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The Golden Rule

I have thought about the difference between “prescriptive” and “descriptive” several times of late. It is a distinction I first remember considering in seminary regarding scripture. We learned the importance of distinguishing between passages that describe what was happening and those that prescribe what ought to happen. This distinction is functional in linguistics, business, ethics, psychology, and more. It is where we sit in the midst of this pandemic as we are learning daily the description of how the virus operates and the prescription of how we can best respond. The challenge is the unknown and the humility required for us to follow those prescriptive precautions known to be effective, when we are longing to return to some semblance of normalcy sooner rather than later.

The discipline in following the prescribed wisdom regarding COVID-19 comes from a place deep in the human spirit. Most religions and cultures have some prescription for how we treat ourselves and others and the significant relationship between the two. It is so prevalent it is known at the Golden Rule. Not silver or bronze, this rule takes first place. From the Buddhist, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful,” to Zoroastrianism’s, “That nature alone is good which refrains from doing to another whatsoever is not good for itself,” the wisest among us realize the mutual benefit in looking out for each other.

Dr. Karen Armstrong, who has conducted decades of research on the world’s religions, says that Confucius was the first person known to offer the Golden Rule when he told his disciples, “Never treat others as you would not like to be treated yourself.” Jesus, some 500 years later told his disciples, quoting Leviticus 19:18, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Whether approached negatively or positively, the intent is the same. We are to take into account the well-being of others in how we act.

Last summer, my granddaughter Rylee and I were driving from Jacksonville to Cocoa Beach when I asked her about her college application process. She told me she had to write an essay about her core values. I was intrigued and asked her what values she identified, expecting to hear love, courage, honesty and the like. Instead she said, “Knowledge, accountability and reciprocity.” Reciprocity is the moral principle at work in the golden rule. As humans we have the capacity for empathy, for understanding and relating to the feelings of another, for putting ourselves in the shoes of another and acting accordingly. I agree with Rylee. It is an important value, perhaps now more than ever.

As we think of the pandemic and the suffering it is causing globally, both literally and figuratively, as it impacts the whole globe in holistic ways of health and well-being, it is tempting to retreat. It is also understandable to focus on me and mine. But it is not our better angels at work when we do so. When we insist on our way at the peril of others, we are forsaking our better nature.

As we move forward, we want to find ways to continue to protect ourselves and others by washing our hands well and frequently, by wearing masks and gloves when out for necessary business, by limiting physical proximity to others while retaining social contact in the ways that are not threatening to ourselves or to others, and by doing what we can safely do to support the needs of those who are hardest hit by this pandemic.

As community members and leaders, we can listen to the wisest counsel and use our best judgment regarding reengagement in society, caring about our own well-being and that of others. We can remember the potential for harm in not being cautious, not just harm to ourselves, but harm to others which inevitably diminishes our own spirits.

If we can continue to practice the Golden Rule, which is the prescribed way forward through this pandemic, we will come out on the other side with a description of humanity at its best, touched by the divine spark, the greater good in us all. It is my prayer that we remain vigilant in caring for each other as we care for ourselves.