief or knew those who passed.  Still, the process of death became just another part of living.  Caskets are chosen, bodies are processed to look nice, people come together to cry and remember and lean on each other, and then they roll sod over the new grave and everyone goes on living.

Because I have such a weird connection to that part of death and grief, I think maybe that part isn’t as important as we make it out to be.  Not that it isn’t important at all.  The ritual of burial and remembrance, the formality of finality, that is an exercise in human emotion.  I do think we need some way to mark the end of a person’s life, the loss of a piece of our own, in a way which makes it easier to let go of.  We have to do something to force us to accept the finality, the reality of loss, or we build a whole life afterwards of delusion and acting.

But after that, when we’ve reached the point of acceptance, the rest of the roadmap of mourning is a journey of adjusting to something missing.  Like this blog post pointed out, the actual process of mourning, of adjusting, means taking a look at the reality of our lives, the reality of our relationships, the reality of ourselves.  When you get a flat tire you can try to keep driving as if it weren’t there, as if the rest of the good tires and the newly changed oil will make up for the missing part, but eventually the car will be undrivable.  

And mourning, most of all, means making changes.  It’s a process of adjustment, not just a process of getting progressively less sad.  We make changes to fill the gaps in our existence.  We find new people to fill the roles of those we’ve lost.  We learn to do things others used to do for us.  It means thinking about the loss, thinking about the person you no longer have with you, not as an ideal but as a reality.  

In the end, the rest of the world, including us, is supposed to go on.  The sun rises and sets, the seasons change, and the demands and joys of life are still out there for us.  And most of all, no matter what we do, death is a change which cannot be reversed.

It’s About What We Do, Not Who We Are

After my post a while back on bullying, I found this excellent blog post  on the topic which I think makes a lot of parallel observations which have broader application.  

First, I agree that the world isn’t divided up between “bullies” and “victims”.  Being a bully isn’t a matter of identity.  Neither is being a victim of bullying.  We do ourselves and those we are trying to help a great disservice by trying to identify what makes someone a bully or what makes someone likely to be targeted.  Approaching the problem from that direction actually makes the problem worse instead of making it better because it reinforces the idea that there are certain traits which are better or worse than others.

For instance, when I was bullied by a teacher as a high school kid, the root of the issue was that I didn’t fit that teacher’s concept of what a member of the group I was in (she was our sponsor) should look and act like.  In short, I was neither cool enough nor popular enough.  She didn’t like me, she didn’t think I belonged there, and I got that message loud and clear.  So the first problem with the way the situation was handled by my mother was that it actually made the apparent divide between cool and popular people and myself even wider.

The message should have been that none of those attributes matter.  Perhaps I’d have felt differently about the situation if my mother had marched into that room and told the teacher in no uncertain terms that she was not justified in treating some team members differently from others for any reason, period.  That’s the message we should have been teaching.  No combination of traits and qualities makes it okay for someone to be treated differently.  And by the same token no combination of traits and qualities makes it okay for someone to treat others differently or demand to be treated differently than others.  Approaching bullying in any other way just widens the divide.  

Consider, for instance, the geek community.  We come together to celebrate all those things we used to be ostracized for, which should be a really positive thing.  And then in the same space where we are gathering in positive solidarity as fandoms and geeks, we turn on each other and bully people for not living up to how we think they should be.  Cosplayers are bullied, fans shame other fans for not knowing everything there is to know about the game/show/film/book/etc or not being fans for the same reasons…  When we focus too hard on labeling people as bullies and bullied, good and bad, we miss the root of the problem entirely.

Second, the blog post makes the same great point about bullying not being a problem people grow out of.  I’ve long said that the worst lesson I had to learn as an adult was that adults aren’t different from kids except in terms of access to resources and influence.  I grew up feeling like I didn’t quite fit in, and everything I was told about getting through my adolescence focused on things getting better as I got older.  I didn’t really put any effort into learning to relate to other kids my age, especially those who I felt didn’t or wouldn’t like me, because I had been taught that it wouldn’t matter.  When we reached the adult world, I was told, all that childish stuff wouldn’t matter and when I made a success of myself I’d have the last laugh.

And then I graduated from college and got a job working with people who acted just like the kids in high school.  There were still rumors, pranks, cliques, and bullying.  It was more subtle, less overt, but equally wrong.  And it came as a really huge shock to me at the time.  I’d put a of stock in the idea that when I got to be an adult my skills and achievements would have more weight with others than my social skills, and that was absolutely and completely backwards.  I ended up having to learn how to make friends as an adult when I really should have learned that as a kid.  And that’s what happens when we teach kids that it doesn’t matter what others do to us, that it doesn’t matter what happens to us at the hands of other kids, that the adult world is some magically different place.  I was taught that petty bullies would grow up to get some kind of karmic retribution and I’d be vindicated, but that was the worst thing I could have been taught.

The linked post goes on to boil everything down to our reaction and contribution to behaviors, especially teasing and other behaviors we might intend to be funny, which create unsafe spaces for others and normalize bullying.  Becoming a better person doesn’t mean only poking fun at and humiliating those who “deserve it”.  Becoming a better person means realizing it’s never okay to make someone feel like it’s not okay to be different.  It’s those acts — the things we do to make others feel like unacceptable or different — which are the problem.