Who managed to survive childhood without a parent or teacher advising that “if you have nothing nice to say, then you should say nothing at all”? I’m not one such person. In fact, if my memory serves me then I can recall not being allowed to watch the Rosanne show because they said, “shut up” to each other instead of “please be quiet” which we were very strong “encouraged” to say. Bart Simpson and the Beavis and Butthead show were two others prohibited because of a combo of language and disrespect. We weren’t really allowed to say “fart” and instead were told to use the more polite “toot.” And I have a very vivid memory of a family vacation scene: I’m in the back of our van with my brothers, and I’m eating a banana when my brother Jeremy flops around with a sleeping bag and in the process swipes my half-eaten banana. Naturally, this forces me to say something to Jeremy about him getting fuzz on “my freakin’ banana.” The (very fast and VERY heated) response to this from my mom was, “Joshua! We don’t say FREAKIN! That’s about as close to FUCK as you can get!!!” I’m sure you can see now how very familiar we would have been with the old saying about keeping your mouth shut if nothing good can be said with it. I bet I was half way through my 20s before I said even a minor swear word in front of my parents.
But is it really okay and “true” for us to teach people to keep quiet if there’s nothing nice to say? I mean, what exactly – what really – does that instill in someone? I have immense and deep honor, respect, and gratitude for the humans serving as my parents in this life (who are, btw, exemplary grihastas!), but I still remain unconvinced of any truth in that old saying.
There’s another “saying” that’s been circulated in more recent years that sticks with me a bit more than the whole “if you don have anything nice to say” piece. There are variations on it to be found everywhere and a quick internet search will attribute the saying to sources as varied a the Buddha, an Arab proverb, and Bernard Meltzer. Despite its different versions, a basic form of the supposed quote goes something like, “Before you speak ask yourself: Is it necessary? Is it kind? Is it true?”
I think this is a much wiser approach to personal language than telling someone to remain silent if nothing nice can be said. However, even this new advice brings glitches of its own. After all, how can one sort out whether something is kind when something as relative as “kindness” can be expressed and defined in immensely different ways. The question of relativity applies to the other two parts as well, although in differing degrees and certainly the other two are somewhat less relative.
But let’s stick with these three as guidelines and look more into each.
1) Truth. This one can definitely be tricky. In Hinduism we tell a short story about how limited each’s experience of truth is. The story is of three blind people trying to describe an elephant. One, examining the elephant’s legs, describes it accordingly – thinking an elephant is something tall and thick and strong and shaped like a tree. Another, feeling the ears, describes the elephant thusly and understands the ears to be the elephant’s entire truth. The third blind person does the same with yet another part of the elephant’s body. None is wrong, however none is describing reality as completely as he imagines he is. Similarly, in our language we often say with certainty what we know to be true – which isn’t bad. The catch is to be aware enough that you understand that what you’re seeing as true may well be an incomplete truth. With that in mind, and if we’re to use “is it true” as a filter for our words, when could anyone ever say anything certainly? To be as “true” as we really need to be, we would need to present some kind of disclaimer to everyone we spoke with: This is as true as I am able to currently see, but may not represent the entire picture. Additionally, like the three blind people able to see only part of the truth, we would need to constantly seek ways to transcend what we know to be true and discern the truth as experienced by the person we’re speaking to. This is big. Truth is definitely One, but experiencing it is definitely VERY relative. And so for this one, I think most people would struggle. It’s surely a fantastic thing to gauge your words against, but you either need to offer your disclaimer or you need to be developmentally advanced enough to recognize your own limitations or to perceive truth according to another.
2) Kindness. This one is my least favorite. I think because regardless of the context it’s the most fluid of the three. Kindness, in every imaginable context, is crazily broad. Things like helping someone across the road, offering a compliment on someone’s haircut, and paying for the car behind you in the drive-thru lane are all pretty agreeable faces of kindness. For some, however, something like a mercy killing might also an act of kindness. The ego in each of us is unlikely to agree or even offer much space for the possibility that something uncomfortable to our own self could ever be kind, but I’m telling you the world is a very big and diverse place. They say, “truth might hurt but lies never heal.” Sometimes the nicest thing to say might also be the thing that will sting the most right now. Sometimes the kindest thing to say is whatever might be needed to jolt someone out of an egoic fog – assuming you’re in a position that qualifies you to do that kind of thing. To generalize, this is a good gauge of your words because at a minimum it still requires you to at least guess about the potential perception your words might be met with, and might also cause you to question your motive behind what you think you want to say.
3) Necessity. I’m ending with this one because it’s my favorite. Is it necessary? I can tell you based on my own life’s experience that this alone is just about enough to weigh your words against. You practically don’t even need the others. After all, regardless of whether something to be said is either true or kind, or neither, if it isn’t necessary then it might as well be left unsaid because it’s not really serving any good purpose. Like the others, however, this one isn’t without its own catches. For instance, how do you judge the necessity of verbally expressing thoughts or feelings? Often our actions suffice in that arena so that right there diminishes the necessity of saying many things. And when it comes to knowledge share, why not trust that the person you might share with will have their own experiences to teach them – possibly in a way more potent than any word you might utter? And then there’s the question of “picking your battles,” right? Sometimes it’s just not necessary to engage something verbally because you simply have bigger fish to fry, so to speak. This ultimately comes down to a personal judgment call, which technically still makes it pretty broad, but I do feel this one is significantly more cut and dry than the other two – and the more developed a person is on the inside, the easier it will be for them to deem things actually necessary or unnecessary to verbalize. And maybe that’s why I enjoy this one the most? It seems like the responsibility really and truly rests on the speaker. Which is what this is all really about, anyway. This one alone seems to capture the essence of this entire Spiel as well as others like, “If you have nothing nice to say…”
So there you have it. Many times we open our mouth when we oughtn’t, but it’s not always best to keep your mouth shut. Sometimes saying the toughest things is the most necessary, truest, and kindest thing to do and it comes with a heavy and awesome personal responsibility. It rarely hurts to say, “Be quiet please,” but so many times Life calls us to simply say, “Shut up!”
I hope you can always know not only what to say when, but also why you’re saying it.
Aum Shri Mahaganeshaya Namaha