Do No Harm

Though it is often associated as being part of the Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians, the origin of the phrase, “First, do no harm,” is somewhat uncertain. It’s like the famous phrase, “Play it again, Sam,” which is assumed to be a quotation from the great movie Casablanca or the equally repeated phrase, “Beam me up, Scottie,” from Star Trek. In fact neither of those phrases are actually found in either the movie or TV show. Instead they have become popular misquotes. Similarly, with the presumed vow of the doctor, the closest actual origin is from one of the ancient Greek medical texts, Epidemics, which reads, “The physician must…have two special objects in view with regard to disease, namely, to do good or to do no harm.”

Still, origins and professional usages aside, I’ve often thought our world would be a less sad or violent place if, as ordinary folk, we tried to live out that challenging ethic to do good and to do no harm. Henry James once offered the opinion that there were only three things in human life that were important. He said, “The first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” Yet, the reality of our speech might tell another story.  Perhaps I am overly sensitive, but I often find myself cringing when I hear the put-downs, snide comments, harshly critical innuendos and bitter barbs barely disguised under the cloak of humor or piety, comfort or encouragement. Maybe that is why the author of the book of James was especially pointed in his likening the tongue to a raging fire whose sparks can set forests ablaze, or as a restless evil, fully of deadly poison. One can practically hear the apostle weeping as he wrote: With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be!

Ask yourself: have my words today been kind? Not merely superficially kind, but kind in phrasing and purpose, as well as in tone and timing? Have my words been offered only in desire to build up and strengthen, heal and encourage, gently guide and humbly support? Or have they been spoken with a knife’s edge of brutal intent and prideful reckoning? Have they been voiced with a yearning to belittle though masked under a false smile or pretended earnestness?

Poet Vachel Lindsay wrote: “My life’s unkind, but I can vote for kindness. I, the unloving, say life should be lovely. I, that am blind, cry out against my blindness.” It’s been said that the first part of any recovery is recognizing how desperately recovery is needed. While taming the tongue may be one of the most difficult enterprises upon which any of us ever embark, wouldn’t it be fabulous if we all of us intentionally chose to vote for kindness not only in our actions, but especially in our speech. By doing so, we may well find that we begin to fulfill the ethic “to do good and to do no harm.”

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