You’ve heard it before…
…the Golden Rule of empathy…
…put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
This allusion to seeing how it feels when you put yourself in someone’s place has been credited by many as some kind of an ancient Native American aphorism. Others think that it has its origin in a poem published in 1895 by Mary T. Lathrap, entitled Judge Softly and later titled Walk a Mile in His Moccasins.
The poem goes like this:
“Pray, don’t find fault with the man that limps,
Or stumbles along the road.
Unless you have worn the moccasins he wears,
Or stumbled beneath the same load.
There may be tears in his soles that hurt
Though hidden away from view.
The burden he bears placed on your back
May cause you to stumble and fall, too.
Don’t sneer at the man who is down today
Unless you have felt the same blow
That caused his fall or felt the shame
That only the fallen know.
You may be strong, but still the blows
That were his, unknown to you in the same way,
May cause you to stagger and fall, too.
Don’t be too harsh with the man that sins.
Or pelt him with words, or stone, or disdain.
Unless you are sure you have no sins of your own,
And it’s only wisdom and love that your heart contains.
For you know if the tempter’s voice
Should whisper as soft to you,
As it did to him when he went astray,
It might cause you to falter, too.
Just walk a mile in his moccasins
Before you abuse, criticize and accuse.
If just for one hour, you could find a way
To see through his eyes, instead of your own muse.
I believe you’d be surprised to see
That you’ve been blind and narrow-minded, even unkind.
There are people on reservations and in the ghettos
Who have so little hope, and too much worry on their minds.
Brother, there but for the grace of God go you and I.
Just for a moment, slip into his mind and traditions
And see the world through his spirit and eyes
Before you cast a stone or falsely judge his conditions.
Remember to walk a mile in his moccasins
And remember the lessons of humanity taught to you by your elders.
We will be known forever by the tracks we leave
In other people’s lives, our kindnesses and generosity.
Take the time to walk a mile in his moccasins.”
Now, that’s a pretty darn good poem, but any student of ancient history or Scripture probably knows that the popularity of rule also has it’s roots in the so-called “Golden Rule” found in the Bible, and elsewhere. In this article, I’ll give you a bit more perspective on the Golden Rule, and share with you some deep insight I’ve had lately about how most of us are aware of the importance of the rule, but few of us actually implement it correctly—in a way that truly changes our own lives and the lives of others.
The Golden Rule
Like I briefly alluded to above, many of us Westerners are familiar with the Golden Rule because of its origins in Christianity and the Bible, namely from the words of Jesus in the following passages:
Matthew 7:12: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
Luke 6:31: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
A similar passage can be found in Matthew 22:36-40, in which the importance of the Golden Rule is heavily emphasized by Jesus again when he responds to the question “Which is the greatest commandment of the law?”. Jesus says in reply;
“Thou shalt Love the Lord they God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
And also in Luke 10:25-28, which reads:
Behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
He said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”
He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”
He said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this, and you will live.”
In another passage of the New Testament, Galatians 5:14, Paul the Apostle also refers to the Golden Rule: “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”
Now, that’s not to say that the Golden Rule does not appear as a core element of most of the rest of the world’s major religions and philosophies. Indeed, outside Christianity, the idea of the Golden Rule dates back at least to the early Confucian times (551–479 BCE) and appears prominently in Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, and beyond.
As a matter of fact, 143 leaders of the world’s major faiths endorsed the Golden Rule as part of the 1993 “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic.” Despite being an atheist and humanist, two philosophies with which I am not in agreement, Adam Lee sums up the importance of the Golden Rule as a worldwide moral axiom this way:
“Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you. [is] (…) the single greatest, simplest, and most important moral axiom humanity has ever invented, one which reappears in the writings of almost every culture and religion throughout history, the one we know as the Golden Rule. Moral directives do not need to be complex or obscure to be worthwhile, and in fact, it is precisely this rule’s simplicity which makes it great. It is easy to come up with, easy to understand, and easy to apply, and these three things are the hallmarks of a strong and healthy moral system. The idea behind it is readily graspable: before performing an action which might harm another person, try to imagine yourself in their position, and consider whether you would want to be the recipient of that action. If you would not want to be in such a position, the other person probably would not either, and so you should not do it. It is the basic and fundamental human trait of empathy, the ability to vicariously experience how another is feeling, that makes this possible, and it is the principle of empathy by which we should live our lives.” - Adam Lee, Ebon Musings, “A decalogue for the modern world”
Throughout history, this idea of reciprocity appears in a variety of proverbial forms, including:
“Do to the doer to make him do.” (Egyptian)
“That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.” (Egyptian)
“One should never do something to others that one would regard as an injury to one’s own self. In brief, this is dharma. Anything else is succumbing to desire.” (Sanskrit)
“Do not do to others what you know has hurt yourself.” (Tamil)
“Why does one hurt others knowing what it is to be hurt?” (Tamil)
“Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing.” (Greek)
“What you do not want to happen to you, do not do it yourself either.” (Greek)
“Do not do to others that which angers you when they do it to you.” (Greek)
“That nature alone is good which refrains from doing to another whatsoever is not good for itself.” (Persia)
“Whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not do unto others.” (Persia)
“Treat your inferior as you would wish your superior to treat you.” (Rome)
“Seek for mankind that of which you are desirous for yourself, that you may be a believer.” (Islam)
“None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” (Islam)
“Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself.” (Baháʼí)
“Ascribe not to any soul that which thou wouldst not have ascribed to thee, and say not that which thou doest not.” (Baháʼí)
“One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma. Other behavior is due to selfish desires.” (Hindu)
“If the entire Dharma can be said in a few words, then it is—that which is unfavorable to us, do not do that to others.” (Hindu)
“Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” (Buddhism)
“A man should wander about treating all creatures as he himself would be treated.” (Jainism)
“Just as pain is not agreeable to you, it is so with others. Knowing this principle of equality treat other with respect and compassion.” (Jainism)
“What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.” (Confucianism)
“Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.” (Taoism)
“Do not do unto others whatever is injurious to yourself.” (Zoroastrianism)
And perhaps one of my all-time favorite versions, a Yoruba Proverb that goes like this:
“One who is going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts.”
