Wise Speech

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.

12 thoughts on “Wise Speech

  1. I really like “Is it necessary? Is it helpful? Is it true?” That really sums it up. I’ve done it twice, I think. And have changed the posts as well. One post I could take out the whole part I wrote when a friend offended me (because why would I tell them? I just wrote about it!) because my message still stood without my indignance printed. I am more aware of how I write when my story generates from an interaction with someone else. I am also aware that a parent of one of my children reads all my posts in a more police like way – if I mention anything about my personal life in the blog (names or not) my policeman gives my post to that person as a “heads up – she’s writing about you” even though I am not. The biggest piece I was forced to atone for was “The Social Isolation of Autism Parenting – What Does it Look Like.” In that piece I wrote about the social isolation I faced when Declan stopped short of going into a party. We were at a party, but not really – we were alone out front playing Minecraft. The host of the party was given my piece and asked to meet with me. A LOT of other autism parents commented on that post – “this is so relatable.” But my policeman thought it was important to notify the host of the party. THAT was gossip. Sorry to spew about all that – but he really affects what I write and what I say. But I have made the same mistake in a different post and can relate. And will be asking myself those three questions as I write in the future. It will help me clear my mind to be sure I am focused on a proper point and justified in making my point even if my social life is involved.

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    • What a weird thing to have to deal with. I remember that post well. It didn’t seem that different from me at parties when my kids were little. I’ve done a *pretty*good job at forgetting who’s out there reading. Plus I feel like I’ve already said everything offensive or risque that I’ll ever say. But it would be disconcerting if someone were sending my links to people they thought I would offend.

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      • Yes, it really is annoying. And the thing with that post was that I didn’t say anything against the host or the party. They were both great. Just not for Declan which is where I saw the difference and decided to write about that. But knowing I have someone monitoring my posts out there, just for that purpose, really has affects what I write. Even though that post was very benign. I say atone, but really I did nothing wrong. I HAVE written 2 other posts that were questionable and I changed. Too much was there and I realized if the person read it, it might offend (although before my policeman I thought my blog was just my space for my thoughts). Anyway, the three questions help clarify everything.

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    • Yay, I found it. I often wonder who reads my blog and what they do with it. Periodically, someone will make a comment (in real life) that let’s me know they are reading and it always freaks me out. I think blogs are best for anonymous audiences.

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      • I agree, it weirds me out when acquaintances/ coworkers mentions a post they read, (they don’t comment online or follow my blog), it makes me feel spied on anonymously. I wish they’d follow the blog instead of sneaking in. I want to keep my blog public so I guess that’s the price to pay.

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      • Years ago, I requested that our local library put my book in their collection. When I started working there, I didn’t give it much thought because I assumed it had been weeded out. Recently I found out that it’s making the rounds and I have no idea who’s read it. I feel like everyone has a leg up on me. It’s not fair for them to read this personal stuff and not acknowledge that they’ve read it.

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  2. You are a wonderful human being Jeff. I loved this post.
    Funny, I came to it in the strangest way. I was actually trying to find a comment on my own blog someone had left about the four noble truths, and I meant to type “four noble truths” into my blog’s search field but on autopilot, typed it into the reader view of WP instead. Your post came up near the top. I’m glad it did.
    I’ve researched Buddhism and Tourette’s both. I loved reading your take on these.
    Most of all I loved the way you wrote about your wife and her (/Tara Brach’s) three principles (“Is it necessary? Is it helpful? Is it true?”), and I love the way you handle your previous “mistake.” We all make them while blogging. It’s inevitable and it’s how we grow.
    By the way I am still grateful to you for calling out my wine obsession on my other blog. That was helpful. 💛Mind you, I was also receptive. Some folks aren’t. It’s a challenging business to navigate —- telling folks our truth in terms of what we see about them, in case it helps, instead of talking about it “behind their backs” because we worry for them. I certainly have yet to master it.

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  3. Sometimes I worry about offending people that are part of the stories/poems I write but how else can I share the story? I sometimes alter names or use initials but I think it changes the feeling of truth in the writing. I like Buddhism but never follow the exact “recipes” of religions, sometimes the simple message is best in my opinion, not all the formulas and “correct way” to believe/act.

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  4. I have meditated, on and off, for 15(ish) years now. I go to a Buddhist temple that has English meditation sessions on Sundays. They have a dharma discussion afterwards, but I’ve never gone. I’m sympathetic to what I know of the 4 Noble Truths and Eightfold Path but I can’t quite commit. The biggest issue I have is with the idea of no self. I just CAN’T get my mind around it. Probably because there’s no mind to get around it. Ha.

    I can relate to the dilemma at the core of this. Writing is such a weird beast. On the one hand writing is an exploration, necessary to discover what we think/feel/etc. On the other, if done poorly, it can be devastating. I think, like with the question of stalking (from one of your previous posts), it comes down to intention. Your writing about this person’s Tourette’s might not have been the best way to handle it, but I doubt it was a smarmy TMZ-style hit piece. This is one of those mistakes that are a great learning experience.

    And, who knows, maybe this person hasn’t, nor will he/she ever read the article. In which case no harm no foul. That is, other than the beating you’re giving yourself. Isn’t compassion, for one’s self as well as others, somewhere in the Buddhist philosophy?

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