Growing up, I was taught to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It seems simple enough. However, this rule can quickly turn an attempt at thoughtfulness into an act of egocentric selfishness.
For example, my aunt was compulsively punctual. Because she was also exceptionally nervous, continually worried about abandonment, and a complete freak to deal with when she was upset, my family went to great lengths never to be late picking her up under any circumstances.
In my aunt’s mind, making us wait even a second would be inconsiderate. At the same time, if she waited more than a few minutes, she would begin to think she was confused about what time we were picking her up and chaos would ensue. “On time” to my aunt meant about 10 minutes early. There was a 4-minute window in which you could safely arrive and retrieve my aunt without panic, chaos, guilt, or retribution: arriving 5-9 minutes early meant you had not waited on her and you were early enough to avoid triggering her panic. This resulted in many dangerous acts of driving.
All in the name of thoughtfulness.
From her I learned to watch myself. To watch when “doing unto others” takes that dangerous turn into “assuming others want what I want.” The hardest acts of thoughtfulness are when what feels thoughtful to someone else is completely different than what we would want. Removing ourselves from the equation and truly making it about the other person is actually quite a challenge.
I think of my grandfather who never wanted gifts and my mother’s desire to give a gift he would like. Every Christmas, she would give him something more and more practical trying to align her gift giving with what she thought he would enjoy. Every year she was disappointed by his reaction. In reality, what he wanted was no gifts but my mother couldn’t give up on her belief that the perfect gift would result in him expressing genuine gratitude.
As selfless and thoughtful as my mother was, here she wasn’t really being thoughtful–it was her own need for her father’s approval that drove her compulsion to find him the perfect gift rather than any need of his.
And this, in a nutshell, is the problem with the Golden Rule. If we apply it from the perspective of our own neurotic need for approval, appreciation, or even just confirmation of what we believe about ourselves (we’re giving, thoughtful people), we usually don’t really apply it at all.
In the end, we don’t want people to do unto us exactly the way they would want us to do unto them. Rather, we want people to know us, see us, understand us, and, as a way of acknowledging that they accept us as we are, do unto us as we would have them do unto us. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” really should come with many footnotes.