My job takes me all around the world, which — even after all these years — is simultaneously exhausting and energizing. Climbing into a small metal tube, sitting for 8-10 hours, and emerging in an entirely different culture is an experience akin to magic. It would have seemed like science fiction to any of my ancestors who lived between 1 A.D. and 1900 A.D. Every time it happens, I feel a measure of the wonder anew.
But part of the traveling experience is vulnerability. Once I leave my home country, I am by default dependent on the hospitality of others. When I walk off the plane I am a stranger, unable to speak the local language and unfamiliar with local rules. If an officer were to ask me questions about my intentions I could only gesture helplessly. If no one helps me, I’m in big trouble.
For some, that vulnerability might provoke a sense of unease. On my first international trips, I certainly felt that way. But over the years I have learned that worry is almost always unfounded. Esentially everywhere I have traveled I have been met by warm and welcoming people who were ready to extend a helpful hand of friendship. I have discovered that value of hospitality, of welcoming the stranger, to be a nearly universal value around the globe. (I even recall looking up in an airport in India to a saying painted on the wall: “the guest is God.”)
Which brings me to my experience flying into the international terminal at SFO a few weeks ago. As I and my fellow passengers came off the plane from Japan, bleary from the overnight flight, there was a backup of people near the exit from our gate. In rounding the corner, I saw a crowded queue of people all the way up the hallway toward customs. I could see up ahead that everyone was filing to the left, into the foreign visitors line. The lane for US citizens — especially Global Entry members — was empty. So I moved into the open lane, passing Customs agents informing foreign visitors that there was a 3 hour wait, up to the row of machines ready to give me nearly instant access to the baggage claim after I scanned my fingerprints.
I stopped and took the picture above of the 3 hour backlog. A customs agent immediately came over and instructed me not to take pictures, so I put the phone down. But as I looked at my fellow travelers standing in that line, I felt a sense of shame. Shame that the hospitality I had been shown so many times before was not being returned. Shame that somehow this was being done in my name. Shame at where we have come as a country.
Many are familiar with the Golden Rule, stated in the Bible as: “treat people the same way you want them to treat you” (Matthew 7:12). But this sentiment is not unique to Christianity. Hillel the Elder said, before the birth of Christ, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary on it.” (b.Shabbat 31a).
The sentiments reverberate throughout history. The ancient Egyptian goddess Ma’at expressed the sentiment a thousand years before Hillel. Similar statements appear in Sanskrit and Tamil, or in writings from Greece, Persia, and Rome. Muhammad said, “As you would have people do to you, do to them; and what you dislike to be done to you, don’t do to them.” Hinduism says “treat others as you treat yourself.” Buddism says “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” (Wikipedia, predictably, has all the sources, and many more. But the less-oft-cited Harry Hiker has compiled a useful background with a timeline as well.)
Interestingly, as some humanist scholars have noted, this sentiment says nothing about God. Belief in God is not necessary to understand the logic of the Golden Rule. Many religions make the Golden Rule a central tenet of belief, but it’s easy to comprehend and accept the value of the Golden Rule from a purely rational, experiential basis. Humans may be selfish, but if we treat others the way we ourselves would like to be treated, we can get along with each other. Indeed, this understanding may be hard wired into our genes — and in fact, animals have shown the same inclinations.
Which brings me back to that airport queue at US customs. And not only to the queue, but the thinking behind it. There are few clearer examples of the Golden Rule than the treatment at international customs. Every day U.S. citizens travel to hundreds of destinations around the world, and every day citizens from hundreds of destinations travel from around the world to visit the United States. Seems like an ideal place to demonstrate the reciprocity that undergirds the Golden Rule. Standing there at SFO I was seeing my country fall short.
I recall once having to get a visa to travel to Brazil on short notice. A good friend was getting married outside of Florianopolis, and I decided at the last moment than I wanted to be there. The only option was to visit the Brazilian consulate in San Francisco and plead my case. I had to drive up three times before I finally got a chance to make my pitch (“I am only going to be in the country for 48 hours!” “It’s for a wedding!”) and they really put me through the wringer, with documentation and repeated re-starts on the queue (partially my fault for not understanding the rules, I admit). Finally they relented, and with the visa in hand, I asked them why the process had been so onerous — especially seeing that every Brazilian I knew was so laid back and easygoing. The consulate official explained that this was a special process only for U.S. citizens, and it was designed to mirror exactly the process that the U.S. requires of Brazilians. The rationale was that U.S. citizens can never understand the struggles of foreigners coming into the U.S. until they experienced it themselves. So now I understood. (Important note: Brazil has since implemented an easy online visa purchase process with just a few days turnaround, so don’t let this story dissuade you from visiting.)
The principle of the Golden Rule is as close to a foundation for cross-cultural human interaction as we’re likely to get. The “otherization” currently popular in the U.S., favoring members of an in-group over the members of an out-group, rarely takes humanity anywhere positive. History is littered with examples of these choices and the sad ends to which they have led. Tribalism leads to scapegoating, scapegoating leads to callousness, and callousness to cruelty. The only antidote to this trend is empathy and kindness — and, most important, love. Let’s hope we can find our way back from the precipice.