I often give thought to human nature, its strong points and its shortcomings, and the different value systems people hold dear. It makes me wary of ever hoping for change; history is full of atrocities driven by people who judge other groups as not worthy of the same treatment they would want for themselves. And yet from time immemorial we have been taught to treat others the way we would want to be treated. The Golden Rule crosses all religions, geographies, cultures…but so does discrimination.
So why don’t people teach history differently?
Why don’t people feel better about themselves so they don’t feel a need to put others down, hurt them, denigrate and dehumanize? In my very first blog on this platform I shared my thoughts on why. My thinking hasn’t changed so much since then.
On the whole, I believe carrying around an internal measuring stick is far more useful than an external one.
When my children would share with me a grade they received on a test or a paper, my response was usually to ask if they were satisfied. I wanted to know if they thought it commensurate with the work they put in but wasn’t concerned with the scale to 100 or the curve in the class. While competing with oneself can serve as a fairer driver than competing with others, still, it is not a measuring stick of one’s worth.
So while useful, what is more meaningful?
How we conduct ourselves and how we treat others. In Judaism, we talk about derech eretz, the way of the land. In a blog on this (a.k.a. doing the right thing) and on lovingkindness, I framed these traits inside a lesson related to the Golden Rule, on how we ought to relate towards others. But truthfully, I can’t help but think that we all benefit when we adopt value systems that prizes how we treat each other.
And I’ve written on this before too, on why building community is so important.
The other piece of the puzzle, I think, has to do with this unfathomable tendency to treat life as a zero-sum game. I’ve written about this in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate. But it is also relevant in our interpersonal relationships or in our political philosophy. “I had to work for it, so no one else should have it given to them” makes no sense. A more educated society is a more productive one. If someone else does well, that doesn’t reduce my piece of the pie, but instead grows the pie for many others. I can be happy for their good fortune and even work towards it. So why don’t more people think that way?
This brings me back to the kind of insecurity that drives people to hurt others in order to feel better.
How do we break this cycle? How do we teach self-reliance and resilience, coping skills and kindness? Where do we go to inculcate the Golden Rule? If generation after generation of people become parents with only what they’ve seen at home as their normal, how does anyone ever learn there are other ways to think about anything? Though many religions have their own version of the Golden Rule, we also all know that religious history is replete with examples of people who did not abide by it, and secular history with examples of people who use religion as their rationale for decidedly un-Golden Rule like behavior. What about schools? That would take a revolution in rethinking not only how history is taught but what the purpose of education is, and I can’t see that happening any time soon.
And that brings us back to human nature. Often disappointed, I nonetheless always retain hope. Hope that people can become more thoughtful. Because I also know change happens at the individual level. Grassroots efforts matter, because each encounter can change the trajectory of a single life which in turn can impact countless others. I also thought about that this week, as fellow former classmates unveiled a scholarship they created in honor of the memory of a former teacher of ours.
So even though human nature is too often discouraging, we cannot let that take away from our belief that the world can be a better place. That is my takeaway because I need it to be. What is yours?