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Some Gold Doesn't Glitter

Text by: Jerie Jacobs

No one had picked up the string of pearls. It looked old-fashioned, unremarkable lying on my living room carpet in a jumble of bright bangles and glittering rhinestones. My daughters had pawed gleefully through the bag of "junk" jewelry I had rescued from the thrift-store-bound pile in my mom's garage. They ran off to hoard their sparkling loot in the "dress-up" drawer, leaving a small heap of unwanted items behind. As I scooped the broken brooches and unmatched earrings up to throw away, the passed-over necklace caught my eye: a simple double-strand of creamy, lustrous pearls, perfectly graduated and held together with a filigreed, antique silver clasp that had tarnished black. They didn't look like costume jewelry. I called my mom and asked her if it was possible that a genuine pearl necklace had found its way into the "junk" jewelry. Mom admitted that she hadn't looked through the bag closely. It had come from Great Aunt Alice before she died and appeared to contain only out-dated costume jewelry. She had put the whole sack on the "give-away" pile without a second thought.

Ironically, the antique necklace unclaimed by my girls was the one article of true worth in the whole lot. Tangled up with the gaudy, the cheap, the shiny, its classic beauty was easily overlooked. I had nearly thrown away an authentic treasure. Thank goodness I took a second look. Aunt Alice's beautiful pearls have more value now than they did during the days that she wore them. Recently I have examined some old ideas with new eyes and discovered genuine treasures. I realize the "old-school" philosophies I learned in childhood remain at my core. No matter how outdated or unfashionable they appear, they will not leave me alone. But I'm OK with that. They work.

You remember Thumper's oft-repeated line from Disney's Bambi, I'm sure. Uttered by a loveable, little ball of fur with wide eyes and a droll voice, who wouldn't buy into it? "If you can't say something nice… don't say nothing at all." Never mind the grammatical gaffe (he's a cartoon rabbit, right?), that gem of wisdom influenced generations. The "Thumper Rule" was invoked frequently in my childhood, among other treasures: Play nice. It's better to give than to receive. Stop worrying about yourself and think about someone else. And, of course, the maxim of all maxims: Treat others as you want to be treated. The Golden Rule. My perception of what it means to be a part of the vast, interwoven tapestry of humanity took root in this simple ideal from the New Testament. "All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them…" (Matthew 7:12, King James Version.) But times have changed, they say. We live in a competitive, fast-paced society that seems to reward ruthless ambition, aggressive self-interest, and "looking out for number one." The Golden Rule looks impractical at best, foolish even. Over the years, our society has repeatedly reshaped the Golden Rule according to its mood or situation. The rule as defined in the twenty-first century might read something like:

  • Treat others well, as long as they are in a position to benefit you in return.
  • Treat others well if anyone is watching. If no one sees, anything goes.
  • Treat others as poorly as they treat you.
  • Treat others just well enough to get what you want.
  • Treat others well unless you have PMS, a migraine, or limited time.
  • Treat others well — except for waitresses, sales clerks, and phone solicitors.
  • You can make a lot of money and be famous for NOT treating others well. Just be on a reality show where you can come out on top by behaving badly.
  • Treat others however you want. They'll get over it.

So is the Golden Rule still golden? Or have I crippled my children with common courtesy, handicapped them with good manners? Can nice guys win? Call me Pollyanna. Tell me to wake up and smell the Red Bull before the race passes me by, but I'm not ready to lay the Golden Rule on the discard pile.

There has to be something of worth in a concept that crops up in the teachings of almost every major religion and is repeated in slightly different terms by poets and statesmen and philosophers from every age. Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism, phrased it like this: "Regard your neighbors gain as your own gain and your neighbor's loss as your own loss." (T'ai Shang Kan Ying P'ien, 213-218). In the Hindu Mahabharata, we read, "This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you." (Mahabharata 5:1517). The Prophet Muhammad wrote, "Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself." (Hadith). Sounds easy, right? But it goes beyond simply displaying good manners or superficial politeness. The power of the Golden Rule is its requirement that we open our eyes to see the people around us as our equals — fellow humans with needs and desires not unlike our own. And when we consider others as ourselves, we are more likely to treat them with respect, to curb our tongues, to extend the benefit of the doubt, or to "be a little kinder than necessary," as James M. Barrie advised.

© Jessica Ceason Photography

The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying, "If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion." The Golden Rule spreads the wealth both ways, as the Dalai Lama suggests. Take Conrad, for instance. Conrad goes dancing five nights a week. Sometimes he dances with me. I use the word dance loosely. We share an occasional swing number on a Berkeley dance floor. He grips my hand and shuffles back and forth while I dance around him. For roughly nine minutes, our lives intersect in a sort-of-swing. But those five-hundred and forty seconds mean a lot to a lonely widower and cost me nothing. In fact, Conrad inspires me. Seventy-something years of life have traced a quiet story on his face. His right arm hangs semi-rigid at his side, and he walks toward me with a stiff gait. Parkinson's, I would guess. He looks nervously for anyone who will dance an awkward fox-trot or cha-cha with him."Will you dance with me?" he asks hesitantly. Of course I will. He has always loved to dance, Conrad confides. But his wife never enjoyed it. She felt too self-conscious, he muses without resentment. So for decades he never hit the floor. Not once. His wife passed away a couple of years ago. Now Conrad dances, sort of. I admire his pluck and his courage. We both leave the floor grinning.

And then there's beautiful, generous Stacey, dancing with Conrad and making him look like a million bucks. Bob and I drive to Berkeley to take the Lindy Hop classes Stacey teaches with her husband, Vaughn. I never tire of watching Vaughn and Stacey dance together — effortless, graceful, liquid Lindy. Their superb synthesis of motion makes it hard to tell where one partner ends and the other begins. Each has his or her own best partner built-in when they arrive together at a social dance venue. Yet they dance with the Conrads and the Jeries in the room, awakening our inner Fred or Ginger for a shining moment. The Golden Rule in motion. I hope I remember, today and tomorrow, to enter a room with eyes open to see the person who may need nine minutes face to face with another human being. It's up to me to extend my hand and invite the souls around me to dance, in whatever sense they can. And I hope someone will do the same for me. Any kind act, even the smallest thoughtful gesture, can transform an ordinary moment into gold. I think of it as the Midas touch, but not a myth and with no down side.

I keep Aunt Alice's beautiful pearls in a safe place now and put them on occasionally. They remind me to take a second look at old familiar things before I toss them aside. Their old-fashioned beauty inspires me to live mindfully, to pay close enough attention to discern the truly worthwhile among the tinny and the trendy. The clear, unadorned notion that we're best off to treat others as we would wish to be treated is powerful coin. As Thomas Carlyle wrote, "… without kindness, there can be no true joy." Not all treasure is flashy or sparkling. Some simply glows on, warm and untarnished. Golden.