Religion

Before making a public statement, ask these three questions

Elizabeth Greene
Elizabeth Greene Idaho Statesman

“Is it necessary?”

“Is it true?”

“Is it kind?”

A friend reminded me of these three questions the other day, questions she said she tries to ask herself when she is about to make a difficult, controversial or public statement. I admire her greatly for valuing these guidelines. They embody for me the best of the religious values I hold dear, principles respecting the divinity inside each person, values that result in more justice, equity and compassion in our world.

Working toward a “yes” answer to these questions is valuable in both personal life and the public sphere. Speaking for myself, I fail the tests way more often than I would like. And I see, in the public venue, the meanness and incivility that result from ignoring them.

How do we go about practicing the discipline that leads us to live by these questions?

“Is it necessary?” can mean that we need to have a hard conversation with someone important to us. Let us just hope and pray we have the courage to do so.

Harder for me is avoiding unnecessary commentary on other people. It’s called gossip. Somehow, it is just so easy to pass on that interesting little negative tidbit, showing that we are in the know. The commentary nearly always causes at least a little harm to someone else, maybe only a tiny bit that they will never know about — but it harms my soul and my character to have demeaned someone else, even lightly and jokingly.

“Is it true?” follows on the heels of the first question. A lot of gossip, in addition to being unnecessary, is of doubtful truth, often third or fourth hand. We need to stop passing it on as gospel.

And public speakers need to pay a lot more attention to the truth of their statements. Generalizations about race, gender, ethnicity and class are simply not true across the board, and people need to stop acting as though they are. Claims to greatness, claims of problem-solving beyond the grasp of others — these mostly aren’t true, and ought to be abandoned in favor of clear-headed discussion of real issues.

Finally, “Is it kind?” can be the hardest one of all. We may examine our hearts and come to know that a subject or a statement is necessary, must be dealt with or spoken. We may also know it is true. How then do we proceed?

Now comes the challenge of speaking in a way that honors the other person. Now comes the challenge of finding the love — or, at the very least, the respect — in our hearts. We face the hard task of putting ourselves in the shoes of the other person or people, so that we may act compassionately and avoid harm. Speaking kindly when the subject is charged or hard often involves conferring first with a trusted other. Speaking with genuine kindness always involves examining our own motives, so we do not project on the other.

Kindness, when combined with necessity and truth, is a spiritual practice of depth and difficulty. Kindness of this sort (as opposed to mushy feel-goodism) combines self-respect, compassion, courage and a deep knowledge that we all have “that of the Holy” in us, to paraphrase Quaker George Fox.

“Is it necessary?”

“Is it true?”

“Is it kind?”

May we always ask these questions. May our answer, more and more frequently, be “yes.”

Rev. Elizabeth Greene is Minister Emerita of the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Contact her at uurev@pobox.com

The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.

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