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Do no harm

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The question, “what is my purpose?” has been rattling around in my head since my spouse  died.  This morning, while walking several buckets of weeds and table scraps to my neighbors compost pile, an idea popped into my mind.  “What if my purpose in life is simply to do no harm?  What if it is as simple as that?”

Do no harm.   It’s brutally hot today.  It’s not even 10 AM and the temps have climbed into the high 80’s. I’ve been resisting turning on our air conditioning, but I finally relented the other evening when it was just too hot to go to sleep.  After some thought I set the thermostat at 75, low enough to reduce the humidity but high enough to conserve some electricity.   At first glance do no harm seems simple enough but what does that really mean?  What can I do to make a difference in our complicated interconnected world?  Almost immediately Micah’s words come to mind, “do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.”   As with everything, the devil is in the details.

Do no harm. All politics, it’s been said, are local.  There is no one solution to complicated issues such as climate change, political hypocrisy, interracial conflicts, financial inequities, etc. because, in the end, everything gets reduced to our individual choices and actions.  What we do makes a difference, even when our actions appear to have no more effect than the flutter of a butterfly’s wing.  Even so, it’s the compilation of our everyday choices that is creating the crisis facing our planet.  It’s our unwillingness to take small actions that leads to life threatening results.  It’s our response to difficulties that either heals or wounds.

Do no harm.  What can I possibly do that can possibly make a difference?  Yet, even as I ask that question I know the answer.  All God asks is for me to do my part to the best of my ability.  Doing no  harm is a little like practicing gratitude.  The more I focus on being grateful for what I already have, the less I need to make myself comfortable, grateful,  and content.  The more I seek to do no harm in the ways I live out each day, the more aware I’m becoming of any impact my actions may have on others and the environment.  

Just raising the question is helping me recognize ways I can do my bit.  I can use less electricity by doing my laundry or running the dishwasher in the evenings after peak hours.  I can set the thermostat higher in summer and lower in winter, recognizing that my body will adapt in time to less comfortable temperatures.  I can save my dish washing water to water my plants and keep buckets in the shower to collect some of the runoff water to flush the toilet.  I can walk.  I can make lists and plan ahead rather than making impulsive trips in my car.  I can recycle, reuse things instead of buying new, even do without when possible.  I can take reusable bags when shopping, even take my own containers to restaurants when I eat out as I know I won’t be able to eat everything on my plate.  I can compost table scraps or feed some of the scraps to the birds. 

Do no harm.  I can smile and say hello to both friends and neighbors.  I can refrain from gossiping.   I can say “thank you” to store clerks and others helping me.  I can be a good neighbor.  I can welcome newcomers to our neighborhood.  I can pick up roadside trash and be careful not to litter.  I can shop at thrift stores instead of buying everything new.  I can share what I have rather than holding back “just in case.”  I can lovingly tend my flower beds so my neighbors can also enjoy their beauty  

Do no harm.  The more I embrace the idea that my purpose in life is to do no harm the greater the possibilities become.  In fact, the more I think about this, the more I realize doing no harm actually simplifies life and makes decision making easier, for nothing I’ve listed  is difficult.   In fact,  when I consider the men and women whom we remember as having had a positive impact on our world, those like Jesus, Abraham Linchiln, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Gandhi…it quickly becomes obvious everything they said and did was designed to do no harm.  

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  • Excellent op-ed. Some things on this list I will strive to do. Thank you for the reminder that it’s the small, easy things that really make a difference.

  • This column gives a whole new and positive way to look at our purpose here. Lots of doable ways that we can do no harm. My spirit was energized reading. Thank you, Joyce!

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