My wife Susan does this thing (or really should I say she doesn’t do it). She doesn’t gossip. She doesn’t suppose, she doesn’t rumor, she doesn’t compare. She only talks about others when it’s necessary to talk about others.
When this first started, maybe twelve years ago, it was disconcerting. Suddenly we weren’t talking to each other. Long periods of silence filled the places where we used to tell stories about other people. She calls this wise speech. Wise speech, or right speech is a Buddhist tenet. It’s part of the Noble Eightfold Path.
Have you ever researched Buddhism? It’s unnecessarily complex. You have your overarching goal, which is straightforward enough: to overcome suffering and the cycle of death and rebirth. The way I understand it, we’re destined (doomed) to keep living life after life until we get it right. When we reach a point where our mental suffering ceases—when we stop second guessing ourselves, filling our days with worry or spite, stop simply seeking out only earthly pleasures—we’ve reached Nirvana. We are no longer punished with rebirth.
From here, things get too convoluted for a guy like me. Typically, I can only focus on two or three things at a time. I believe in the cycle of death and rebirth, trying over and over to live a perfect life, but Buddhism wants me to believe the Four Noble Truths, find refuge in the Three Jewels and of course follow the Noble Eightfold Path. We’re up to fifteen things I need to keep track of. So, I remain an agnostic. I believe in a higher power or order, but with no guiding philosophy.
But I understand wise speech. Susan follows the teachings of Tara Brach. Twenty years ago, living in Washington, DC, Susan attended a weekly meditation night hosted at a Universalist Unitarian church. Tara was the leader most evenings. The program consisted of a twenty-minute Dharma talk (a sermon, essentially) and a twenty-minute guided meditation. I went with her a few times. I was drawn to the succinctness of the evening. The whole thing, including passing a collection plate, lasted about an hour, and I walked out feeling like I’d done something positive for myself, but it was a night away from the gym, which, at the time was unacceptable. I probably went with Susan about five times.
From Tara, Susan adopted and embodied an approach to wise speech. She asks these questions: Is it necessary? Is it helpful? Is it true? If the answer to all three of these questions is yes, it’s fair game. It’s shocking how infrequently you get three yeses, so we live in a comparatively quiet household.
Because Susan’s conversations are guided by this test, my topics must pass this test as well. At home, I don’t notice it anymore. But outside the home, at work for instance, when gossipy topics come up, I notice how close-lipped I actually am. Probably, people think I have no opinions. I have them, I just keep them to myself.
Recently, I failed at wise speech. Miserably. I wrote a blog post that included my suspicion that someone I know has Tourette Syndrome. As I outed the person in writing, a small voice in the back of my head asked “Is this cool?” I set that question aside and proceeded to write. When Susan read the post the next morning, she was aghast. “Did you check in with them to see if this is OK? You’re using real names and everything!” I quickly altered the post, and I’ve been ruminating on the topic ever since.
When criticized, my first reaction is to pout. I hate it when people question my actions, and questioning my writing, gasp, is seven times worse. But when I finally got beyond my pouting stage, I started thinking about wise speech:
Was it necessary? Maybe.
Was it helpful? Possibly.
Was it true? Could be.
Vague. My adult onset Tourettes started in 1995, a few months after a serious brain injury. While riding my bicycle, I collided with a minivan. My internal injuries were so severe, that the brain injury was ignored. While I was still healing physically, my eyes started bothering me. I had constant pressure building up behind them and the only way to relieve it was to scrunch them closed or make straining, eye-rolling movements. I went to an Ophthalmologist to solve the problem.
I don’t remember how many appointments I went to, maybe a dozen. We tried various tests and therapies. Concerned about possible cancer, we biopsied my eyes. At each appointment, the doctor became increasingly frustrated with me. He eventually snapped at me telling me it was “all in my head.”
Fifteen years later, I learned he was right. Late each night, alone with a book, I began grunting while I read. I had no idea why I grunted, but not grunting wasn’t an option; it was something I felt compelled to do. After weeks of this, I mentioned it to Susan. She mentioned it to a friend who was a mental health professional, and that’s when we first heard about Tourettes.
After my diagnosis, I told some people close to me about it. Most said “Huh, I had no idea.” But a couple said, “Oh yeah, I already know that.” I was pissed. The cumulative impact of my eye problem was incalculable. It affected my relationships, my job performance and my self-esteem. The money and effort I spent on eye-doctor appointments over the years was ridiculous. If someone had told me what was wrong in 1995, I could have avoided so much anger and frustration. Maybe lived a different life.
I’m still shocked by the number of doctors who weren’t able to diagnose one of the most common signs of Tourettes. The eye blinking/rolling thing is a classic movement. If you have Tourettes, it’s probably going to be evident in your eyes. When I saw someone recently with my eye-scrunching tic, I wanted to bring it up. I wanted to make sure they knew, so they wouldn’t go through what I went through. But I kept my mouth shut. Instead, I blogged about it hoping they might see it. Wimpy? Absolutely, but I know from experience, it’s a really awkward conversation.
So, I’m sort of on the fence. Did I practice wise speech? It might have been necessary and helpful and true, but there’s something more, the method of delivery. And without a doubt, I botched that. I wrote about a potential neurological disorder in a careless way, a gossipy way. I wrote about them behind their back, and now that Susan pointed it out to me, I’m appalled.
I still need more time to think about this. I want to share the information, but I want to do it in a way that is gentle and respectful. Maybe it’s not even news, maybe it’s already known. I don’t know. But delivering this information in a blog post definitely isn’t wise.