The Golden Rule starts with me


By The Rev. Paul Jeanes, Trinity Church, Princeton
One of the first and most fundamental lessons that I learned as a child was the Golden Rule. I remember vividly, my parents, grandparents, and Sunday School teachers, looking squarely in my eyes and saying, “Remember, Paul, what the Lord taught us, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ ”
This loving admonition typically came in direct response to my less than Golden Rule behavior. With slumped shoulders and a downcast gaze, I would meekly reply, “I’m sorry, Jesus wouldn’t have liked that very much.” But, on the inside, I was shouting, “If Johnny hadn’t been such a jerk, I wouldn’t have needed to punch him! Did you ask him if he remembered the Golden Rule?!”
The Golden Rule, with its childlike clarity and simplicity, is anything but easy to truly put into practice. Who doesn’t believe that we shouldn’t treat one another as we would like to be treated? Who doesn’t believe that we shouldn’t be kind and forgiving, caring and loving, accepting and patient with one another?
Some of the most basic and fundamental truths of our respective faith traditions can be the most difficult to live on a daily basis. Fredrick Buechner, American writer and theologian, wrote that “’It all boils down to the Golden Rule. Just love thy neighbor, and that’s all you have to worry about.’ What makes this bad news is that loving our neighbor is exactly what none of us is very good at. Most of the time, we have a hard time loving even our family and friends very effectively.”
Most of us like to be on the receiving end of the Golden Rule. We know how we want to be treated, the only problem is that the people around us aren’t cooperating. If everyone would simply do what they are supposed to do and treat me like I deserved to be treated, then things would be fine and we would all get along. Because of course, I live by the Golden Rule! It’s everyone else who is the problem. Well, that’s what we like to tell ourselves.
We would prefer a Golden Rule that changes everyone else. We would like a Golden Rule that lets me behave the way I want to behave and “need” to behave. Because, “If Johnny hadn’t been such a jerk, I wouldn’t have needed to punch him.” It’s his fault I can’t fully live the Golden Rule, because he isn’t living it. If he were nicer, then I would be nicer. If he treated me like I want to be treated, then I would treat him the way he wants to be treated. That seems fair. Our human tendency is, all too often, to point the figure at everyone else. “If they would only … ” is much easier to deal with than “If I would only … .”
But, the reality is that the Golden Rule starts with me. I can’t control how others behave. I can’t make anyone live by the Golden Rule. I can only be responsible for how I behave. I only have control over my actions and responses. People will do what they do and say what they say. The Golden Rule doesn’t start with them, it starts with ME. 
The Rev. Paul Jeanes is rector of Trinity Church (Episcopal) in Princeton. 