Receiving Humaneness

A Guide in Humane Awareness

The Humane Movement promotes the concept of harmlessness or not hurting. As with kindness and cruelty, harmlessness can be expressed towards all life: the environment, flowers, animals, people, things and oneself. Harmlessness is gentle, caring, protective and respectful. When we are harmless in our interactions, we may not be actively promoting benefits. However, we are also not adding to the suffering in the world.

Refraining from harming, or harmlessness, in our interaction with others or ourselves, can be carried out with dignity. Harmlessness is not to be confused with passivity. Harmlessness means non-injury; not harming the environment, flowers, animals, people, things and oneself.

We can sometimes cause harm to another or oneself out of ignorance. We are not aware that such and such an act is harmful. At other times we can cause harm through kindness or good intention, but the act is detrimental to the well-being of the intended beneficiary.

The need for harmlessness is most evident when we are faced with situations or experiences that cause us pain. Injured or distressed animals will often bite as a result of being in pain. We are like our animal companions. For example, someone says or does something that makes us angry. We react with anger. He or she reacts with anger to our anger. We react with even more anger until we realize the vicious circle into which we have been trapped. At this point, we may consciously or unconsciously choose to respond to the situation or experience in more appropriate ways that stop the harm from escalating. Once the choice to respond is made, there is frequently a reservoir of "negative" energy that needs to be released or vented in constructive or healthy ways. For example:

  • 1. Telling the person that you are hurt.
  • 2. Waiting a few seconds before speaking.
  • 3. Letting the feeling or impulse to harm pass away.
  • 4. Talking to someone else about the situation.
  • 5. Removing oneself from the situation.
  • 6. Punching a pillow.
  • 7. Empathizing and forgiving.
  • 8. Thinking about the consequences of one's actions.
  • 9. Remembering the choice to be harmless.
Choosing harmlessness does not necessarily mean defeat. The choice to be harmless is one of many options available to us at all times. Usually, after choosing harmlessness, feelings of self-respect and esteem emerge, and a soothing sense of pride and dignity develops.

When you had the experience:

  • What were you aware of?

  • What thoughts were you thinking?

  • What were you feeling?

  • What were you doing at the time?

Here is my personal experience in which someone was humane towards me:

  • What were you aware of?

    That I was going to dissect a frog.

  • What thoughts were you thinking?

    I really don't want to do this.

  • What were you feeling?


  • What were you doing at the time?

    Talking to a friend and showing off in order to hide my fear.

In the above example, my teacher humanely led me to see the importance of knowing what I believe in my heart, namely, harmlessness is an important aspect of human interaction. Even though we were to use frogs in a classroom science project, which was considered acceptable at the time, she forced me to face and live up to my innermost convictions. In the truest sense, she gave me a gift of humaneness and a humane education in aligning my innermost thoughts, with my words and deeds.

Harmlessness, not-hurting and non-violence are significant themes in the theology of various religions and world leaders.

The Mahatma or Gandhi wrote in 1936, "When non-violence is accepted as the law of life, it must pervade the whole being and not be applied to isolated acts. It is a profound error to suppose that, whilst the law is good enough for individuals, it is not for masses of mankind." He wrote further "Non-violence affords the fullest protection to one's self-respect and sense of honour, but not always to possession of land or movable property, though its habitual practice does prove a better bulwark than the possession of armed men to defend them." 1

Father John Dear, writing about Dr. Martin Luther King, in his book Disarming the Heart says, "For King, active nonviolence is much more than a tactic or a strategy; it is a way of life. We renounce violence and vow never to hurt anyone ever again. Nonviolence is not passive. It is active love and truth that seeks justice and peace for the whole human race, and resists systemic evil, and persistently reconciles with everyone, and insists that there is no cause however noble for which we support the killing of a single human being. Instead of killing others, we are willing to be killed in the struggle for justice and peace. Instead of inflicting violence on others, we accept and undergo suffering without even the desire to retaliate with further violence as we pursue justice and peace for all people on the planet." 2

Sufi mystic, Hazrat Inayat Khan, shows the complexities involved in harmlessness. He writes, "Harmlessness is a good moral, but the difficulty is that we cannot be good to one without being harmful to another. For instance, we are good to our cat and we give it lamb's meat to eat; so we are harmful to the lamb. Or we sacrifice the vegetable for the sake of being good to the lamb. We harm the mineral when for the sake of some flowers we put clay in water, bend and knead it and then put in the fire in order to make a bowl to hold the flowers. How many things do we make out of iron, how much do we torment it in order to make ourselves comfortable? How many things do we make out of wood? The lives of how many animals do we sacrifice in order to make ourselves comfortable and happy? As to ourselves, how much do we sacrifice the benefit, the comfort of our fellow beings for our own benefit? We do not ponder upon it, but it is so." 3

In the Jewish tradition, the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, is the embodiment of the concept of harmlessness. The first five commandments offer positive injunctions relating to right worship and honouring one's mother and father. However, the last five commandments refer specifically to one's interaction with another, including not killing, not commiting adultery, not stealing, not lying against one's neighbour, and not coveting or longing or craving for what another possesses. When we consider these prohibitions we can see that most of the conflict in the world stems from not heeding the wisdom of these commandments.

In the Qu'ran, Moslems are warned against the taking of life, taking what is not given, unchastity, falsehood, fermented liquor, distilled liquor, intoxicants giving rise to sloth, unseasonable meals, dancing, song, playing music, and seeing shows, the use of flowers, scents, and unguents, wearing ornaments and decorations, the use of raised beds, of wide beds, the accepting of gold and silver. These prohibitions aim to create and sustain a more humane society.4

Buddhism, which is an offshoot of Hinduism, preaches non-violence to all living creatures along with tolerance and self-discipline. The Buddah promoted for adherents a lifestyle that includes Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration in his Noble Eightfold Path, all leading towards developing the individual towards a more humane existence.

In Hinduism, practioners are given a set of Yamas and Niyamas or moral and ethical ideals, including non-injury, truthfulness, nonstealing, celibacy when single and faithfulness when married, forgiveness, firmness, compassion, honesty, refraining from overeating and the consumption of meat, purity in body, mind and intellect, being a slave to the senses, charity, faith, worship, the hearing of scriptures, sharpening the intellect with a guru's guidance, the faithful observation of scriptural injunctions, chanting and austerity.5

The above examples show how world religions have addressed the concept of harmlessness and the development of a more humane existence for all humans. Unfortunately, much of the conflict the world has seen results directly from religious adherents not following the highest ideals or tenents of their respective religions.

This demonstrates that, ultimately, the responsibility for non-violence, humaneness, harmlessness, non-injury or not-hurting another is an individual one, and this responsibility relates directly to one exercising one's right to be treated with, and to treat others with, humane respect, compassion, empathy and lovingkindness. This further shows that many people have forfeited their willingness to receive and give humaneness with an open heart and mind.

4Qur'an 6.151-53 5

Copyright © Kenneth Hemmerick 2005
All Rights Reserved

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