The Commons: Receiving the Wisdom of the Golden Rule

The Commons: Receiving the Wisdom of the Golden Rule

A meditation on creating a civil society


Nine years ago, as part of a small entourage driving across the frozen tundra of Mongolia, I witnessed time and again how understanding the need to look out for one another in the subzero temperatures superseded any differences of language, age, or cultural background. I was the only foreigner and yet my hosts made me feel like an adopted sister. They treated me kindly, as one of them.

When my Western, waterproof, minus-50-degree boots failed to keep my feet warm, they lent me a pair of local wool felt boots that succeeded. They laughed easily at my different perceptions, and the good-hearted treatment went both ways. Looking back, I see that this is what it’s like to be on the receiving end of the Golden Rule. It felt caring and gracious. It inspired gratitude. I also think it is a lot easier to perceive such behavior when you’re far from home and it’s abundantly clear that you are the “other.”

I also reflect much further back on how one of my close friends once handled a dicey situation. From where I stood, it sure looked like my friend was getting the raw end of the deal, a point I raised repeatedly when we talked about it. He described taking the time to consider the point of view of the other person and how he would feel if the roles were reversed. I was struck by the humility in his actions. He acknowledged that things looked awkward, and then convinced me that patience, along with a willingness to stand in the other guy’s shoes, would guide him to a more reasonable solution for everyone. He was right—and trustworthy from both sides of that debate. And while the event happened very long ago, the memory stayed with me because it was fundamental. The Golden Rule is not the same as being in agreement with each other (quite often we aren’t). It is more profound than that.

The Golden Rule is a reminder that we’re fellow citizens of our home planet. To live by this Rule invites self-examination as well as anticipation and consideration of the needs of others. It’s reflected in sportsmanship, ethics, and morals. It is universal and timeless—the fabric of a civil society.

Not surprisingly, the major faith traditions all express the concept of the Golden Rule. About 20 years ago, theologian Paul McKenna of Scarboro Missions in Toronto conceived the idea of an interfaith Golden Rule poster and spent five years researching and consulting hundreds of experts. His poster launched in early 2001, has since been translated into several languages, and continues to make its way around the globe. (Indeed, it has become internationally renowned as an interfaith and educational resource.) The same year, one of our staff saw the poster hanging in her physician’s office, which led to our publication of nine statements of the Golden Rule as expressed by nine faiths in the wake of 9/11. I have it fastened above my computer as a daily meditation prompt. It helps.

In fact, the Golden Rule is always helpful, especially when things get messy. Pondering the Golden Rule can change our response from inflammatory to constructive; it can prevent us from becoming distracted from the fact that we really are all in this together. Even civil disobedience can be designed as an act of living the Golden Rule. The Rule can help us transcend differences and inspire us to remain calm in the face of difficult circumstances. No matter where we travel, it does not get much closer to home than that.

The Code of the Road

While we were driving across frozen Lake Khovsgol we came upon a vehicle that had run out of gas. I marveled at how anyone would embark on a trip across an isolated stretch of ice with insufficient fuel; even so, there was no question that we would give that driver enough fuel to reach a station. There was no hesitation or judgment. He had been waiting for the next person, anyone, to come along and help. Not all scenarios are so obvious. Yet each of us is eager for the next person on the road to live this rule.

What you can do

If you have 1 minute: Cut out and post the Rule as appropriate. Share the Golden Rule PDF from

If you have 10 minutes: Think of a time when you took action based on the Golden Rule in dealing with someone who is “other” than you. Meditate on “other.” Then trade places in your meditation.

If you have 1 hour: Visit with someone who may hold a view other than your own.

If you have $1 or $100: Donate to a nonprofit dedicated to improving understanding among different groups of citizens.

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