If all the rules, laws, and regulations designed to keep humanity from running totally amok were lined up end to end, they would stretch far beyond the horizon. Yet in reality, fully 95 percent of them could be eliminated if everyone followed only three elementary precepts.
1. “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” What could be simpler? The problem, alas, lies in the gulf between theory and practice and in the perversities of human nature—think, for example, of its application by masochists. But for the vast majority of people, the Golden Rule is just that…golden. We all like and expect to be treated with courtesy and consideration. We all appreciate a smile from a stranger, and any simple gesture of kindness. But we seem oddly incapable of linking this to that other old saying, “It’s better to give than to receive.” We’re happy to get a nod and a smile from a stranger, yet to how many strangers do we nod and smile? Again, the perversities of human nature step in: we’re too busy to think of it, or we’re afraid any such gesture will be either misinterpreted or coldly rejected. So we do nothing. And far too often, we are so surprised by these small acts of kindness when we receive them that we do not immediately reciprocate them.
I've never been able to forget the story of the young man in San Francisco who jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge. He left a suicide note in his apartment outlining his depression and sense of total isolation. The note ended with this (paraphrased) sentence. “So I am going to walk to the bridge, and, if even one person acknowledges my existence along the way, I will not jump.” He jumped.
2. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Adopted as a mantra by Alcoholics Anonymous, it was written in 1936 by a theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr. Who, alcoholic or not, can possibly argue with that precept? Yet how many of us actually follow it? The time, effort, and emotion we each expend in fretting over things over which we have absolutely no control is astonishing. Even more astonishing is the fact that we seem incapable of recognizing and acting on those problems over which we do, or can by trying, have control. Easier to throw up our hands than to work to correct them.
3. “This above all else: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” Polonius’s bit of fatherly advice to Laertes in Hamlet is as valid today as when it was written just a bit over 400 years ago. Unless we are true to ourselves, unless we can stand up for what we believe in and constantly strive to be better than we are, we might as well be a sea slug as a human. We belong to a contentious, often totally dysfunctional, all-too-greedy, survival-of-the-fittest race. Yet it is our capacity to acknowledge our shortcomings and work to improve ourselves that separates us from the other life-forms on our planet. Each of us faces, every day of our lives, that challenge to be better than we are. We each, either individually or together with our fellow humans, have the capability to change the world. We may not be able to single-handedly discover a cure for cancer, or eradicate poverty, but improving the lives of others needn’t be that complex. It can be as simple as giving a smile to another human being who might very badly need one.
Smiles and kind words cost nothing but the setting aside of our hesitancy. It’s better to give 500 smiles which are ignored than not to give one which can make a real difference in someone’s life. Who knows who is walking to the bridge?