First, do no harm

Can we any longer afford to ignore our power to harm one another? Or to recoil, helplessly? “Doing no harm” is an active choice, one which perhaps has a higher ethical and social value than any other, as suggested in this extract from Stephanie Dowrick’s latest and most overtly peace-making book, Seeking the Sacred. She writes:

“Do no harm” is the “other face” of the Golden Rule and one that we should take just as seriously. In fact, I wonder whether “not harming” or not hurting other people – near and far – feels more reasonably within reach than loving them?

As you think about it now, and perhaps also about some complex or challenging situations in your own life, does it seem more realistic to affirm that you could refrain from harm?

Perhaps it is more realistic, although it is obvious from the prevalence of harm and hurt in our world that this, too, takes considerable self-awareness and restraint.

Few of us wake up in the morning and decide that today we will ruin someone else’s happiness or peace of mind. Nonetheless, just through an ordinary lack of self-awareness and depth of concern we also miss many opportunities to avoid causing harm. Perhaps what’s most obviously missing on those occasions is any degree of awareness that in all our encounters we have a choice to leave the person better or worse off for their time in our company. The difference may be very slight but no encounter is neutral. It is influencing that other person; it is creating who we ourselves are becoming.

For some people, “causing harm” can seem like a fine way to exert power… And this can become addictive. We have only to read the day’s newspaper, switch on the news or look around to see that there are significant numbers of people in our most civilised communities who take pleasure in causing others distress. The effects of this may be worst in our intimate relationships but in countless workplaces and schools, in community activities and in religious and political groups, variations on the “stand-over” or undermining tactics of skilled bullies often prevail and, worse, are sometimes mistaken for efficacy and get rewarded.

…As long as our choices depend on how we are currently feeling or how they make us look in others’ eyes, we remain enslaved. We free ourselves the moment we recognise that our choices are our own to make. This is true of all our choices. It is especially true of our choice to cause no harm.

…”Not harming” involves using our human gifts of imagination, empathy and restraint. Imagine what you would most hate or fear. See it in your mind’s eye. Taste its bitterness in your own mouth. Feel the disgust it evokes. Feel your own heart pounding. Feel your shame and fury as well as fear. And now – think about your neighbour. Is there any reason to assume your neighbour would feel any differently about this than you do? So let that knowledge of what you share be your teacher. Let it stay your hand. Let it open your heart. This is peace making of the most serious kind. What you would hate, do not do to anyone else. “

Seeking the Sacred is Dr Stephanie Dowrick’s most recent book. It is published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and in the United States by Tarcher/Penguin. It is widely available in both audio and print form, including from