Rethinking the Golden Rule

Grete Rachel Howland
10 min readSep 26, 2019

Learning I Need to be Nice to Myself (Despite All Messages to the Contrary)

Looking down through the aquamarine waters surrounding the Cyclades.

If you were to create a bar graph comparing the frequencies of the different types of compliments I’ve received over the course of my life, the column for “polite” and all its synonyms would tower over the other affirmations like the Burj Khalifa soars over Dubai.

When my mother took me and my sister (7 and 4 years old, respectively) to visit my great-grandmother in Germany, she received numerous comments about how polite we were from fellow passengers on the long transatlantic flight. The same was said about me on many occasions by visitors to our home, by teachers at every level, and by just about every boss for whom I’ve worked.

Simply put, I know how to be nice to people. How to be pleasant. How to get along. Though I have had (and continue to have) plenty of foot-in-mouth moments, and I am often stymied by what the cool thing to do would be in a certain situation, I can play the propriety game quite well when I want to. I have manners.

Generally, these gestures are not empty. I really like most people, and I really have love for just about everyone. While there’s no doubt that a lot of my courtesy is rooted in fear of being or doing wrong, I am also sincerely interested in others’ happiness. I like being hospitable. I like making sure that people have an enjoyable experience interacting with me.

The admonitions I grew up with as a Christian to love my neighbors, whoever they may be, were not difficult for me to follow.

What I have trouble with is being nice to myself.

I wrote recently that I’ve been reading through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. A few weeks ago I was in the chapter entitled “Recovering a Sense of Connection,” by which Cameron means recovering a sense of connection to “your personal dreams.”

The way this book works is that each chapter represents one week in a 12-week process of clearing away whatever blocks have been built up between you and your creative self (or you and your creator, if you’re into that sort of thing). Each week involves not only a chapter to read but also tasks to do at some point over the course of the seven days that follow.

In order to help the reader recover this “sense of connection,” Cameron shares her thoughts on issues like listening to what is trying to be created through us, letting go of perfectionism, the benefits of taking risks, and the destructive power of jealousy.

I loved this chapter. I underlined and bracketed and starred sentences and paragraphs all over the place. But my enthusiastic journey through Week 7 stopped abruptly when I encountered the first task. “Make this phrase a mantra,” Cameron writes:

Treating myself like a precious object will make me strong.

Now, I’m not opposed to mantras. When I get past feeling a little silly about saying them, I find them helpful. I’ve sat in meditation with mantras, and written mantras out over and over again on a single page with the hope that I might be simultaneously engraving my brain with some wisdom in the process. I’ve even been known to say a mantra or two to myself in the mirror when I’m in the mood for positivity. Of this mantra, however, I was not a fan.

I can think of nothing more ridiculous than calling myself, let alone actually believing myself to be, precious. It almost makes me laugh. And don’t mistake this for self-pity. There are a lot of things I can appreciate about myself, and I think that I do often have respect for myself, of a sort. But conceiving of myself as “precious” — which to me means adoring myself and seeing myself as special and really feeling affectionate love toward myself — is something I don’t like to even consider.

Those feelings are for directing at other people, not me.

Maybe there’s some gender stuff here. I would say I am a cis woman, but I have never felt comfortable in the role(s) assigned to me. Or, more accurately, I’ve never felt comfortable conceding to the roles that are and have been kept from me in a binary, patriarchal system.

I wanted to run around shirtless in the sprinklers on hot days. I wanted to go on a quest like Indiana Jones or Atreyu, to be the hero of my own journey. I wanted to look cool instead of pretty, and have it be appropriate even on Easter Sunday.

So when you bring a word like “precious” to me and ask me to see myself in its light — a light that to me has tones of delicacy and femininity and needing a careful touch — I am inclined to refuse. I don’t want to be precious; I want to be tough. I don’t want to be genteel; I already resent the vulnerability of my daily existence as a woman. Softness, for me, is scary.

All that said, perhaps this interpretation of “precious” is a bit limited. Diamonds (to reach for the nearest cliché) are precious, and they are also one of the hardest, toughest, most resilient materials on earth. In this context, precious refers to the thing’s value, its worth. Maybe treating myself “like a precious object” does not have to have this connotation of patronizing. Maybe it can be about treating myself like I’m priceless.

But this brings me back to square one: who believes they’re priceless? I certainly don’t. I don’t know that I want to believe it. It’s not that I think I’m a piece of shit; it just feels wrong on multiple levels. Also, I find a lot of comfort in contemplating my nothingness relative to the unimaginable expanse of the universe. Being nice to myself, adoring myself, treating myself — that would affirm my somethingness. And thinking of myself as ‘something’, let alone a priceless something, brings up a lot of complicated feelings for a person whose sense of self was constructed in and by the Evangelical church.

The kind of Christianity that surrounded me in my youth was an individualistic one. It focused on the personal, private aspects of faith. My salvation, my relationship with Jesus, and also, my sin. There were mandates to meet regularly as a community and help out poor folks and things like that, but at the core of the theology was individual deliverance. The central message went something like this:

Can you even begin to comprehend how big God’s love for you is that He was willing to give up His son’s life to save yours? He sacrificed the life of His only child for your sake. God knows everything about you, down to the exact number of hairs on your head, and He so desperately wants to spend eternity with you in heaven that He sent Jesus to die in order to atone for the sins that would otherwise send you to hell.

