There’s a saying you’ve probably seen or heard before, in some form:
Before you say something, ask yourself: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?
Ironically, this is the sort of wisdom that is captioned onto a photo, say, of a statue of the Buddha or a gurgling grotto, and posted on Facebook or Twitter where it will float along a bilious stream of untruth, unkindness, and non-necessity. But it is worth considering. I have been frustrated with how little currency truth and value have when we enter the online world; I’ve seen some of the kindest people I know disparage kindness; I’ve seen people say outright that the truth of a thing is beside the point. I have thought of this proverb when seeing waves of outrage and thought, “I would settle for any one.”
Researching the origins of the quote (Quaker school tract from the turn of the last century? Ancient midrash? Who knows?) I came across a different construct:
Before you say something, ask yourself: Is it true? Is it kind? Does it improve upon silence?
Does it improve upon silence?
This reveals the compulsion that leads good people to be unkind and, at best, unconcerned about knowing the full truth. They want to fill the silence. Silence is associated with oppression and victimization; to be told to be kind and true is interpreted as a demand to be silent, sometimes by people who have long been silenced. I get all that, and yet I’m wary of the conclusion. Is any noise at all preferable to silence?
But this also creates a rubric for what construes necessity. It’s the best test there is for the value of an utterance. Does it improve upon silence?
Sometimes I sit one out, and let a cycle of fury rage and fizzle without me. But I realize now that failing to join in the fray is not silence, even without the public apophasis that I am not going to comment on [story of the week] because of my judiciousness and gallantry. Silence is something other than strategic noiselessness.
I have begun to think of this silence as a natural resource to be treasured and protected: the silence of a calm lake at dawn; the silence of a mind at rest; the silence of listening and waiting. This silence, like clean water and star-lit skies, is harder and harder to find. It is also a value: a decision to seek silence inside and out, to turn of all the screens and quiet your own mind. And, if such a place be found, to protect it.
My mother didn’t work for the last ten years of her life, and spent much of that (waking) time watching television, particularly the 24-hour news networks, which sometimes blared different channels in different rooms of the house. Entering her house was to enter a churning noise machine, her own running commentary mixed in with that of various TV pundits and reporters. She took up every news cycle ready to be angry and outspoken. I now see the noise as a part of her sickness, and her inability for her mind to heal. But it’s also a metaphor for my own mind, clattering with noise, my inner muttering monologist struggling to be heard over the din. I can only quiet my mind by choice: walks at dawn, drives with the car stereo muted, the time before sleep where I listen to the breaths of family and pets around me and the murmurings of the house itself.
The proverb takes on power when it is not about manners; it is about soul-nurturing. Is this thing I am about to say worth disrupting my own calm? If I believe in silence as a natural resource, is it now worth plundering? What whispers of the universe might I hear, if I remain silent?