August 10, 2005

Bringing Out the Best in Ourselves and Others

[Ed: this is another of my articles which was first published in the June issue of the Vox Populi Nebraska ezine.]

Throughout recorded history, humans have tried to answer some basic questions about their existence: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? And how should we live? Many look to religion to find answers to these questions while others study philosophy. Yet within the context of our beliefs and thoughts, the life we end up living is shaped by how we see ourselves, how others see us, what we expect of ourselves, and what is expected of us. Ultimately, the question comes down to: what does it mean to live a good life?

These days as humans once more face disruptive and contentious times it will take many people trying to find the best in others and themselves for the world to make it through the next century without catastrophic reactions to the coming tests: tests of overpopulation, dwindling food supplies and potable water, the end of the petroleum era, and lethal weaponry and disruptive diseases that can wipe out large percentages of humanity. Now more than ever, humans must find answers other than blaming other people for their (our) problems. And we must recognize that the way we face these tests will say a great deal about what kind of people we are.

How we see ourselves and how we see others has a tremendous impact on our perspectives and even on our actions. What we expect of ourselves and what we expect of others profoundly influences our relationship with them. Expectations can be shown to influence our choices and our actions. In fact, we can say that people’s expectations of us are one of the strongest shapers of who we are and what we believe about ourselves. How we see and treat others is a reflection of how well we live our lives.

To understand how this can be, one can look at the effect that someone like Fred Rogers had on people. For many years, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was an oasis of kindness and love on television. Mr. Rogers believed that it was his obligation to live his life as if the precept, “love thy neighbor as thyself,” was a supreme commandment. As Amy Hollingsworth, the author of The Simple Faith of Mr. Rogers, put it:

“He said, once you realize that everybody’s your neighbor, you have a choice. You can either be an advocate or an accuser. An accuser is somebody who only sees what’s awful about themselves so they look through those eyes and look for what’s awful about their neighbor. An advocate is somebody who looks through the eyes of God at their neighbor and sees what’s good about that person because they’re created in God’s likeness. That’s a very simple, basic truth, but to live that out in our daily lives is tremendously difficult.”

Fred Rogers exemplified a life guided by the golden rule. The golden rule has been summarized as the ethical guideline by not only Jesus (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31), but also Confucius and Hillel. The golden rule states that in order to be ethical, one must treat others as they would have others treat them.

For Fred Rogers to live a life that was a testament to his faith meant that he practiced compassion and love every day. And because he believed so strongly in the good in people, he called out the good and he made others see the good in themselves.

One more prosaic example of how our attitudes towards others shape their responses came when my son was in junior high school. My son hated his math class and had a terrible relationship with his math teacher. He would come home and complain that the teacher was really awful -- mean and disrespectful. He told me that the teacher was an old fogy and boring. Eventually, my son’s grades dropped so much that it was obvious to him and to me that he would have to work very hard not to flunk the class.

Fortunately, my son decided it was important to not fail. So he began to pay attention in the class, to study the material and to do his homework. Soon I began to hear about how the teacher was acting completely differently. His teacher was encouraging, respectful and engaging as my son actively participated in class. For my son, it was like he had a totally new teacher, someone he never would have expected. But for me, it was an example of how what we bring to a relationship is what we get from that relationship. When my son was discourteous to his classmates, his teacher and himself by not doing the work required, he found himself bored and feeling disrespected. When he treated the class and the teacher with the simple respect owed our fellow humans, the teacher spent more energy in responding positively to my son. Not only did my son learn the math he needed to pass the class, he created a positive feedback loop where the more energy he put into the class, the better he did and the more positive reinforcement he got from the teacher.

Another powerful example is that of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the democratic opposition to the military junta in Myanmar (formally known as Burma). Suu Kyi is a compelling leader of the democratic movement because she inspires courage and peaceful resistance for her followers. She resists the military leaders without demonizing them, thus stripping them of a legitimate reason to simply eliminate her. She has used her words and her example to teach ordinary citizen of Myanmar that they have a real choice in how they face the terrifying power of the brutal dictators.

Harry J. Gensler has written that the golden rule provides us a standard for defining morality and as our world becomes more complicated, we need ways that we can resolve conflict using the same framework.

“The golden rule is best interpreted as saying: "Treat others only in ways that you're willing to be treated in the same exact situation." To apply it, you'd imagine yourself in the exact place of the other person on the receiving end of the action. If you act in a given way toward another, and yet are unwilling to be treated that way in the same circumstances, then you violate the rule.

To apply the golden rule adequately, we need knowledge and imagination. We need to know what effect our actions have on the lives of others. And we need to be able to imagine ourselves, vividly and accurately, in the other person's place on the receiving end of the action. With knowledge, imagination, and the golden rule, we can progress far in our moral thinking.

The golden rule is best seen as a consistency principle. It doesn't replace regular moral norms. It isn't an infallible guide on which actions are right or wrong; it doesn't give all the answers. It only prescribes consistency - that we not have our actions (toward another) be out of harmony with our desires (toward a reversed situation action). It tests our moral coherence. If we violate the golden rule, then we're violating the spirit of fairness and concern that lie at the heart of morality.”

The golden rule gives us a way to develop and encourage empathy for someone else. The application of the golden rule would proscribe the use of torture and acts that impinge on the dignity of those under our control. It would lead us to learning to live more lightly on this planet so as to do a better job of sharing the natural resources with others. It would provide us an ethical guideline on how to create treaties that create win-win situations rather than our model of current winner-take-all.

Today, using the golden rule to create the world we wish to live in and the world we wish to leave those that come after us is something we all can encompass in our lives. We can use the example of Aung San Suu Kyi to show us how we can overcome our fear with a courage that brings out the best, not the worst in us and those around us. And while we will miss the living example of Fred Rogers, our world will be spiritually richer if we try to follow his example as we relate to our neighbors, wherever they might be in this world. And if we do this well enough, we humans have a chance to make it through the coming tests in a way that increases the love and the compassion in this world.

Posted by Mary at August 10, 2005 10:42 PM | Philosophy | Technorati links |