My childhood—like, I’m sure, many of yours—was filled with many repetitions of the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Treat others how you want to be treated. You wouldn’t like it if someone did that to you.
The golden rule is one that can be found across cultures, going back at least twenty-five hundred years, but probably further. I can just see cave-mothers lecturing their cave-children not to hit other cave-children over the head, because would you want him to hit you over the head?
Children are naturally self-absorbed, so it’s undoubtedly a good idea to teach kids to think of others before deciding the best course of action. You can always tell the adults who were never taught the golden rule or never took it to heart: the ones driving up closed lanes of traffic, leaving their messes for someone else to clean up, posting vague, emotional Facebook statuses…you know the type.
So it’s a good rule.
I repeatedly found throughout my life, no matter who I was dealing with, that when I treated others how I wanted to be treated—to be spoken to honestly and largely left alone—people inevitably didn’t appreciate it. It seemed like a gaping hole in the kindness mantra that had been drilled into me, and I started to wonder if there was something wrong with me. Other people don’t want to be treated this way, ipso facto, I shouldn’t want to be treated that way either.
Of course, years later, my rational, disillusioned adult self saw the flaws in this thought process, but to a middle schooler looking to fit in, it was a big problem. It was a minor identity crisis, leading me do wonder if being kind was even worth it at all if I didn’t know how to properly treat anyone. (Spoiler alert: it is.) I don’t know if you ever experienced something similar, or if you’re one of the lucky ones whose sensibilities line up with the general populace, but for someone to whom relationships never came easily, the golden rule just became one more thing I didn’t understand about people.
While addressing one major factor of human nature, the golden rule fails to take into account an even bigger one: People are different.
People don’t all like the same things. They don’t approach the world the same way. They don’t think in the same patterns. Some people are emotional, some are more rational. Some are introverts, some are extraverts. Some like their problems to be solved, others just want to be heard. There are billions of people in the world, and countless ways to group them into like-minded segments. Myers-Briggs types and Enneagram types, Hogwarts houses and “What My Little Pony are you?” quizzes. Generations, genders, stereotypes of all kinds. People approach the world in different ways. But the golden rule would have you believe that every other person in the world is just like you.
Teaching kindness is good. Teaching people to think about others is good. Teaching kids to view everyone else through a self-focused lens is a good way to end up with self-serving adults who consider others as an afterthought.
Most people do not want to be treated how I want to be treated, a lesson I’ve learned many times over. Treating others how I wanted to be treated got me labeled as antisocial by my uncle. It got me into countless fights with my best friend. It made people cry in writing workshops. Not because I had eschewed tact or forgotten my manners or anything of the sort—just because I was acting toward them in ways that I personally would have no problem with, ways I would even appreciate.
The golden rule is not the key to kindness, though it’s definitely a good start. You just have to use it as a building block. Success in relationships of any kind comes only when you understand people for who they are and how they personally want to be treated, and then act on that. Shoving someone else’s needs into a you-shaped mold, as a literal interpretation of the golden rule would have you do, is most likely only going to create or exacerbate conflict.
Seeing people as individuals, or even as just different than yourself, should not be a novel concept. It is, dare I say it, even a current trend. But seeing people as individuals doesn’t involve affirming everyone’s every beliefs, as the internet would have you believe. It’s simply the process of looking at someone and seeing a person. Not a political alliance, not a list of opinions, not a series of quirks. A person who needs things, wants things, thinks about things—possibly, probably, very different things than you do. So don’t treat others how you want to be treated, treat others how they want to be treated.
Just be kind. Be considerate. And realize the world is bigger than you and your needs.