Friday, February 18, 2005

The golden rule...

The problem with the golden rule is this. We don't have any control over the effect of what we do. Let me illustrate:

Today I was walking to the library to pick up a new book by a favorite author of mine, G.M. Ford. On the way I found myself hopping up into the air to avoid something moving on the sidewalk, which turned out to be a little Arizona lizard. Dunno what they're called, but they're everywhere when it gets warm here.

Anyway, I don't like killing critters, so here I am up in the air, both feet off the ground, milliseconds from landing, and the damned lizard is scampering around trying to avoid me, so I don't know where to put my feet to avoid squashing him. So I try. And I miss him (or her - lizards are coy about secondary sexual characteristics). But here's the thing - I had no idea when I did what I did to try to avoid him whether he was going to be where I predicted he was going to be - come on, how could I? I had way less than a second to react, and nerve impulses just don't travel that fast, plus I really have no reflexive knowledge of how lizards move, and things were happening too quickly for my reaction to be much beyond an avoidance reflex - you know, "eek, don't want to step on that, *zoom*."

The fact is that the vast majority of all the actions we undertake in life are just like that. We have some kind of illusion of control, because we have time to react, but we don't really have control. I don't know whether the carefully-crafted response I make to an email requesting help is going to elicit a happy response, an angry response, or no response at all. I don't know if, when I hand a dollar to a guy on the street who asks for it, he's going to spend it on a sandwich or a bottle of thunderbird.

But I feel good about trying not to step on the lizard. I think it was the right thing to do. I think that in general it's safe to say that any action I undertake with the intention of avoiding causing harm is an action worth taking. Anytime I stop myself from doing something because I am afraid it will visit harm on someone, that's worth doing too. I won't always notice that something I want to do is going to cause harm, and I won't always succeed when I try to avoid causing harm, but it's worth trying.


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