I take that as a universal truth: that the object of life is to leave the space you passed through at least a tiny bit better for your having been there. It’s not dramatic; it’s not grandiose. It’s easily considered just a rephrasing of the Golden Rule. As a first principle, I suppose, it’s easily dismissed as too small, too banal, maybe even too subjective.
But I think it’s a useful frame for daily life. I could be pissed off at the woman in front of me at the grocery store check out, trying to buy 30 cans of baby formula, because she has to parcel the purchase out over four different payment methods and it’s taking a very long time. I could glare. I could snap at the cashier. But my frustration and anger don’t make the space around me better. Being patient does. Being compassionate does. Telling the cashier “Oh, no bother” with sincerity makes it better.
It’s really hard to argue that being patient and not assuming the worst about either the woman in front of me, nor the cashier helping her, have not made the line up in aisle 6 a better place. Maybe it’s not the check-out you want to choose–and maybe my being serene isn’t going to make it one–but it makes it better for the harried cashier who doesn’t want me to yell at him and it makes it better for the tired woman who wasn’t trying to inconvenience me, but was just trying to afford to feed a baby.
It’s also possible that paying for that woman’s formula would have made the world better. Or that working to create a community that makes it easier for women to feed their babies would. But those are larger actions with greater consequence and considerations. Now, I happen to think that both of those actions would have bettered the world, but I recognize there are consequences and nuances to actions and that it’s not always easy to determine what makes “Better” and what makes “Best” and what makes neither.
When you move beyond the immediate question of “what is going to make this moment and this four square feet better?”, it’s harder to put this principle to work. You have to get a little more expansive in how you define it.
That’s where the The Don’t Be an Asshole Rule comes into play. A friend summed it up as “Passing up the extremely short term and inhumane dollar to increase your perceived value to your customer and thereby build brand loyalty may be just as calculating as any other capitalist decision, but it’s also a behavior I will get behind every time. When there’s a crisis, I do not want my business partners turning on me. Not in my work place. Not in my personal life. No where. Stability is worth rewarding.” So is generosity, kindness, and compassion. All four (stability, generosity, kindness and compassion) better the space around you.
In the first year of law school, in torts, while learning contributory negligence rules, you read over and over again the phrase: “the last clear chance to avoid harm to the plaintiff”. The short non-law-school version is, if you were in the best position to prevent a bad thing happening, and capable of taking an action to prevent the bad thing happening, yet did not take that action, you are at fault. We can blame you. You must take responsibility for at least some of the damage of the bad thing because you had a duty to take your last best chance to avoid harm.
It’s the beginning of the personal injury bar’s own little Don’t Be an Asshole Rule.
If you have the last clear chance to avoid harm, take it.
Make sure your actions and your attitude are making things better, not worse.
Treat people as you would prefer they treat you.
As my parents always said, “Pay attention” and “think”.
Our actions are cumulative; our consequences compound one another. If we pay attention to our actions and attitudes, if we think how they compound one another and whether they contribute to a better moment or a worse one, we are improving a tiny piece of the world.