If you regularly read my column, you probably know that all of my columns are, in some aspect, very personal. One of the trickiest parts of writing these personal stories is that so often, it is not just my story. If it involves someone else, I am always cautious, as it is not only my story to tell.
In C.S. Lewis’ A Horse and His Boy, as the great lion Aslan reveals his role in the unfolding of events to each person, each character has questions arise regarding things that have happened to other individuals in the story, and to each of these questions, Aslan replies, “I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.”
Here is an example: I have a friend who, in the past, was a regular and relatively frequent dater. The thing about dating a lot is that it increases the likelihood of bad dates, and she’s had some doozies. Some of these stories are jaw dropping, others hilarious. There is a huge temptation to share these stories with others. Are these my stories to tell? This is the kind of question that I started to ask myself when I started writing this month’s column about some personal dynamics (unrelated to the woman mentioned above) that I thought might provide some interesting insights, but really reached into the edges of what is my story, and what is not, and the ethics of speech.
One of the behavioral guidelines in Buddhism is most often translated as “Right Speech.”
We teach children right speech principles all the time: “We don’t lie.” Or “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Or the big one in my house right now, “Don’t take that tone with me.” Like everything we learn as children, these rules continue to apply as we become adults, but also like everything else, they become more nuanced and complex.
Right speech is often expressed in terms of things we should not do, and involves avoiding what is defined as harmful speech. Four types of harmful speech are traditionally described:
- The first example above falls under the first category of harmful speech to avoid, lies, which are defined as words spoken with the intention of misleading or misrepresenting the truth.
- The second type of harmful speech is divisive speech, which is language that has the intention to create division among people.
- The third type of harmful speech is to abstain from using harsh words with the intent of hurting another person.
- The fourth type of speech to be avoided is usually referred to as idle chatter; a useful “catch-all” description if ever there was one. This one I fear may be the most important, dangerous and slippery of all. Gossip, in its most pure, refined sense of the word, is, of course, easily qualified as idle chatter. But where does the line come between chatter and useful conversation? When we tell someone that we’ve heard a friend has bought a house, does that qualify as chatter? What about telling others that a friend’s mother is dying?
I decided that I needed to spend some time contemplating the question of Right Speech. The outcome was that although there were many ways of delineating right speech, the first and best measure is to question its intent. Intent is the determining factor at the root of so many things; it sets the stage for determining how something should be done and, more importantly, whether it should be done at all. Choosing whether to use words, what words to use and how to use them is a very good place to examine intent behind the action.
Being thoughtful of your speech provides the opportunity to honestly examine and consider what it is you want to say and why you want to say it. Armed with this information, you are in the position of deciding whether to say it at all.
Examining your motivation in speaking can be an uncomfortable, even painful, experience as you are confronted with some of your less-flattering behaviors, but I think it’s better to squirm silently for a moment than publicly for much longer.