I never said it, but for a long time, the Golden Rule seemed stupid.
While walking through downtown Seattle one mid-2000s-Saturday, my friend gave twenty bucks to a man with a beard and a limp. The limping man said he needed it for a train ticket, and Do unto others, so—“He probably scammed you,” I said later, half a block away.
“We don’t know that.” Calvin shrugged. “He might have really needed it.”
But Calvin looked like he knew. Calvin looked like he wished that twenty dollars had bought a piroshki, or maybe paid for our ferry tickets, or at least went into the donation plate at church.
Even when I knew I had aimed my doing unto appropriately, lining up the crosshairs of selflessness onto someone who really did deserve it, someone good and caring—let’s say my neighbor was a single mom who just lost her job (my real neighbors in high school were drug dealers, but we’ll run with it). Love your neighbor as yourself, so I slip twenty bucks into her mailbox one morning when I know she won’t see me. But she follows the Golden Rule, too, so she gives the money to her diabetic uncle who can’t afford new insulin, and then he donates it to his struggling church that’s late paying the water bill, and then the church gives it to a parishioner who can’t afford rent, and so on and so on until the money finally makes its way to that guy who thinks the Golden Rule sucks and puts the money toward his second house. Now I’m out twenty bucks, my neighbor’s kids still wear too-small jeans, the uncle doesn’t have enough insulin, the church dropped even farther into the red, and the parishioner faces eviction—while Joe Selfish is busy getting richer.
The Golden Rule felt like trickle-up economics. Like playing hot potato with kindness. I had read The Prince in high school, and putting others first seemed to me like something from Machiavelli.
Ecclesiastical Principalities… are sustained by the ancient ordinances of religion, which are so all-powerful, and of such a character that the principalities may be held no matter how their princes behave and live. These princes alone have states and do not defend them; and they have subjects and do not rule them; and the states, although unguarded, are not taken from them, and the subjects, although not ruled, do not care, and they have neither the desire nor the ability to alienate themselves.
I’ve since learned that life is not, after all, a zero-sum game. Love matters more than money, and giving is its own reward, and selfish people are the most lonely, and all the other clichés. I believe those clichés, and I don’t.
I want selfless people to have blissful, perfect lives. When I argue with someone about selfishness—“it’s a virtue. The Golden Rule just makes betas feel better about not standing up for themselves”—I want to point to loving families and say, “See? This is possible. This is good,” but I can’t.
My best examples of those loving, do-unto-others-people have been killed by pancreatic cancer or widowed by pancreatic cancer. Others are poor. Others wear down under years of unanswered job applications, their degrees and experience overlooked in favor of the louder, less socially-anxious candidates. Other live unrecognized, unappreciated by the children or spouses or parents they sacrifice for.
And all of them—the professors, the friends, the parents—these kind, generous people hurt each other. They misspeak, they misunderstand. They assume and infer and imply. Things fall apart. The best intentions go awry.
Those of us who are more selfish do even worse. Two of my friends got engaged straight out of high school, both close friends. People I loved. He was giving up an aerospace engineering program, trading it for community college and a job at Burger King so they could stay in-town and marry. They were going to live in her parents’ garage.
I was talking with the soon-to-be-wife after my first year of college. We walked through the park that we always walked through, and we sat on a bridge beneath maple trees and evergreens. I was almost honest.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I haven’t even seen how you two act together since I’ve come home.”
She uninvited me from the wedding the next week. I had hurt her, and him. My rare phone calls went unanswered.
We haven’t spoken since then, aside from one shouted argument in the middle of an REI. I still love them. I still miss them. We’re all still hurt.
If this is not sin nature, it must be its cousin. We do what we do not want to do, to the people we love most.
And meanwhile, the selfish come out ahead. Real estate moguls. Sex traffickers. Cartel bosses. Nestlé drains aquifers and businessmen bribe politicians. Fraternity brothers rape girls at parties, but end up with beautiful wives and high-paying jobs. Kim Il-sung created a country of starvation and labor camps, and the consequence was a heart attack at the age of 82, surrounded by luxury. Stalin, a stroke at 74.
The Golden Rule feels better—feels wiser—when I take injustice as a given. When I look at the state of things as a system doomed by entropy, it’s not significant that doing unto others doesn’t fix all of it. It is, though, significant that it fixes some. And even when it doesn’t, when twenty dollars doesn’t buy a train ticket, or when another twenty helps fund a second house, as Marilynne Robinson writes: Love is holy because it is like grace—the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.
Maybe a life without entropy is what we’d call heaven. All the good we mean to do, without any of the complications. No cancer, no poverty. No accidental heartbreak, no misguided advice. No unanswered phone calls.