Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Three Gatekeepers

The words of the tongue should have three gatekeepers.
-Arab proverb

Before words get past the lips, the first gatekeeper asks, "“Is this true?"” That stops a lot of traffic immediately. But if the words get past the first gatekeeper, there is a second who asks, "Is it kind?" And for those words that qualify here too, the last gatekeeper asks, "“Is it necessary?"”

With these three on guard, most of us would find very little to say. Here I think it is necessary to make exceptions in the interests of good company and let the third gatekeeper look the other way now and then. After all, a certain amount of pleasant conversation is part of the artistry of living. But the first two gatekeepers should always be on duty.

It is so easy to say something at the expense of another for the purpose of enhancing our own image. But such remarks--irresistible as they may be--serve only to fatten our egos and agitate others. We should be so fearful of hurting people that even if a clever remark is rushing off our tongue, we can barricade the gate. We should be able to swallow our cleverness rather than hurt someone. Better to say something banal but harmless than to be clever at someone else'’s expense.
--Eknath Easwaran

It has long seemed to me that we should do as Easwaran counsels and not say anything that isn't true and kind. Indeed, I've long seen this as a hallmark of spiritual advancement and perceived my own less than kind speech at times as indication that I have a long way to climb up the ladder of spiritual development.

So, what are we to make of those--including alleged sages, pandits, and gurus--who scornfully dismiss the idea that we should always speak kindly of and to others as MGM, PC, or "idiot compassion"? What I make of it is that these people are mistaken and misguided. This is not to say that we should never disagree with or criticize others. But we should always endeavor to do it with the kind aim of helping rather than hurting.

I'm not suggesting that we pass laws that require people to refrain from speaking unkindly of others in public. This is where I think the critics of PC have a legitimate complaint. But what I am suggesting is that we do our best as individuals to speak and act as kindly as we can to others at all times and encourage others to do so not by legal force but by the force of our example.

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