As I mentioned in the introduction to this article, this rule itself is not difficult to understand. Whether you’re looking at it from the viewpoint of pinching a baby bird, not hurting other people, or loving your neighbor, psychologically, it means we empathize with others; philosophically, it means we perceive our fellow human beings also as “I” or “self”; sociologically, it means loving our neighbors, as both individuals and groups; and economically, it suggests that, as journalist Richard Swift, referring to ideas from anthropologist David Graeber puts it: “without some kind of reciprocity society would no longer be able to exist.”
Through Their Eyes
But a few evenings ago, I was immersed in a conversation with my twin boys at the dinner table, and I experimented with a simple thought exercise that I’ve successfully repeated several times since with many other people—an exercise I came up with to truly be able to implement more empathy and a greater practical practice of the Golden Rule into my own life. Since trying this exercise, I’ve discovered that I wasn’t really practicing the Golden Rule in its full power before, but I am now, and I must say, it’s quite transformative, so I just had to share it with you.
It goes like this.
As my boys and I sat there talking, I thought “I wonder how my boys perceive me, as their father? How they truly perceive me and are interpreting my very actions, words, and body language, even in this moment?”
So, I paused and closed my eyes. See, we allow each other to do weird things like this at the dinner table.
Using my imagination and visualization, I put myself in the same chair across the table from me as one of my boys, River Greenfield. Like seeing myself on a movie screen, I watched from his perspective exactly what I was doing: how I was carrying my head, which direction my torso was oriented in, whether both feet were flat on the floor, where my direct eye contact was settling upon, how I was breathing, the pitch and timbre of my voice, the seeming interest or disinterest in what he was saying, and the level of empathy and communication with which I was engaging him in dialogue.
Suddenly, I realized that I wasn’t really facing his direction but was instead a bit more oriented towards my computer and smartphone located at the very end of the table. My feet were a bit restlessly shuffling on the floor, as though I was ready to be done with and disengaged with dinner and already thinking of moving on to the next task. My vocals were a bit flat and distant. My eye gaze was more focused upon my plate than upon his eyes.
This is how people see me? This is how I’m making them potentially feel? This is what it feels like to truly put yourself in someone else’s shoes: to literally translocate yourself using the powers of visualization into their very body, and look at yourself through their eyes?
I sat up, shifted my torso in his direction, placed both feet flat on the floor, looked into his eyes, and leaned forward.
And boom, just like that, I was engaged. Caring. Connected.
The next morning I found myself repeating the very same exercise, but this time at the grocery store. As the clerk tapped on her cash register and shoved each of my grocery items down the belt and to the grocery bagger, I briefly closed my eyes and imagined her seeing me through her eyes. I was wearing a baggy hoodie and a trucker cap, distantly eyeing the line of gum and magazines beyond her, fumbling for my credit card with one hand, lost in thought with headphones still attached to both ears and grunting a brief, curt reply to her salutation. I realized I was coming across as a disinterested, distracted punk who really didn’t care about her (as I write about in my transactional relationships article here).
I took out my headphones. I shifted my gaze to her. I tipped my cap up so she could really see my eyes. I looked at her and said, “How is your day going?”
She smiled. She perked up. Her face lit. She stood taller.
“So good, thank you for asking, I’m a little tired but getting through the day.”
I could tell that she was instantly happy that I even asked. That I showed I cared. That’s all it took?
Gee. I’ve been living my whole life kind of disconnected from truly feeling the Golden Rule.
The next week, on a date night with my wife, I repeated the same exercise. As a result, I was more engaged and connected with her than any date I can think of in the past. I just had to truly place myself in her shoes and truly let myself see myself through her eyes. And this time, after practicing a bit the previous week, I didn’t have to close my eyes or anything weird like that to see what she was seeing. This time, it just took a mild upregulation of self-awareness and presence. How is she seeing me?
OK, your turn.
