Whenever I learn about the injustices that plague humanity, my gut reaction is, what can I do to help make things better?
It’s not a stretch to say this is also your reaction.
Of course we want to help.
Unfortunately, sometimes how we help isn’t helpful.
I’ve learned, when faced with an issue, I should first look to the Hippocratic Oath. There is a line in the original translation that reads:
I will follow that system of regimen which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous.
Last summer I was volunteering with Habit for Humanity and the objective was to install drywall. After going through the orientation and getting excited to do my part, I dove in and quickly realized my “help” could harm.
Hanging drywall did not seem like a big deal – measure the area, measure the drywall, cut the drywall, nail or screw the drywall.
A false sense of hubris led me to take charge rather early on in the day. The air was heavy and even the shade offered little reprieve. No matter. Solider on, keep going!
I distinctly remember being halfway through finishing a closet, only to realize I had forgotten to add adhesive. No problem, right? It’s not a big deal. We’ll use more screws.
Shortly after was the revelation that the piece I chose was too big, and it didn’t have spaces cut for the light fixtures. Also, since I messed up the measurements, I would have to start over.
Sheepishly I walked to the room that housed the drywall and searched for another piece.
The supervisor yelled, “Ah, we’re all out, hey can you go down and get more!?”
One of the volunteers hurried downstairs and returned ten minutes later with more drywall.
I continued my work, this happened a couple more times.
Thankfully the adage, “Measure twice, cut once” returned to the forefront of my mind and I slowed down, became meticulous and ended up figuring out how to maneuver corners, closets, ceilings, and stairwells.
At the end of the day, I walked out of the house, exhausted but euphoric.
I helped someone today.
One of the final tasks was to carry all the leftover material to the dumpster.
As I dragged and threw these discarded slabs, I noticed some of them contained jagged cuts, evidence of attempts to correct a bad measurement.
How many mistakes did I make?
How many were due to neglect?
“abstain from whatever is deleterious”
I did not have experience doing this job so I could not have been expected to be an expert. However, despite not being one, following directions, taking my time, making sure to verify, asking for help – these are all possible without prior training, not only possible but essential.
This is a lesson on how to engage the injustices that plague humanity. The question, How can I help make things better? should be preceded by learning and listening and followed by proper, thoughtful planning.
The orientation time is as important as the time spent working on the house.
Yes, I was hanging drywall which was a nice contribution, but the way I did it, however well-intentioned, was devoid of intentionality and caused damage. New drywall can be purchased and mistakes can be corrected, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
When confronting injustices, racism for example, if I jump into a conversation or activity with reckless passion, thinking I know everything, damage will be done and someone will not be able to simply run and get a replacement.
Rightful action is thoughtful action.
Passion alone is not enough to make progress.
Now I know, if I stop, before I start, and think about reason, perception and impact, then and only then, can I help make things better.