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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11 thoughts on “Primum Non Nocere — First, Do No Harm: A Resolution for 2019

  1. Marian, I really enjoyed reading your story and how you were able to pull the segments together in alignment. Interesting to learn about the Montreal Science Centre and my imagining of the Tree. I especially love reading the story of your own life family tree and how much you know that was passed down through storytelling.
    I did catch the sea portion of your history as tied into the sea turtle and how that line that we all participate knowingly or not into our current environmental issues and the quest to do no harm. It was a fun puzzle to read!
    Living on an island with the large sea turtles in a coastal community with heavy tourism, it becomes very apparent how oblivious to the harm humans have to the wildlife and natural environments. I appreciate you talking about these issues in such a creative space.

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    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, TD 🙂 .
      As you live on an island with heavy tourism, you might be interested in this segment from this past weekend’s CBC Sunday Edition: How can we stop over-tourism from ruining the world’s great cities and natural wonders? It’s a 30-minute listen and IMO was a really good treatment of a very difficult issue.

      (And thank you as well for leaving a link to that other CBC show on Rita’s blog. It’s a show I hadn’t yet heard of, and I listened to a segment while walking this morning. It’s a relief to have anxiety and depression talked about so openly.)

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      1. Hi Marian, I listened to your link while enjoying morning coffee. I had never thought of the global situation! Sometimes our focus is so short and narrow. Thanks for sharing human observations for important conversations. As important that I do believe travel can bring humans to a wider net of awareness, the current trending of how travel experiences are changing, it seems to becoming more about greed rather than insightful growth for our souls. In my narrow scope, I thought it was just American greed. You opened my ears to the knowledge that it’s become global.

        As far as the link that I shared with you, I would not have been able to walk and listen at the same time as my own emotional imbalance would have had me falling off the treadmill!
        As I listened to all of those episodes, each one different, the power of human voices, with pause, gave me explanation and guidance.

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      2. I’m so glad you found that episode worthwhile! Yup, it’s a problem everywhere…I remember back in September a conservationist in Banff National Park (in the Alberta Rockies) called for limits to be placed on the number of tourists, citing ecological damage. Travel CAN be expanding, but it can also just be a check-mark on a bucket list, yet another way of showing status or keeping up with the Joneses.

        I have—on occasion—been so absorbed in whatever it was I was listening to (or ruminating on!) that I have actually nearly fallen off the treadmill 🙂 . I can definitely see that you wouldn’t want to listen to those episodes back to back. The one I listened to was quite heavy.

        Another CBC radio show you might enjoy is called “Out in the Open.” It features open and honest discussion about a wide variety of topics, usually about things that are normally “not talked about.” “Ideas” is another good show, and I also enjoy “Tapestry” (this last one is about religion; I’m not religious at all, but for some reason I often enjoy listening to discussions about religion).

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  2. Marian, Correction I did not listen to ALL of the episodes of “Other People’s Problems”. That would be too much for me. Just a handful on different days that seem of interest to me and found some insight.

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    1. Rita has been having some trouble with WordPress. Fortunately, she copied her comment before it got lost and then emailed it directly to me. I’m posting it here so she can be part of the conversation, and then I will reply below:

      Rita’s comment:

      I read this first last night, and lines kept jumping out at me. I wanted to respond then, but I was too tired and decided to wait until lunch today. They jumped again, for different reasons, but all delighted me.

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

      This made me snort-laugh. I’m not sure why. Probably because of my sort-of Catholic upbringing. (You know how some people say there are cultural Jews? I’m a cultural Catholic.) Somehow, it tickled my funny-bone.

      ****

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

      Ah, yes. This one brought forth a deep sigh of recognition. Sometimes I SO long to return to a blissful ignorance that will never be mine again. I don’t really want to be unaware. But it was really nice, in some ways. It felt nice. I miss that. I recognize, though, that it was a luxury. It is a sign of some kinds of privilege. I am not proud of it, and/but I appreciate seeing someone else attach the word “blissfully” to unawareness.

      ****

      …in my constant wondering why it is that some people see everything and some people bag bananas…

      This made me laugh, too. I think–despite your anxious, shy, seriousness–that you are funny. There is an undercurrent of dark, (dare I say snarky?) humor in you. And I like it. A lot. I don’t think you meant to be funny here, but it hit my funny bone in just the right way.

      ****

      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.

