Before you speak, ask yourself these four questions: Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it true? Does it improve on the silence? – Bernard Meltzer
As a child, I often got into trouble for talking too much. If there was a secret I was the one to blab it. I didn’t stop to think if what I said could hurt someone. Asking myself if my words were kind was a lesson I eventually learned as I matured (and after hours being grounded in my room).
So now I always try to ask myself before I open my mouth:
1. Is it kind?
I’m still learning this lesson! I like to be consciously and consistently aware of what I’m about to say before I say it. My greatest deterrent? Not wanting to bring someone else pain.
The Baha’i teachings focus a great deal of attention on that important subject, and ask us to endeavor never to hurt another soul with our speech. When we hurt someone else we hurt ourselves as well:
Beware lest ye harm any soul, or make any heart to sorrow; lest ye wound any man with your words, be he known to you or a stranger, be he friend or foe. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 73.
2. Is it necessary?
When I had throat cancer eight years ago, the illness progressed to the point where I couldn’t speak. For a time I literally could not make a sound. It was a rather strange feeling, and very disconcerting. I would think to myself, “What if something terrible happened and I needed to scream?”
It felt like that terrible dream experience, where you try to scream but nothing comes out. Well, of course nothing terrible happened, so I was fine! But I did find that the whole experience became extremely valuable to me later. It was thought-provoking to be the observer. I found that I listened more intently and was more present when I couldn’t speak. It was as if, by having my speech taken away, I had to learn a whole new sense. I put my focus on what everyone else said, and didn’t try to communicate unless it was really important. I also realized there was quite a lot I didn’t need to be saying and that nobody missed it:
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. – Ephesians 4:29
Observe silence and refrain from idle talk. For the tongue is a smoldering fire, and excess of speech a deadly poison. Material fire consumeth the body, whereas the fire of the tongue devoureth both heart and soul. The force of the former lasteth but for a time, whilst the effects of the latter endureth a century. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 265.
3. Is it true?
When we were children we played the game of telephone. The laughter and hilarity at the end of each game originated in the fact that what started out being said, became entirely distorted after it was passed down to the next person and repeated again and again.
As children, this game seemed completely harmless, but now, older and wiser, we can observe the damage caused by passing on idle talk. We are all responsible for investigating the truth for ourselves, and should be cautious not to pass along anything that we are not sure is true or suspect is fabricated. Spreading gossip, rumors and falsehoods about others can become the source of serious harm.
Since we’re all connected, relaying questionable information is detrimental to everyone concerned, and can only bring pain. Lies perpetuate ignorance, and misunderstandings are a great threat to unity:
Verily I say, the tongue is for mentioning what is good, defile it not with unseemly talk. God hath forgiven what is past. Henceforward everyone should utter that which is meet and seemly, and should refrain from slander, abuse and whatever causeth sadness in men. – Baha’u’llah, The Most Holy Book, p. 181.
The worst human quality and the most great sin is backbiting, more especially when it emanates from the tongues of the believers of God. If some means were devised so that the doors of backbiting were shut eternally and each one of the believers unsealed his lips in praise of others, then the teachings of His Holiness Baha’u’llah would spread, the hearts be illumined, the spirits glorified, and the human world would attain to everlasting felicity. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 4, p. 192.
4. Does it improve on the silence?
“Silence is golden,” or so the saying goes, and silence can often convey much more than speech. So try this: don’t say anything unless it improves upon the silence. When a friend confides in you and opens their heart, for the most part a silent and compassionate ear is all they want and need. We cannot hear unless we are silent. Great consolation can result from being silently present and supportive. We often can’t give our best attention to meditation, prayer, and reflection without silence. The wise prefer to be silent and humble. The most secure people don’t boast of their accomplishments—they teach by example. They speak with their deeds:
The quieter you become, the more you can hear. – Ram Dass
Be silent, only the hand of God can remove the burdens of your heart. Let silence take you to the core of life. – Rumi
So the next time you get ready to say something, ask yourself: Is it kindly? Does it need to be said? Is it the absolute truth? Is it lovelier than the silence? If you can answer a resounding yes to those four questions, go ahead and speak!