Do No Harm
My son turns into the ball a split-second after it leaves my right hand. The football, small and fortunately quite flat, glances off a no-man’s-land that isn’t exactly his side and isn’t exactly his back.
He returns my gaze with eyes big enough to articulate nothing is hurt but his pride. With a clipped tone, I offer the standard fatherly axioms: Face the ball square on. Get your hands ready. A split-second after leaving my lips, the words return to glance off me, evoking the many blows I’ve leaned into in the name of protecting myself.
First, do no harm. These four words—typically a caveat for healers—might as well be scrawled across the top of every page of my adult life. The fear of wronging, possibly even ruining someone else, compels my behavior more than I wish to admit. Lining out the forces most responsible for my way of living, the twinned powers of anxiety and anticipation earn more than their fair share of credit.
Unable or unwilling to pinpoint the start of this particular strain, I still recognize the symptoms. Moving to clamorous rhythms, I check and double-check the front-door deadbolt at the end of the night, then throw off covers to tiptoe downstairs and do it all again. That process replicates itself throughout the house, especially in the kitchen as I fiddle with oven dials well after coiled burners turn cold.
I dot the i’s and cross the t’s on contracts, correspondence, receipts and records until even the ink seems aggravated. Words arriving on the social scene meet an immediate round of second-guessing. I consider offering the most innocuous forms of touch, then clench of every molecule of my body over the worry of being misread.
“What ifs” take turns swiveling me by the shoulders. What if the house burns down? What if the thief enters and steals? What if I ruin someone’s reputation, and lose mine in the process, after writing a thoughtless word? What if any of these what ifs took on flesh, bone and consequence? Could I live in the fallout?
Those scenarios roar, then recede like waves, only to be replaced by new roles and their attendant what-ifs. What if an error in grading alters the path of one of my journalism students? What if a tossed-off word sends my son down an anxiety staircase and he ends up resembling me?
Anxiety is terrible at math, yet excels at public relations. Ninety-nine percent of what I fear never reaches fruition. Yet when that one percent breaks through, in the form of an awkward conversation or a public error that eventually meets its correction, anxiety waves its bony finger and crows its “I told you so.” Even the littlest mistake lingers, existing as if it’s living proof that all you fear stands at the precipice of becoming reality.
The fear of doing harm leaves you content with what seems like the best of two false choices. You can live with any damage you inflict upon yourself, it tells you; but you will never make it through the cloud of causing another person irreparable pain.
My math improves slowly with time and repetition, with soft words from my therapist and the unflinching wisdom of my wife. Some days, I set aside the math anxiety wants me to do and sift through a different set of word problems. If a 39-year-old man spends most of his adult life worrying about scenarios that will never come true, how many hours has he wasted? Anxiety prefers I overlook the sums, but the size of those numbers—especially the amount of zeros tacked on to the end—sets me free little by little.
The natural lesson from all this fretting and figuring, the proverb that sits at the tip of the tongue is that obsessing over harm keeps you from doing anyone any good. That sounds right, and I hope to land there someday—but not yet.
Today, I focus on staying calm while the ball comes my way, not flinching or turning into its flight path. All my efforts to minimize harm leave everyone else unscathed and my own body black and blue. “First, do no harm” makes sense on paper, but when you can’t even apply it to yourself, the words shed their meaning.
My prayer that God would do anything and everything to keep me from inflicting harm is evolving. Now I pray: Relax my muscles. Unstop my mouth. Free me to make a mistake—and to find a little forgiveness for myself in the moments after.
I never fear the pendulum swing. My reckless remains another man’s uptight. I’m finally tiring of harming myself, and wasting precious hours in the process. To ease up and let go makes time to reckon with myself and the world as we really are: the beautiful and difficult, the painful and the true.
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