How are your kids thinking of you? Can you see yourself through their eyes? What kind of parent are they perceiving you to be, and how much do they think you really care and are truly interested in them based on your actions, words, and overall presence?
The same for your spouse or lover. How do they see you? No, how do they really see you, in the moment, right now?
Your co-worker. Do they know you care? Do you truly empathize with them about that issue they’re having with their sick dog, or did your “gee that’s too bad” and wandering down the hall come across as calloused?
Can you imagine? Can you visualize? Can you empathize? Can you truly place yourself in the other person’s shoes?
Folks, this seems like a silly, simple exercise, but it actually works. Of course, it can be used “in reverse” too. As you sit at the coffeeshop attempting to get deep work done are you inviting distractions from others by leaning back, looking people in the eye, smiling at passersby, and appearing to be fully ready for social engagement, or do you do your deep work like I do: headphones in (even if they’re not playing anything, it’s a universal language that says “I’m busy.” or “I’m engaged elsewhere.”), avoidance of eye contact, body language closed off to be oriented to the table you’re working at, etc. In other words, constant awareness of how others may be perceiving you can be used both to produce empathy or to discourage distractions, depending on how you use it.
The Science Of The Golden Rule
So how does this visualization exercise work, exactly?
I suspect that it comes down to something called “mirror neurons.” At least, that’s my first hunch.
See, a mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when one person acts and when the other person (the observer) observes the action performed by that person—if that makes sense. They’re the same neurons that make you cringe and feel pain when you see two athletes in the Super Bowl hit each other with bone-crushing speed or see a UFC fighter get mauled in the jaw by the giant paw of their opponent (especially if you’ve played football or fought before yourself and experienced anything similar, but even so if you’ve never been hit like that in your life!). These specific neurons “mirror” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were him or herself acting. These neurons have been directly studied and observed in humans, in primates, and in birds alike.
In humans, nervous system activity consistent in mirror neuron firing has been shown to be located in multiple areas of the brain, including the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area, the primary somatosensory cortex, and the inferior parietal cortex. Researchers in cognitive neuroscience and psychology think that this system provides some kind of mechanism for the coupling of perception of other people and subsequent decisions and action taken on those perceptions. They hypothesize that mirror neurons may be important for understanding the actions of other people, and also for learning new skills by imitation. Neuroscientists such as Marco Iacoboni at UCLA have argued that mirror neuron systems in the human brain help us understand the actions and intentions of other people (sound familiar?). Heck, in one of his studies published in March 2005, Iacoboni reported that mirror neurons could discern whether another person who was picking up a cup of tea planned to drink from it or clear it from the table! In addition, he believes that mirror neurons are the neural basis of the human capacity for emotions such as empathy.
However, the subject of mirror neurons continues to generate intense debate, and many scientists express skepticism about the theories being advanced to explain the function of mirror neurons. In a 2013 article for Wired, author Christian Jarrett wrote that:
“…mirror neurons are an exciting, intriguing discovery – but when you see them mentioned in the media, remember that most of the research on these cells has been conducted in monkeys. Remember too that there are many different types of mirror neurons. And that we’re still trying to establish for sure whether they exist in humans, and how they compare with the monkey versions. As for understanding the functional significance of these cells … don’t be fooled: that journey has only just begun.”
So who knows…maybe it’s not mirror neurons that make this Golden Rule visualization exercise so powerful.
Maybe it’s a syncing and alignment of your own heart and brain electrical signals with that of the other person. This has never been studied, to my knowledge, though person-to-person and person-to-animal alignment of components such as the brain and heart’s electrical field and the heart rate variability (HRV) rhythms has been studied and observed extensively by organizations such as the Heart Math Institute.
Maybe it’s something a bit more quantum: the literal sharing of photonic energy via a process called “quantum entanglement,” which has indeed been studied and observed in lovers.
Maybe it’s simply an upregulation of pure, emotional empathy.
I’m not sure it really matters.
All I do know is that this visualization practice is like putting the Golden Rule on steroids. And you should try it.
So there you have it.
We all know the Golden Rule is immensely important for us to truly be able to empathize with others and love our neighbor in the way we have been called to do.
Many of us just fail to understand or fail to practice a full implementation of the rule.
But it’s so simple to start: Just see yourself through the other person’s eyes. It takes practice. It takes time. And then it becomes automatic, and empathy becomes a subconscious, built-in part of your life. You become that person who really understands other people, can think what they’re thinking, understand their actions, and most importantly, understand how what you are doing in the moment is affecting your fellow human.
Then, change your behavior accordingly if you find what you are doing makes you feel a bit disappointed in yourself, or at least less-than-elated to be in the other person’s shoes. As that old Yoruba Proverb cited above goes, quit using that pointed stick to pinch a baby bird. It’s a baby. It’s a bird. Treat it softly, and the same way you’d want to be treated.
How about you?
Have you tried a similar thought and visualization exercise like the one I’ve presented above? If you try it, I’d love to hear a story or anecdote in the comments section below. Do you have other ways in which you practice the Golden Rule? Leave your thoughts, comments, and feedback below. I read them all.