Do No Harm

To honor the 49 people who were killed and the 50 who were injured in Orlando on June 12, I offer reflections on doing no harm.

The grievous harm that occurred in Orlando has me wondering about two things. First, how significantly will the unthinking or deliberate political vitriol unleashed in the media in reaction to this tragedy feed an already antagonistic environment in this country? Second, how much will we let this environment affect our relationships and interactions with one another at home, at work, and in our communities? It seems that for now, at least in Orlando, this horror is bringing out the best in thousands of people.    

For some of us, Orlando, San Bernardino, Charleston, Newtown (too many to list) seem distant, unrelated to our lives. How do any of these massacres affect us? How does our conduct in meetings or conversations affect any of these fraught situations?

Chaos theory, popularly known as “the butterfly effect,” suggests that small causes (like a butterfly flapping its wings in California in June) can have big effects at a distance later in time (a hurricane in Florida in July). We know from brain science that emotions, particularly fear and anger, are contagious. When people feel hurt, afraid, or mad, these emotions can easily and quickly spread to those around them.

For example, in a recent conversation I unthinkingly said something that hurt one of my nearest and dearest friends. I spoke in a moment of frustration and anger. He reacted in kind. And then I reacted in kind. It went on like this for too long. Although we have since rectified things between us, my initial words had caused harm.

We can avoid such contagion and avoid contributing to the combative political environment by relating to each other on a day-to-day basis with attention and kindness. This includes asking people how they are, or what they think about a particular topic, and really listening to their responses; seeing others with “fresh” eyes, not assuming you know what they think or are going to say based on past experience; and, when people say things with which you disagree, pausing to inquire genuinely how they came to see things as they do.

This does not mean you will agree with others or they with you. But perhaps you can disagree without getting angry or disconnecting from them, even finding ways to work together constructively.

How you relate with others matters. As best-selling author and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg writes, “Everything is interwoven. The things we do, the things we think about, the things we care about, all make a difference in the totality we are a part of.”

We are all part of the totality that includes what happened in Orlando. We contribute to the totality by how we relate to one another every day. We can help make a difference by being loving or kind. If this is not possible, we can be non-judgmental. And, if this is not possible, we can do the least harm possible.  

Leave a Comment