January 24, 2010
It’s told that Mother Theresa once helped a man who was dying on the street. He had maggots eating at his open wounds. She brought him to the convent to clean him up. The whole time, the man complained and cursed her. One of the younger nuns asked her how she could stand to clean him when he was being so nasty. Mother Theresa said, “Oh that was just Jesus having a bad day.”
Mother Theresa was the embodiment of the Golden Rule. She saw God everywhere -- in all people, especially in those who were having a bad day. She saw God and treated people with the sort of sacred respect that most of us reserve for royalty.
We all have bad days, don’t we? You know it’s going to be a bad day when your twin sister forgets your birthday. You know it’s going to be a bad day when you wake up to realize your waterbed broke and then discover you don’t have a waterbed. You know it’s going to be a bad day when your birthday cake collapses from the weight of the candles. You know it’s a bad day when your pet rock snaps at you. You know it’s a bad day when everyone loves your new driver’s license picture. You know it’s going to be a bad day when your four-year-old wakes you up with the news that its almost impossible to flush a grapefruit down the toilet.
Speaking of bad days, a young man becomes a monk in a monastery that requires a vow of silence. He can only speak 2 words every 5 years. At the end of year 5 the head monk calls the new monk in and says, “You now can say 2 words.” To which the new monk replies, “food stinks.” Five more years go by and the head monk says, “You may now say 2 words.” The other monk says, “bed hard.” At the end of the next 5 years the head monk calls the other monk in and says, “You may now say 2 words.” The other says, “I quit.” The head monk replies, “I’m not surprised, you’ve been complaining ever since you got here.”
Wouldn’t life be so much more peaceful if we all learned to accept each other’s bad days? How can we learn to appreciate each other’s imperfections? Maybe you can start by accepting your own imperfection.
The Japanese Kimono gown is a beautiful symbol of God within. Some Kimonos have very plain outer designs but immaculate and exquisite decoration on the inside of the gown. Some of them are even intentionally imperfect on the outside. The purpose is to remind the person wearing the gown that beauty ultimately resides within. Those who see the imperfections of the outer gown are reminded to appreciate the variety of the outer and look to the magnificence that lies beneath the surface. God says the same thing to the prophet Samuel in the Hebrew Scriptures: “Looks aren’t everything . . . God judges people differently than humans do. Men and women look at the face; God looks at the heart.” Or, as singer Leonard Cohen says, “There is no perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
I think of myself as being somewhat competent, but underneath this calm exterior there are some cracks. One of my cracks is my home handyman skills. Actually, I wouldn’t call them skill -- more like home clumsiness. When Chris and I were first married, we lived in a chilly little apartment. Every winter I would put that shrink wrap around the windows to keep out the drafts. Every year I would stick on the plastic wrap and shrink it with the hairdryer. Every year I would look for the scissors to trim the extra plastic from around the window frame. And every year, I would find that I shrink-wrapped the scissors inside the window.
It would be good to remember that our faults and cracks are good. They let the light in. They expose who we really are on the inside. I once read about a large temple in Thailand’s capital where there was an enormous clay Buddha. It survived over five hundred years. At one point, however, the monks who tended the temple noticed that the statue had begun to crack and would soon be in need of repair and repainting. After a stretch of particularly hot, dry weather, one of the cracks became so wide that a curious monk took his flashlight and peered inside. What shone back at him was a flash of brilliant gold! Inside this plain old statue, the temple residents discovered one of the largest and most luminous gold images of Buddha ever created in Southeast Asia. The golden Buddha now draws masses of devoted pilgrims from all over Thailand. The monks believe that this shining work of art had been covered in plaster and clay to protect it during times of conflict and unrest.
If you learn to accept your bad days, you will be a lot more accepting of other people’s bad days. If you embrace your own shortcomings, you will be a lot more appreciative of the shortcomings of others. They may even teach you something about the divine nature of life.
Jesus puts it this way: Do to others as you would like them to do to you. We call it the Golden Rule. Jesus was not the only one to say the Golden Rule. He wasn’t even the first one. It is present in some form in most of the world’s traditions. Douglas Adams gave the simplest form of Jesus teaching in his prologue to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where his narrator explains that the story begins “nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change.”
The Golden Rule was laid out clearly in Ancient thought as well as most world religions. Roman culture said: “The law imprinted on the hearts of all people is to love the members of society as themselves.” The Chinese text, The Art of War, said, “It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” If you look in the bulletin, you will see I listed examples of the Golden Rules from various world religions:
- Confucianism: “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.”
- Buddhism: Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”
- Hinduism- This is the sum of duty; do nothing to others that you would not have them do to you.
- Islam: No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.
- Judaism: What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellowman. This is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary.
- Native American Spirituality also contains a form of the Golden Rule- “All things are our relatives; what we do to everything, we do to ourselves. All is really One.”
My kids use the Golden Rule to punish another all the time. For instance, Child A hits child B. Child B hits Child A back and then immediately runs away to tell on the sibling. The parent, trying to negotiate the fistfight says, “Now you are both in trouble for hitting. Why did you hit your sister back?” The child responds, “Well, she hit me first. I thought that’s how she wanted to be treated, so I hit her back.”
When we use the Golden Rule as an excuse to retaliate or cause suffering, we have missed the point. The principle of compassionate reciprocity lies at the heart of all spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion drives us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our earth, to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there, and to honor the sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.
Here is my favorite version of the Golden Rule: There’s no greater pain than making someone feel like a nobody. The Golden Rule gets us to ask a question: How can I treat others as if I am the other? The Golden Rule is a way of helping us wake up and realize that when you are dealing with other people, you’re also dealing with yourself. The other is really you in disguise. Unkindness to another is really unkindness to you. When you realize this, you can stop hurting yourself. You can learn to love your own imperfections and in so doing become more compassionate to others.
- Stephen Mitchell, The Second Book of Tao (New York: Penguin, 2009), 48-49, 114-115.