First do no harm.


If I had to pick only one day in the year to participate in the worldwide communion of church-going people, it would be Ash Wednesday. 365 days a year the reality that we are but dust is the central theme in my stream of consciousness. On Ash Wednesday it’s the phrase of the day, a phrase that makes most people feel somber and humorless but that makes me feel motivated. Weird, yes, I know. Be real: you knew when you started following along that things here weren’t exactly mainstream.

For any of you who who don’t mind the Christian liturgical calendar, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the season of preparation before Easter. Ash Wednesday is a day of penitence, not unlike Yom Kippur but not entirely like it either. Giving up something enjoyable (or taking on extra work) for the 40 days following Ash Wednesday is a Lenten tradition for many Christians. The idea is that personal deprivation leads to spiritual growth. In past years I’ve given up sweets, chocolate, frivolous spending. Last year I gave up wine, and my staff told me if I ever did it again they’d all quit. Apparently I’m cranky without my daily glass of Côtes du Rhône.

Tuesday night I was thinking long and hard about what to either give up or take on for the upcoming 40 days, and I wasn’t feeling inspired. I actually considered giving the entire thing a pass this year – skip Ash Wednesday service, stay my normal course right through Lent. But, as I mentioned, it’s my favorite church-going day, particularly at noon with the 23 other people who don’t want to join the 6:00 full house.

It’s hard to predict where a priest is going to take the penitence theme during an Ash Wednesday sermon. I’ve sat through some guilt-focused whoppers, a few musings that focused on liturgical lessons (odd that one of the readings is “pray in private” and then everyone walks out of the church smeared with ashes, right?), and plenty that were just plain meh. A couple stand out as worth remembering, and yesterday’s was one. Its title? First do no harm.

Quick quiz: When you think of the Hippocratic oath, what comes to mind first? Doctors, yes? Veterinarians, perhaps. It’s the essential responsibility of people entrusted with treating and caring for others: first do no harm.

It’s important to be careful when one is caring for another person, especially a person in need, yes? Love your neighbor, yes? Be humble and put others before yourself, yes?

But what is your responsibility to yourself, my responsibility to myself? Should it really be any different? Why should ‘first do no harm’ apply only to the treatment of others?

Instead of giving up or taking on, how about (the insightful young priest offered) pledging to yourself, your own self, first to do no harm? Just for 40 days. Before getting in anyone else’s business or being responsible for others, try first to abandon your own personal harmful habits. Just for 40 days. See what might happen.

Helluva lot better than giving up chocolate.



  1. Amen Jennifer…. I did not grow up Catholic so I was an adult (with Catholic friends) when I first learned what Ash Wednesday truly meant. I respected my friends decisions and asked a lot of questions. If this is what you are doing, what does it mean to you? Even though I am not Catholic, can I do it? (I have since learned there are several Protestant churches who participate in Lent season) I have to admit I do not do well “fasting” for 40 days. And I know it doesn’t count to give up Brussels sprouts when you don’t like them in the first place…lol.
    I love your idea…or rather what your priest said about “first do no harm” to ourselves. My husband is a physician so this phrase has great meaning in our home. But his suggestion goes along with my – self-improvement, love myself, be the most authentic person who gives and receives empathy – road I am traveling right now. I think I will give it a try 🙂
    Thanks for your awesome words!


  2. I agree, Ash Wednesday has often been turned into a spiritual excuse to diet, whereas it was meant as a practice to get closer to God. I believe getting closer to God involves loving the people around us so using lent to make our relationships better by “doing no harm” towards them would do a lot of good in this world 🙂


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