Please don’t do unto me

I’ve talked about this before, but I want to revisit it for the Pagan Values project:

I would really rather not have you do unto me as you would have done unto you. Really.

I understand the reasoning and roots, and they’re good: the entire foundation of the Golden Rule is to foster empathy. The point that trips me up, though, is that individuals think about how they would feel – and not about how the target of their attention would feel in the same situation.

The assumption is that the feelings are exactly the same. While we might have some of the same feelings, the needs and motivations are not going to come from the same place.

First, emotions come from a complex mix of biochemistry, what thoughts we choose to dwell on actively and personal histories that never quite match up. The people around us are not really mirrors, no matter how many self-help books put it that way. They’re caves, with depths and dangers within that we can’t know without that person’s spirit to guide us.

My father’s death brought to fore many incidents where “do unto” became “please don’t.”  In the least likely to cause trouble example,  my apartment manager, after getting mixed up and asking if I had fun on my vacation, responded to my explanation that I was at a funeral with “Well, he’s in a better place now.”

That’s what she would want said to her. I made note of that should she ever have a death in the family that I find out about. I found receiving the statement irritating, just as irritating as when my eighth grade science teacher explained to me that my friend Michael dying unexpectedly was all part of “God’s plan.”

People who know me know I’m very much a theist and to some extent a Deist.  I’ve had a running dialog with God/ess ever since I found out it’s an open forum. But because of that dialog, I actually feel a twinge of anger when someone pushes a supposition about the end result of death on me. Those people could be right, those people could be wrong, but I don’t want to hear it because I see it as an overstep that disrespects both Deity and the bereaved. Even on a social politeness level, such comments attempt to push people into specific views and belief systems. I see it both as exploitation, and as preventing a person from finding his/her own comfort in the right way for him/her.

For a simpler illustration, my neighbor Mohammed just had a grandson. Normally, I might buy him a cigar and a bottle of champagne to celebrate this joyous addition to his family. While he might find the cigar OK, Mohammed would find the champagne displeasing and even offensive. Doing as I would have done unto myself (in any strange circumstance that would end up with me as a grandmother) would result in offending my neighbor and his wife in a permanent manner. It might also lead to a long lecture about Islamic beliefs and practices that I’ve already heard far more than the average white person, and that I don’t care to hear again.

I want to acknowledge here that doing unto others as they would have done unto them is equally flawed. I object to the “do unto yourself” because it’s based on making assumptions about the other person. Yet  those of us who are mind readers make profitable livings at carnivals and leave the rest of us schmucks to guess what a person needs in a given situation.

In the long run, shuttling back and forth between the two concepts depending on what you can learn about the situation is probably the best bet. Active listening can help with a willing participant, someone able to verbalize what s/he needs, but in those circumstances where conversation isn’t possible it is, as always, up to your best guess as to what the right thing to do is.



  1. Kaye

    This is a beautiful post, and I think that you have captured the differences between people quite well. The fact is that all of us see the world differently, and all we do is fumble around to make ourselves understood. It usually works (as in during normal conversation), but can often break down due to (sub)cultural barriers.

  2. Alyss

    Excellent post and interesting argument. I do agree with you that doing what you would like to have done is not always the right choice and you give some very solid examples. I wonder, though, if it is a better starting place than “do unto others whatever makes you feel best at the moment”… which is what many people do in many situations. Like the lady who maced my dog, or when I yelled at my sister the other day… we aren’t acting on what we want done to us, just what meets our current needs. Doing what we would have wanted done to us in those situations might have led to less grief all around, don’t you think? Thanks for the great post!

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