In Kedoshim is the dictum which the great sage Rabbi Akiva called a cardinal principle of Torah, and of which Hillel said, (supposedly standing on one foot with his life in the balance): This is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary: What is harmful to you do not do to others.
Holy writings are loaded with variations on this theme. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Or Love your neighbor as yourself.
It’s inspirational and aspirational to imagine treating others the way we want to be treated. A “pay it forward” consciousness, with the implicit reward that if we act with goodness, we too will be treated well. It implies a world that’s fair and just, something that, on any given day, you may have the joys of experiencing. Less so if you are homeless, hungry, or broken-hearted, times when you may feel the world has betrayed your best hopes and intentions.
There’s another flip side to this coin, because we’re not always as good to ourselves as we wish others would be to us. How do you avoid treating yourself badly, or stop yourself from treating others in the worst ways you treat yourself? Or as you may feel the world has unjustly or poorly treated you? Crankiness and anger breeds more of same. Bad enough in people; horriffic and dangerous in nations.
There’s a wave in the zeitgeist these days, the concept of “the other.” Self in other forms. At its worst it’s racism and xenophobia: the other is difference made manifest, not equal or worthy. At its best it acknowledges sameness and kinship with kindness and compassion.
I deeply believe that we’re all pretty much the same at the core. With huge exceptions for psychotics and psychopaths, or individual tics and neuroses, most of us want to be loved, to live in peace, to provide safety and opportunity for ourselves and those we care about. To make the world a better place, not a more anxious or fractured one.
So why aren’t we good to one another? Why don’t we live up to a favorite bumper sticker: If you want peace, work for justice.
Things too often turn to crap when what benefits me is not so good for you. The zero sum game that’s led to millennia of disputes over land, wealth, and power. We need to get past our greed and insecurities to create a better now and a better future.
Judaism has a great concept of the world to come. It’s usually discussed in terms of a messianic age. But I prefer to think of it much closer and accessible, a world of peace, harmony, and equity. One we humans should strive to manifest here and soon.
Exercise: Make a list of what you think are your core values. Think about everything from honesty to kindness, dependability to compassion. As your week progresses, pay attention to how you react in various circumstances, from the easy ones to the most challenging. See what triggers your better self and your worse one, how your treat inner and outer others. Take good notes.