      I just love the thoughtfulness and the invitation to reframe in these lines. I agree so wholeheartedly. I love smallness and limits and simplicity. I am learning to love some kinds of inconveniences. Despite really disliking and resenting grocery shopping in my past, I have come to embrace Sunday morning grocery shopping as my church. I take my own bags. I go alone. I meal plan so that I won’t waste food or money. I go early, so that there won’t be as many people and I can feel kindly toward my fellow shoppers (something nearly impossible at most other times). I go to a store not really near my home because it has lovely food, even though it is more expensive, which places some limits on what I get. I call it church because there are elements of everything you’ve named here (inconvenience, smallness, limits, simplicity, quiet) and because activities with those things feed not just my bod (in this case), but my spirit, too.

      ****
      I am so glad you hit “publish.”

      Rita

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      1. Thank you for this, Rita 🙂 .
        I had a conversation with my daughter a few months ago—about “blissful ignorance”— and we both agreed that however hard it is to see all the stuff, all the time (she rails at banana baggers, too), that we wouldn’t *really* want to NOT see what we see. (To be precise, we don’t want to be the kind of person who bags bananas. [I feel like I’m cruisin’ for a bruisin’ here and am going to end up getting an earful from someone who doesn’t want their banana bagging criticized. I will have to run that risk…]) My daughter did, however, express the wish that she had been born in the 1970s…when there were only 3.7 billion people in the world (versus our current 7.7 billion). I never thought I’d ever say this (because the CLOTHES! the HAIR!), but it was most definitely a privilege to grow up in Canada in the 1970s, where not only was it so damn easy to be unaware, but our sheer numbers were just that much more manageable. (We weren’t doing a good job of taking care of the planet back then either, but the collective mess was smaller: there were less of us and we’ve gone so far over the top with our need for convenience and disposability in the last couple of decades it defies logic.) Also—tying in with TD’s comments about tourism—my daughter cares very deeply about natural spaces and wilderness. There are so few untouched places left on Earth, and all the rest are over-crowded and everyone needs their selfies. It’s incredibly disheartening for her.

        I am actually very snarky…and quite dark-humoured as well 🙂 . I love it that my words caused snort-laughter!

        I’m so happy you think the same way about smallness and limits and simplicity. And I love the words you’ve used to describe the way you’ve embraced grocery shopping—there IS a church-like quality to it! And I totally agree: Sunday morning grocery shopping is the best. When my daughter was in high school she volunteered at the hospital on Sunday mornings from 8 to 10. I would drive her and then spend an hour and a half meandering through the near-empty grocery store. I snort-laughed at this: “…I can feel kindly toward my fellow shoppers (something nearly impossible at most other times)” because oh.my.gosh. I’m a kind person…but…I get SO SO SO impatient/intolerant/angry/stressed-out in crowded grocery stores. (I have whispered very unkind things under my breath to cart-in-the-middle-of-the-aisle-abandoners.) And yes, going alone—no matter when—is also what I prefer. The last time I went with my husband I actually grabbed the cart away from him because he was driving me up a creek by pushing it so slowly. (I’m not just snarky, apparently; I’m also irritable…)

        Regarding the WordPress trouble: I did a bit of research, and while it’s possible you had just gotten the .com and .org sign-ins mixed up, there ARE a lot of people who seem to be complaining about comments disappearing. It *might* be an akismet problem. One person said she went to this akismet site, went to “please tell us more” (down the page), then to “I think akismet is catching my comments by mistake,” and then completed the form. She said they helped her within 24 hours.
        I hope whatever it is, you manage to figure it out. It’s so frustrating to take the time to write a comment and to have it disappear.

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  3. I must admit that when I read “and some people bag bananas…” My mind visioned that the checkout people must place your groceries into beige burlap bags with a bright yellow banana logo.
    Then as you and Rita chatted about it, finally got what you meant!! 😂 BANANA BAGGERS
    I laughed so hilarious. An hour later, I started laughing again about it. When I went to bed, I was still laughing 😂 😂😂. I almost couldn’t sleep.
    BANANA BAGGERS

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  4. I really appreciated this post, Marian. And I agree with Rita so completely in regards to your banana baggers because that line made me laugh out loud as well. I actually think I stopped bagging most of my produce about two years ago because of a post you wrote. One of the things I’m working toward this year is decreasing the amount of packaging (especially plastic) we purchase.

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    1. Thank you, Kate 🙂 . I’m relieved you also found humour in the banana baggers line, and really appreciate you saying you think you stopped bagging most of your produce because of words I wrote. (I’ve been thinking a lot lately about value—my value as a person and the value that comes from the things I do—and your words are a lovely boost this morning.) I’ve also been on a mission to reduce plastic packaging. This fall a small zero-waste business opened in our tiny and painfully backward-facing city, and I’ve managed to cut quite a bit of plastic packaging waste, which feels like such a huge win to me.

      Like

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