Do No Harm. Take No Shit
I chuckled with recognition and delight when I first read “Do no harm. Take no shit.” in Elizabeth Lesser’s Cassandra Speaks: When Women Are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes. Several friends, men and women, laughed out loud and applauded when I shared the phrase with them, too.
The phrase comes from Lesser’s younger sister, a nurse practitioner who, as a first responder living out the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm, often had to deal with flak from doctors, hospital bureaucracies, sometimes the patients themselves.
Lesser offers a “do no harm and take no shit” meditation in Cassandra Speaks, based on Roshi Joan Halifax’s meditation called Strong Back, Soft Front – a firm stance of strength while opening to suffering and vulnerability with care and nurturing. The hand gestures of the iconic statues of the Buddha illustrate the posture: right hand raised in greeting/boundaries with the world; left hand cupped in gesture of holding/welcoming/receiving.
[I’ve posted many lengthy book reviews in these posts; you can read many in these archives. Here I’m simply highlighting some of the main principles behind “do no harm; take no shit” and referring you to Book Passages’ interview with Elizabeth Lesser and Isabel Allende (free and easy to subscribe) and to the book itself, Cassandra Speaks: When Women Are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes, the “do no harm and take no shit” meditation is on p. 229.]
Cassandra was a Greek princess blessed by the god Apollo with the gift of foreseeing the future but revenged when she refused his sexual advances with the curse that no one would believe anything she said.
Lesser explores many, many examples of women’s voices not being heard, believed, trusted, revered. And she consistently acknowledges that the healing wisdom of any marginalized group – racial, religious, sexual orientation, ability – can be ignored, dismissed, lost to history.
She recounts the myths of Western culture – Eve, Pandora, Galatea – that still fuel the silencing of women’s voices and the dismissing of women’s perspectives and priorities – empathy, nurturing, collaboration that the world so desperately needs to stay sane and balanced.
She explores how women can do power differently than the traditional patriarchal emphasis on war and violence, and gives many examples of modern women doing exactly that. One of my favorite stories was of Antoinette Tuff, a bookkeeper at an Atlanta elementary school who prevented a mass school shooting like Sandy Hook by spending an hour talking to the deranged 20-year old gunman, “Don’t feel bad, baby. We all suffer. My husband just left me after thirty-three years. I got a son with multiple disabilities. If I can get over tough times, so can you. Baby, we don’t’ want you to die today. You belong to us. Just put your guns down.” And he did.
Strong back; soft front. Strength and compassion.
I especially liked Lesser’s suggested exercise of “A Day without a War Metaphor.” If women/any of us want to speak and be heard without falling into the same ole, same ole patterns, Lesser suggests noticing how much of our vocabularies are based on war and violence – we call an argument a battle, and cooperation a truce or a cease-fire, doctors are on the front lines battling cancer; in our everyday interactions we join the ranks, take it to the mat, get in the cross fire, call in the troops. we describe a beautiful woman as a bombshell or a knockout. We can consciously choose to cultivate new vocabularies based instead on cooking in the kitchen or planting a garden.
Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed. – Abraham Joshua Heschel
I encourage you to reflect on moments in your own life where you could do no harm, where you also could take no shit. Reveling in the power of a strong back and soft front.