In immaculate church sanctuaries, in couch-cluttered youth group meeting rooms, at summer camp bonfires, in actual tent revivals: I heard some version of that sermon at least once a week from before the youngest age I can remember until I stopped showing up to the places where it was being preached. In total, that’s about twenty-five years of steady brainwashing — I mean, proselytizing — that I went through.

One might expect that all this focus on each person’s cosmic specialness would have made me and my fellow church-goers pretty arrogant. For some, it did. But there was another key piece of the metaphysical puzzle that helped to keep the hubris at bay: the tenet of ‘total depravity’, as the Calvinist’s like to say. As much as our faith revolved around our own personal relationship with God, it also necessitated accepting the fact that we were all helplessly defiled with sin from the time we were born, and could never do anything to make up for our inherent dirtiness in the eyes of God.

What a thing to tell a child.

In any case, this teaching instilled in me (and I assume many others) a very strong sense of our paradoxical unworthiness. Preachers and teachers continuously insisted on God’s unconditional love for each and every one of us. And, at the same time, they could never let us forget that we were nothing, deserved nothing, in our natural, unredeemed state.

This made it really ironic when a sermon came up about the second most important commandment, according to Jesus (as recorded in the gospel of Mark): “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

In modern Western culture, we call this the Golden Rule. Another version is, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I learned it as a Biblical teaching, though it’s found in multiple belief systems from around the world. It also shows up in a number of different places within the Bible itself, but I seem to remember references to the verse in Mark being the most frequent.

The sermons were what you’d expect: think about how much you’re inclined to favor and protect yourself and your own interests, and then do the same for others. Consider what you’d want done (or not done) for or to you in a particular situation, and act accordingly when that situation involves someone else.

It’s a nice idea, I suppose. But it presumes — or at least the teachings I heard on it presume — a couple things that are not necessarily correct. One is that there is some objective reality wherein my desires in any given situation would always be the same as another person’s no matter their life experiences or identities. There are overlaps, of course — things common enough like wanting to avoid intense pain or major loss — that I think we are generally safe in assuming. However, it seems to me that really loving your neighbor would involve asking them what they want instead of assuming you know it.

The other, more immediately relevant assumption made by this verse and/or the pastors who taught it-the core premise, in fact, on which the lesson of the verse is based-is that I already love myself. That my inclination is to take care of myself and put myself first.

Did they think that a woman, who was raised not only in conservative Christianity but also in the patriarchal society at large, who was the eldest child in a chaotic environment, who has a personality that is, whether learned or innate, drastically more inclined toward self-criticism — did they really think that that person would be in the habit of putting herself first?

The church was the one who taught me how dirty I was. The church was the one who taught me that God loved me, but not enough to be able to have me in his presence without first having his son murdered. The church was the one who taught me that my sex drive was bad (until it somehow magically wasn’t), who taught me that it would be my fault if my friends went to hell, who taught me that all my worth was in my status as a Believer.

And then this same church has the gall to warn me again and again to love my neighbor as myself like I wasn’t already sacrificing every desire and need of my own in the service of spreading God’s kingdom. Trust me, no neighbor would want me to love them like I love myself. That would end up being very little love at all.

But hope is not lost, my friends. Hope is not lost.

In fact, I feel like there’s still wisdom to be gleaned from this hackneyed edict Jesus supposedly gave. What if, instead of constantly scrutinizing our habits of love or lack thereof toward others, those of us who tend more toward self-erasure decide to flip the script? You know, turn the Golden Rule into something that actually does put more love into the world, instead of perpetuating our own pain by ignoring it in the interest of doing ‘the right thing’.

What if I loved myself like I love my neighbor?

Not that I’m interested in going to church again, but that’s a sermon I would like to hear. I am so understanding of other people’s perspectives, so generous with my compliments, so excited about others’ successes and so willing to share the burden of sorrows when they come. Sure I can be a careless jerk sometimes, but, like everyone has said about me since I was a little girl, I’m usually nice to be around. I’m usually gracious and kind.

I am not those things with or toward myself. And, as I mentioned earlier, I balk when offered the chance to try. The learning I need to do is not in being better to the people around me (not that I’m perfect at it, but I’m always, always trying hard) — the learning I need to do is in self-nurturing, self-friendliness, self-care.

It’s a lesson that’s anathema to everything I was raised with, and I’m just getting to it at…38 years old. So it won’t be easy, and I’m pretty sure it won’t be quick. But I am proud of myself for reaching a breaking point with the whole ‘my life is about taking care of everyone else and that’s okay’ script. Who’s rewarding me for it now that I’m out of the Evangelical game? No one. It might be time to change.

If I’m lucky I’ve still got another 38 years to go on this gorgeous planet. I think I want to spend them getting comfortable with being nice to me.

Originally published at http://www.weird-name.com on September 26, 2019.

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Grete Rachel Howland

Reflections on growing up in Evangelical Christianity and finding freedom on the other side of belief.