Not Causing Others Harm is the Highest Law of Human Behavior. Why Are We Failing So Badly At It?
There are many ways in which we can make one another lives miserable.
Most of the time, they are things we frequently think of as “small” things.
Arriving late. Asking the wrong questions. Delivering a left-handed compliment. Turning up the music. Coughing grotesquely during a concert or other live performance. Not smiling or even laughing at someone’s joke. Making comments about another person’s body. Needlessly causing someone else to worry. Visibly not listening to someone when they are talking. Talking loudly on your cell phone in a public place. Blasting music from your cell phone and not using headphones in a public place.
As a guest in another person's home, lingering forever after the meal is finished. Tracking dirt into another person's home from outside. Pressuring someone to eat or drink things they do not want to. Shoving past people to get somewhere. Not offering our seat to someone on the bus who is elderly, disabled, pregnant, or just clearly in need of it more than we are. Not moving aside for someone in a wheelchair or on crutches to pass.
Walking around with our cellphone loudly on Facetime in public, instead of waiting until in private or using headphones. Littering. Leaving our dogs poop lying on a path someone will clearly end up walking. Man-splaining. Not respecting someone’s “no.”
These, and so many more, are numerous ways in which we can cause varying degrees of harm to another person. Mental, physical, or emotional. And just generally result in making other people’s lives more frustrating or upsetting.
Not harming other people, though, is the highest human law. And it seems to be one we have not just forgotten, but have begun to disregard and dismiss altogether.
Unless someone is a saint, we have all, at some time or another, trodden on someone else and caused harm. Sometimes by accident. Other times, on purpose. But is this a good choice for the well-being of others? For the hospitable environment of our society? And, does it help our own inner health? The answer, on all three counts, is no.
The trouble is that even a small amount of accidental harm can do damage.
And, to date in our society, we have begun harming on a much larger scale as well. And, much of the time, on purpose.
This can and does include things like: physical violence, refusing medical care to someone in need because “no insurance,” racism, sexism, spreading lies about other people and purposefully attempting to harm them in the eyes of others, or, not adhering to public health regulations because “I don’t care” or “I don’t feel like it” which as a result, can cause much harm to others. It can be things like purposeful manipulation and cruelty, verbal abuse, gossiping about someone behind their back, refusing to stop the upsetting behavior when someone asks you nicely, or polluting the environment. The list goes on.
Because you see, harmlessness is an active quality. It doesn’t “just happen.” Instead, you decide on behaving in such a way as not to cause harm to others. And this is a behavior (harmlessness) that calls for a sense of awareness (of others and the world), self-control, intelligence, and good-will toward others.
It is a heartbreaking thing that at least three of these behaviors, if not all four, seem to be in dwindling, diminished supply in our culture as of late.
Why might this be?
We tend to think that consideration for others, that kindness, and that when someone asks us, “could you please stop that?” and we then say, “of course” and do so, that all of these are signs of weakness, of being a pushover.
Thus, many of us have begun acting more and more for “me” and “I.” What do I want right now? Live my best life. You do you, and I will do me. Me, me, me. I do what I want and you? Screw you. You’re asking me to turn this down? Go f*ck yourself. These are many of the lines of thinking and types of behaviors we have adapted in society now. And it is resulting in an angry, divided, unfriendly, inhospitable culture for a lot of people.
Harmlessness, though, is not a quality or trait of the weak. Quite the contrary, it is a trait of the strong.
Because it is not always easy. It requires effort. Taking the high road. It demands a degree of self-mastery. Far from being an attribute of the weak, it is one of the strong. It is a trait of those who have gone against the grain and who choose not to join the hoards of the rude, inconsiderate, unkind others.
Those who decide not to participate in the mass bad behavior of others and of our culture at large? This takes significant inner strength. It takes class, intelligence, and poise. It comes from wisdom, intelligence, and insight. All of which are in short supply today.
One of the reasons why our culture today might be struggling with so much bad behavior: bad behavior spreads. Research has shown that one bad apple in a bunch of otherwise good apples does not turn good. Instead, the bad apple pollutes the bucket.
When a bunch of people sees one or two others acting crappy and without consequence? They tend to then think, oh, well why bother with consideration and “being good” when other people aren’t and there aren’t any consequences for it. Bad behavior moves through groups of people like a virus. Many of us also tend to think, eh, if I act a bit inconsiderate and unkind sometimes, it’s not such a big deal. But. A lesser evil is still evil. And thus, when one commits an evil act, and this evil generates further evil.
Our acceptance, throughout our daily lives today, of “lesser evils”, of bad behavior on a smaller scale?
All of this is dangerous and is harming our society because it slides into acceptance and normalization of bad behavior all the time and on a larger scale.
A perfect example of this: “phubbing”, or, ignoring the person right in front of you for your phone. We do this All. The. Time. I was on video chat with someone recently who did it several times during our meeting/date. Even once, pausing and remarking, “I am just going to read this email I got…hold on,” while I was to sit there and wait. I was astonished by the rudeness and dismissiveness of it. When recounting the instance to one other friend, she too was aghast. Yet, we do this stuff constantly. And while it’s incredibly rude (that aspect of the behavior hasn’t changed), because “everyone is doing it”, the bad behavior has spread and become “accepted.” Even though in actuality, it upsets a lot of people (and rightfully so).
Just because “everyone is doing something” does not make it ideal, healthy, or good. For individuals, relationships, or society at large.
Whoever dares (and puts in the effort) to be harmless understands how precarious every human life is. How full of strain and fright and suffering.
Harmlessness has to do with our capacity, as well as our choice, to make other people feel better. And far too many of us today, do not make this choice.
Within each of our individual worlds, as well as within the world at large, we create an environment. And within this environment we have created, we then must live, together with our neighbors.
A crucial question, then, that we as human beings must ask ourselves: what kind of society and world do we want to live in? Because the one which has come to center around me, me, me? It isn’t working out very well, for anyone and everyone.
Ask yourself, multiple times throughout your day: might my behavior right now be causing someone else harm?
Do I need to do this right now?
Could I do it in such a way that it might lessen the harm/discomfort of others? (Such as, turning down the volume, using headphones, putting aside my phone and listening fully to the person in front of me, leaving the concert for a few moments while I am coughing loudly and repeatedly, biting my tongue before saying that thing I feel inclined to say which I might later regret, deciding to be brave enough to apologize to someone in my life and own my mistakes, etc).
Harmlessness is the highest law. The only way we can hope to survive as a society (and not just survive, but flourish) is if we respect it. Human beings cannot coexist if we do not respect each other. If we cannot collaborate. If we hurt one another. Without this law, the world as we know it will crumble.
So, ask yourself: how might I behave with the feelings and thoughts of those surrounding me in mind? How might I be more considerate, thoughtful, and kind toward others? How can I cause as little harm to others as possible?
Ask yourself every day, and behave with this goal in mind, of how might I help make our world a more hospitable, happy, peaceful place for everyone?
(A source of inspiration for this article was The Power of Kindness: The Unexpected Benefits of Leading a Compassionate Life by Piero Ferrucci).