A Golden Compass Point
"Punishing the other person is self-punishment. That is true in every circumstance.”
Thich Nhat Hahn
So says the current and ancient wisdom, which I will not dispute. I hear it often and
interpret it as a call to empathy: understand the pain you will cause others by imagining that
pain as your own. Hahn’s wisdom closely mirrors formulations of the golden rule from Hillel and
from Islam. Confucius states it this way: “Do not do to others what you do not want done to
you.” Jesus gives it a twist: “Do for others what you want them to do for you.” Commentors
correctly note that the one formulation prefers a quietude, or passivity (in response to a
presumed injury or a self-centered desire), while the other suggests a premeditated act of
generosity (in response to an awareness of one’s own desire or need).
Whether stated as a call to self-restraint or to self-initiative, the golden rule
presupposes our fundamental connectedness; I and others share a common humanity, with
common needs and desires. I cannot focus properly on myself without seeing the other within
me; I cannot focus properly on others without seeing myself in them.
A few years ago, a newly enrolled college student died from an overdose of opiods.
Some said, “She killed herself.” Finding that phrasing inappropriatetly judgmental, others said,
“She died of suicide.” The first implies that she ought not to have done that; the second implies
that she could not help it. To some, the first feels inhumane; to others, the second feels
I hear this variation of the golden rule often: “When you hurt someone else, you hurt
yourself.” That particular rendering leaves me feeling a bit off balance, actually. Perhaps I lack
empathy or imagination on this point, but the “hurting others means hurting yourself”
formulation does not satisfy me. Bluntly put, it sounds selfish, merely, as if the only reason not
to hurt another is not to hurt myself. I don’t hear the appeal to our deep connectedness. I
don’t hear a call to focus on anyone but myself. Does it follow, in other words, that if I discover
a way to hurt you without hurting myself, then all is well with me (if not with you)?
I prefer to say it this way: When I hurt myself, I hurt others. If I love you, I wil not hurt
myself, not if I can help it.
That more clearly reminds me of our connectedness, our common humanity, our shared
desires, our mutual needs. It more clearly reminds me that I am not the center of the universe,
and not really even the center of my world.
I do not have a world. We have a world.
And I love you. Keep me reminded of that, please, if you love me, as I believe that will
help me help myself.
We Do Not Drown
For my friend, Ahmed Aq
In time, if willing, we learn that emotional pain need not overcome peace of mind and
heart. The pain of loss or injustice, the longing, the disorienting, even the raging at times, need
not be more than a storm circling round our still-calm Self.
Acceptance of loss or injustice, on the other hand, does not mean a stoical dispassion or
indifference. We may achieve such self-fortified, anaesthetized serenity, but in doing so, we die
We live; therefore, we suffer.
We love; therefore, we hurt.
Acceptance embraces the full experience, and thus even our pain and our expressions of
pain. In other words, when we remain at peace, pain does not swirl within us as something
detached from our inner Self at peace. Rather, we experience pain straight through to the heart
of the heart of us; and yet we are at once the turbulent storm and the stable center, the wind
and the stillness.
Indeed, when we accept the full experience of loss or injustice, we fight or we self-
restrain; we push forward or we wait; we cry out or we keep silent. We do whatever love and
justice demand of us. From our tranquility, we create the storm. From within our quietude, we
move ourselves. Still, and still, we keep our peace.
In loving, we act, even fight, and yet remain at peace. We discover the unity of
immanence and transcendence.
We accept immersion--but we do not drown.