First Do No Harm
“Good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”
The well-known saying, “First do no harm,” which is derived from the Hippocratic oath for physicians, aims to highlight and avoid the very real possibility that those who attempt to do good may make matters worse. Ironically, the widespread suffering resulting from the accidental or negligent actions of doctors and other hospital staff has led to the coining of a new term. An “iatrogenic” illness or death literally “originates with a healer.”
In a different context, most of us have been on the receiving end of well-intentioned but counterproductive “encouragement” at times of hardship such as illness or grief. (We’ve probably been on the giving end as well.) Comments like “She’s in a better place” or “It’s all part of God’s larger plan,” or attempts to help by sharing one’s own difficult experiences, for example, may prove hurtful rather than helpful because they deprive others of their own rightful process of grieving.
The previous post attempted to point out how a failure to address problems in a deep and holistic way can also produce counterproductive results. We see evidence of this failure on a daily basis in much of what passes for public discourse. One side presents its inadequate, simplistic solution to a complex problem and the other side responds with its own, similarly limited, alternative. “If only we would put prayer back in school,” or “If only we would raise taxes on the wealthy” or “If only we would pass tougher sentencing laws.”
Some blame the media for the proliferation of “sound bite” solutions. We, the general public, however, share the blame because we have demonstrated a lack of willingness or ability to listen to more detailed discussions.
Anyone seeking to play a direct role in addressing problems, however, can choose to take a different path. Resources now exist to help us place needs in a broader context so that we can more effectively respond to them. Some excellent places to begin include the following:
The writings of John Perkins and information from the organization he founded, the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA)
When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America, by Paul Tough