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When I was four years old, the day the fat lady got on the train became a pivotal moment in my spiritual development.
At the time my grandfather was very ill, requiring my mother to spend most mornings preparing her little family to proceed to the railway station and then to my grandparent’s home several miles away.
I had made this trip many times, and it was for the most part a boringly predictable exercise. Therefore it was a moment of high drama for me when our train pulled in to a station and I saw an extremely obese woman struggling to ascend the narrow steps leading from platform to carriage.
“Look, Mum! Look! Look at the fat lady” I shrieked. I had to make my voice even louder and more insistent because my mother had buried her head in her train timetable and appeared not to hear me. Which was strange, because I clearly had the attention of everyone else.
Eventually, it was the fierceness in her eyes, more than the “Shushhhhh!!” she hissed at me through clenched teeth, that froze me into silence. Only after we arrived and shuffled, as invisibly as possible, out of the carriage, did my mother express her shame and disappointment.
As we continued in silence up the hill towards my grandparent’s home, I plodded behind in misery, trying to understand why that very “truth” which our minister extolled as a great virtue on Sunday could act like an explosive device in the mouth of a child just a day later.
Although I was only four, I was already being called to reflect on what constituted this “truth”—and when it was appropriate to share it. In my mind, it was just like my well-loved nursery story—The Emperor’s New Clothes—when a young boy in the crowd was the only one to say out loud what everyone else knew to be true; that the Emperor was naked.
All the villagers were in fear of the Emperor and his vanities, and felt obliged to pretend to see what they were being pressured to see by his retinue; only a small child was free of this fear, and willing to speak the truth. When the boy in the story spoke up, he had received great acclaim, so it was more than a little confusing to find myself confronted with my apparent equivalent of that story, yet wondering why I, too, was not being applauded. Surely no honest person in that carriage could deny that our new passenger had indeed been enthrallingly fat.
Later my mother tried to explain to me why, although I had spoken the truth, neither the fat lady nor our travelling companions needed to have their attention drawn to that truth, in that way, at that moment. She talked about empathy and how I needed to imagine the possible effect of my words upon others. So it was that I first began to appreciate the depths of a verse I would later discover in the writings of Baha’u’llah:
Not everything that a man knoweth can be disclosed, nor can everything that he can disclose be regarded as timely, nor can every timely utterance be considered as suited to the capacity of those who hear it. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 176.
This statement echoes the Triple Filter test made famous by Socrates, who once advised a gossiping acquaintance that before speaking, he needed to pass the “Triple-Filter” test. “If what you want to say is neither true, nor good or kind, nor useful or necessary, please don’t say anything at all.” If it passes these filters, speak up, Socrates advised. If not, either find a tactful way to make it pass or better still, keep it to yourself.
Imagine how different the world would be if we chose only to seek or create information that was true, good, or useful. Baha’u’llah advised that before we speak we should consider an idea’s appropriateness by three factors:
- Able to be expressed
- Timely to the situation
- Suited to a person’s capacity
So valuable was this verse that I taught it to my children, and we still apply it to current situations today. The Fat Lady encounter was what my future teacher training described as a “teachable moment;” an experience, whether planned or spontaneous, presented to a child in a compelling way.
For a Baha’i the ideal teachable moment also needs to meet the requirements of that Triple Filter Test.
I think we tend to underestimate the impression that we as adults have upon the minds of children. The purpose of what can appear as insignificant children’s stories like The Emperor’s New Clothes are common to every culture and religion. Some have factual origins, others are based on tradition or else completely fictional. Whether ancient or modern, they serve a more profound and relevant purpose in explaining the world and man’s experience.
The words of the Baha’i teachings have been given to humanity for the unique needs of this day. It is the challenge of the parent or teacher to impart these teachings in a manner that is clearly understood by the individual child who hears them, and is both timely and suited to individual capacity. This is a task of special significance to mothers who, Abdu’l-Baha stated, are the first educators of the child;
Let the mothers consider that whatever concerneth the education of children is of the first importance. Let them put forth every effort in this regard, for when the bough is green and tender it will grow in whatever way ye train it. Therefore is it incumbent upon the mothers to rear their little ones even as a gardener tendeth his young plants. Let them strive by day and by night to establish within their children faith and certitude, the fear of God, the love of the Beloved of the worlds, and all good qualities and traits. Whensoever a mother seeth that her child hath done well, let her praise and applaud him and cheer his heart; and if the slightest undesirable trait should manifest itself, let her counsel the child and punish him, and use means based on reason, even a slight verbal chastisement should this be necessary. – Selections From the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 95.
This kind of spiritual education continues within the family through to the community, in a cradle-to-grave education system. The Baha’i writings emphasise the implications of this spiritual education, not just for the individual child but ultimately upon our wider society, because it is key to the future advancement of all humanity.