I first heard that saying something like 50 years ago, and it made immediate sense. Obviously, you have no “right” to be hitting other people in the nose, accidentally or deliberately. Besides the fact that Fist vs. Nose is a fight nose always loses – meaning you hurt this other person – it also sparks Other Fist into action, putting your own nose in danger. Other people can be drawn in, starting a melee. Property can be damaged. Police and ambulances can become involved, expensive medical bills can be incurred, jail time can be levied.
But the saying – or the thought behind it, anyway – applies in a much broader sense than that of mere physical violence. In my view, it applies to almost every aspect of life. The thought behind it is fairness itself. Fairness to the people around you. Living your life within a space that doesn’t lap over onto others.
For instance: When I was a kid, I peed in the pool. I don’t mean I did it occasionally, I did it EVERY time I was in a pool.
Nobody ever said not to, and it felt natural to do it. When I was around the sound of flowing water, or immersed myself in water, the signal came down, “Now! Now! Do it now! Ahhhh.”
Considering that it IS sort-of natural for us humans to pee when we get in water, you’d think there would be signs in every municipal pool admonishing people about it. DON’T PEE IN THE POOL. But we’ve always been squeamish about open discussion of natural functions. (Hell, today we’d probably have an instant screaming pro-pee lobby: “Oh my god, you’re pee-shaming! Peeing is perfectly natural! I just don’t know why people are so hateful, trying to stop innocent children from natural functions!”)
I had to figure it out on my own, embarrassingly late in childhood, that this was something you never, ever did. It wasn’t a matter of getting caught or not getting caught, it was a matter of respect for others. If I had a pool, would I want other people peeing in it? Did I like the idea of swimming in other people’s pee? No, and no. Therefore, I should never do it to others.
There’s another saying that applies to the broader idea of fairness to the people around you, something you probably heard from your mom a thousand times: Pick up after yourself.
Don’t leave your clothes lying around the house. Don’t leave your dishes on the table. Don’t leave your toys in the driveway.
The unwritten second half of “Pick up after yourself” is “… so other people don’t have to.” Don’t leave your clothes lying around the house so I don’t have to deal with them. Don’t leave your dishes on the table so others have to clear and wash them. Don’t leave your toys in the driveway so someone else has to pick them up.
Taken together, the two sayings express this more general idea: Live your life in such a way, minute to minute, and for a lifetime, that others aren’t unnecessarily inconvenienced, impacted or injured.
Some of this stuff is personal-scale petty:
Back to the subject of pee again – when I go into a public men’s room and find that person or persons before me have peed on the toilet seat, rather than, say, lifting the fucking seat out of the way before urinating, it strikes me as self-involved. Not just ignorant self-involved, but self-involved to the point of aggression against others. If the next guy comes in to use the toilet, but has to first wipe up your piss, you might as well have slapped him.
When I’m shopping with one of those little carry-baskets at the supermarket, and I get to the register and empty it out, then go to drop it on the stack of other baskets, I find about half the time that the last person dropped their basket so that one of the wire handles flopped across. I have to move that wire handle so I can drop-stack my basket. I’d bet most of us feel the same way.
The point isn’t that it’s a lot of extra trouble, the point is that it’s something you shouldn’t have to do. You’re picking up after that guy that came before you. If YOU are the guy who came before, it’s not like the world will end if you don’t do the right thing, but again, other people shouldn’t have to come behind you and fix things, or pick up things. You don’t have the right to live your life so blithely that it adds the “weight” of your life onto theirs.
For me the rule extends even into those areas where people are paid to pick up after you. You don’t leave your garbage on the table in a fast food restaurant. You don’t drive away and leave your shopping cart loose in the parking lot. And sure, your city probably has street sweepers and sanitation workers, but you still don’t drop trash or cigarette butts on the streets or sidewalks.
A lot of this stuff is so basic, so noticeable by others when you fail to observe the rule, that it should go without saying. But … it has to continue to be said, for the sake of all those others – of whatever age – still growing into adulthood. You don’t play your music so loud it annoys people. You don’t waft your cigarette smoke in their direction. You stay in your lane, you drive at the speed of traffic, you signal your lane changes and turns.
The rule scales up to the decidedly non-petty: Industry dumping toxic wastes in rivers, or pumping it into the ground where it can contaminate drinking water, in both cases, this is so obviously wrong it should never even come up as a question. Wall Street bankers wrecking the national economy for their own amusement or profit is a no-no of massive proportions.
When you think about it, the underlying regard for the rights of others is the foundation for ALL our big social rules and laws. Don’t Steal. Don’t Cheat. Don’t Kill.
The rule extends even beyond human rights and concerns. The business about not poisoning fish in rivers with toxic wastes isn’t just about injuring fishermen who might want to eat what they catch. It’s about the fish too. It’s about eagles and elephants, mantas and manatees, raccoons and redwoods.
Because we have to live in society with others, because we have to live on this planet, and because we’ve gone long past the point where natural forces will clean up our messes, conscious self-contained living is not simply an admirable social ideal, it’s pretty much a planetary necessity.
Live your life in such a way, minute to minute, and for a lifetime, that others aren’t unnecessarily inconvenienced, impacted or injured.