Primum Non Nocere — First, Do No Harm: A Resolution for 2019

This past summer, my husband and 13-year-old son and I went to the Montreal Science Centre and spent quite a lot of time in the Human exhibit, playing God with an interactive evolutionary tree.

Unfortunately, I didn’t think to take a picture, but I found this in an old textbook:

A phylogenetic (evolutionary) tree from Helena Curtis’ Biology, Fourth Edition, p.378 (Worth Publishers, New York 1983).

The virtual tree at the Science Centre was incredibly complex, with branches upon branches upon branches. We could zoom down through millennia in order to see the relationships, but we could also—mwah-ha-ha—wreak havoc: at a touch, we could chop off limbs, sever branches, prune twigs…we could cause entire species to be wiped off the screen.

It was shortly after our trip that I recalled this bit of family history:

My great-grandmother’s first husband was a fisherman who was lost at sea. After the requisite time frame of not-knowing had passed (7 years? 13 years? my mother cannot recall) my great-grandmother got married again, this time to my great-grandfather.

My great-grandparents had several children, many of whom died in infancy or early childhood. The youngest—my grandfather—lived, grew up, and got married. He and my grandmother had five children. Their middle child—my mother—contracted polio at age two. The branch that I was to be on nearly withered at that point, but no, my mother lived. She emigrated from The Netherlands and met a man who had survived a gunshot wound to the leg and a WWII work camp. They had a son, and then a daughter, and because one of each was enough for my father, no one else was born.

At 18, I somehow found myself in a university chemistry lecture. I met a girl who had met a boy who had (years before) met a boy, and because I met that second boy, the tree grew: a daughter was born.

A son was born.

A life was miscarried.

But the loss of that branch meant another got a chance to live—a child who played God with me this summer on the interactive evolutionary tree at the Science Centre in Montreal.

There’s something both humbling and fantastical about the evolutionary tree.

Each and every one of us is the culmination of a line that stretches—completely unbroken—to the beginning of time, billions of years ago. All of us have ancestors who found shelter, foraged edible food, and avoided becoming prey—at least until the time they bore offspring.

It would be easy to imagine that those unbroken lines make us special. It would be easy to believe we’re the ones who are *supposed* to be here.

But of course, the fact that we’re here is merely the luck of the draw.

It’s one man—but not another—lost at sea.

It’s a bit of wind that caught at an arrow. It’s a lost scent, a left turn, a—

(It was a literary stringing-together that my anxiety told me was tempting fate; you get the idea, I’m sure.)

To an over-thinker with anxiety, this trail of thoughts can quickly become debilitating. Not only can you almost start to convince yourself that you can make paths happen, you can also quite easily get pulled under by the weight of responsibility. After all, the last thing an anxious, highly sensitive person wants is to be another creature’s arrow or poison or storm-tossed sea.

Or straw…

Have you seen this video, the one that went viral, the one of the sea turtle that had a straw stuck up its nose, the one that sparked the Ban the Straw movement? I confess I couldn’t bear to watch more than ten seconds of it, but even that small glimpse gave me a visceral two-fold response:

First, wrenching heartache for the suffering of the turtle.

And then, sickening guilt.

Was that MY straw?

(Ah, guilt. My constant companion. And I’m not even Catholic.)

I have, in the past (not often—perhaps only less than a handful of times—but yes, I have done this) precariously placed cups-and-straws on the tops of almost-overflowing bins and told myself that this was ok. After all, the garbage truck would be along momentarily, wouldn’t it? How was I to know the wind would blow and scatter things? How was I to know all streets lead to waterways and all waterways lead to oceans and all oceans lead to turtleswhalesdolphinssharksfish?

We used to have the luxury of being blissfully unaware of our actions.

But that blissful unawareness is no longer possible. It now either takes work—a determined looking-away—or it takes a hard-headed heartlessness that’s born from— well, to be honest, I don’t know what it’s born from. Privilege? Exhaustion? Hopelessness? Complete asshole-ness?

Years ago, when I belonged to the classics book club at my local Barnes and Noble bookstore, the employee who was the book club leader said (referring to something I can no longer remember), “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

So many of the problems we face seem insurmountable and systemic and way-too-big for individual action. And we can argue about whose fault it is and whose responsibility it is—corporations or individuals—until the cows come home. We can also talk about convenience, and time, and work, and wants versus needs. But all of that clouds the fact that we all possess some power.

And in thinking about all of this—in my constant wondering why it is that some people see everything and some people bag bananas (because those two things are opposites, right?)—I was reminded of the Hippocratic Oath that doctors take after graduating from medical school.

I was going to tie all my thoughts together and find some way to say, Hey, how about for 2019 we all make like we’re doctors? Unfortunately for this blog post, Wikipedia tells us that “do no harm” is actually not part of the Hippocratic Oath.

And I had just reconciled myself to adding yet-another post to my growing file of drafts that never get published, when this CBC Sunday Edition episode on Samuel Beckett handed me a ribbon with which I could tie together my thoughts.

Samuel Beckett, playwright and novelist and author of the famous quote Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better (a quote that’s been taken out of context and spun in an entirely different direction than he intended), also said this:

It is so much simpler to be hurt than to hurt.

Yes. There it is: I would rather be hurt—be inconvenienced, be small, be limited, be simple, be quiet—than to hurt.

And maybe that sounds bad.

Maybe it sounds like I’m advocating for martyrdom.

But here’s the thing: Despite the fact that society tells us otherwise, inconvenience and smallness and limits and simplicity and quiet are not actually hurtful things. They’re the things that can expand us—they can breed creativity and thoughtfulness and meaning and purpose and health.

The title of this post, and the promise of a resolution for 2019, is perhaps a bit of a red herring. I have no resolutions for 2019. I only have continuations:

  • I will continue to keep my eyes open
  • I will continue to try to live as responsibly as I can
  • I will continue to seek ways to do less harm

If you’ve been here awhile you know that this blog is where you’ll find plenty of why-to but not a heckuva lot of how-to. So many people do the whole how-to thing so well—and the last thing I want is to contribute yet-more noise to the internet—but maybe my next post should be a list of all the ways I try to do less harm…or maybe it would be nice to talk books for a change. I just finished An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim. Next up will be The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, by Dan Egan, and then Samuel Beckett’s Molloy.

Any resolutions for you?

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