I have been thinking a lot lately about these four words.
First do no harm.
It is the vow that doctors make, and I started this month by teaching a workshop for medical students on reflection—on this idea that being introspective helps us to build our self-awareness so that we can do better work, so that we can spot what is our stuff and learn from it rather than lay it on someone else. So, naturally, I was thinking about what a doctor’s commitment is to her patient and about how the way that a doctor shows up- how present she is, how real- can make all the difference, how that simple commitment- first, do no harm- really covers most anything.
And, then, I happened—in a series of not at all coincidences, I am sure- to meet a woman who had just been battered by her husband while I was in Washington DC a couple weeks ago and became just one part of a community of strangers who banded together to get her to a shelter. As she and I talked in the hours preceding her departure for the shelter, I couldn’t help but consider both her words—that she never thought he would do this to her- and her beautiful face cracked open by his angry, controlling hand.
I couldn’t help thinking about how at some point, a few years back, he had held her hands, looked into her expectant and hopeful face and recited some vows that may have sounded something like “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health” and how he wasn’t supposed to be the one that brought on sickness, took away health, made things worse.
It rattled back around then. First, do no harm. Those are not just words that doctors should say. They are an oath we should all take as everyday people- as people who love, who love partners and our children and our parents and our siblings and our neighbors and more. When I signed my first teaching contract (and every one since then), it should have contained those words. I should have had to look at BF and the officiant who married us and said in front of everyone bearing witness to our union that I would not do any harm. When I became a mother, I should have had to make that commitment to my child. I should have to say it every time I make a new friend, every time I interact with someone out in the world, every time I get behind the wheel of a car. It should be our most basic understanding of how we are to be in the world. I think we understand that in many ways; I just think sometimes we forget to practice it because of the pain we feel, the pain we are trying to stop feeling.
Eventually, I couldn’t wait with my new friend any longer, I had to catch my flight home and so I hugged her goodbye, told her that she had everything she needed inside. On that flight home, I read the final pages of The Fault In Our Stars by John Green.
In a touching passage, Green wrote…
Almost everyone is obsessed with leaving a mark upon the world. Bequeathing a legacy… We all want to be remembered… But… The marks human leave are too often scars.
I had a window seat on that flight. It has probably been more than a decade since I’ve had a window seat, but I finished that passage, stared out, and considered the scars that I have already left over the years. We were flying just above the cloud line, a white cotton candy field as far as the eye could see, trying to trick me into thinking that everything was peaceful, all was good, life was all blue skies and soft landings.
I wrote a short story in high school that prominently featured clouds. In the story, a high school student loses her best friend who believed that when we died, our souls would leave our bodies and become part of the clouds. “The clouds are telling us things and they are listening,” he had imagined, and so, after he died suddenly in a drunk driving accident, she mourned him on her back, looking up at the clouds, searching their shapes for meaning, telling them/him her stories.
Flying over that cloud line from Washington DC to North Carolina, I remembered that story and, even though it wasn’t real, I remembered that girl, heart splayed open, sobbing on the hard, cold earth of her backyard, screaming at the clouds over the choice her best friend made and couldn’t help but realize that life, for each one of us, would fundamentally be so much easier if we were incapable of doing harm. If we didn’t get in vehicles after drinking too much, if we didn’t lash out at those we love, if we didn’t make snide remarks to ourselves or others, if we didn’t let ourselves add to the bruising that life and cancer and just crap circumstances bring us all on their own.
And that’s just it. What all of life might boil down to if we were to make it super simple. We are given these lives, these unique expressions; we are invited to make way- for ourselves and others- with how we live. And we can either do no harm with how we live (and, in fact, in that effort do some good), or do some harm, or get so damn distracted by our own true or false demons and do a lot of harm.
Bouncing over those clouds, I wondered if I avoid doing harm as much as I would like to avoid it.
I have a voice that I use when Happy doesn’t listen, and he hates it. I use what we call my “serious” voice- it isn’t loud but it is firm- with him to let him know that I am not playing, he needs to come on now, it is time. It offends his sense of justice– his mama shouldn’t talk to him like that, he insists to me. I think I probably do him some little degree of harm every time I use it. And, yes, of course, we can make excuses for our moments, right? I can say he wasn’t listening and it’s his fault I had to use that voice, but that’s the thing with doing harm, if you aren’t careful, you can make way for doing harm, even the smallest harms that only leave fractures. Fractures can add up if you pile on. They can break things.
First do no harm.
This weekend, I started reading Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed and there was this insight from Steve Almond’s introduction where he was reflecting on how Strayed answered a young man who wrote and asked her “Dear Sugar, WTF, WTF, WTF? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day.” Here is what Almond observed about Strayed’s answer which started with a reflection on unfathomable pains she’d suffered when she was young:
Inexplicable sorrows await all of us. That was her (Cheryl’s) essential point. Life isn’t some narcissistic game you play online. It all matters—every sin, every regret, every affliction. As proof, she offered an account of her own struggle to reckon with a cruelty she’d absorbed before she was old enough even to understand it. Ask better questions, sweet pea, she concluded with great gentleness. The fuck is your life. Answer it.
IT ALL MATTERS- every sin, every regret, every affliction.
I think there is a reason why first, do no harm has been on my mind all month. I think it is an expression of being that I feel really called to practice right now. In many ways, I have tried to practice it my whole life—I have tried to practice it with myself by being kind and considerate and gentle with myself- and I have tried to practice it with others by being a thoughtful friend, partner, parent, daughter, and teacher and by being a gentle but clear force in the world. But I know that I can do even less harm, that my expression in the world could be both lighter and offer more light.
And so that is where I am today. Holding those words close. Taking my own oath to heal myself and others by trying my damnedest to do no harm.