Rabbi Rami Shapiro writes of an Hasidic teaching that each of us is born with a fixed number of words to speak and when we have spoken the last of these we die. Rabbi Rami then asks “How would your everyday speech change if you really believed that?”
It’s a question worth pondering. How WOULD your everyday speech change if you knew that you had only so many words- an unknown quantity- to speak in this life and that you would die when those words were used up?
Many of us are familiar with the classic standards for wise speech:
Is it true?
Is it beneficial?
Is it kind?
Is is necessary?
But what comes to mind for me is that Rabbi Rami’s question asks us to consider all the qualities of unwise speech, the opposites of those standards. Unwise speech includes:
- Lying – speech with the intention to deceive. This includes exaggeration, little white lies, insincere comments and even withholding truth.
- Maliciousness – speech with the intention to create rifts, division and discord
- Harshness – speech with the intention to hurt another, including tone of voice, sarcasm, swearing and loudness.
- Frivolousness – speech with the intention to draw attention, idle chatter, gossip, empty words, “junk food for the ego”
So- if that teaching were true- with only so many words to speak- it would certainly serve as a warning to be economical with our words—no frivolous conversation (or as Thanissaro Bhikkhu might say, no cheapening of our own discourse.) We would want to spend our quantity carefully. And hope that the distribution of words had been done by a very wise being.
Shapiro also makes it clear that it would not be too prudent if our last words were hurtful or angry. As he writes, “since I don’t know how many words I was born to speak…do I want to die for the words “You idiot!”?
And then, who would want a final utterance to be gossip about someone who wasn’t even there with you at the end? How could speaking negatively of someone else be important enough to use our last words?
Finally, regardless of what awaits on the other side of this life, do we want to leave this earth with a falsehood on our lips? How would we want to be remembered by those who are with us whenever those final moments might be?
When I first learned of this teaching a few years ago, I monitored my speech for several days—and still occasionally do. Of all the aspects of unwise speech, I find that I do not have a ‘quantity’ issue. I tend to be pretty frugal….in verbal matters.
And while I could in general use improvement in ‘tone’, the most challenging elements of unwise speech lately have to do with ugly comments uttered into the air about politicians or other unsavory public figures. Mostly, only my husband hears these but they nevertheless taint the atmosphere and leave an unpleasant aftertaste (most of the time).
In addition, there is at least one person—maybe two- in my life who arouse negative thoughts and feelings when I know I will be in their presence. (Fortunately, I don’t do social media, so I don’t have to deal with the negativity that stains those sites). To manage my ‘under the breath mutterings”, I have found that setting an intention before I will be with those more difficult persons helps immensely to bring a more pleasant ‘tone’ to the interactions I have.
And I especially like Sylvia Boorstein’s (meditation teacher) approach to wise speech because it covers the whole spectrum of possible encounters. She writes that her practice includes “training my mind so that the inner narrative that accompanies me as I go about my days is true and kind and helpful and timely and gentle.” That is, she practices paralleling the qualities of wise speech with similarly wise trains of thought. Composing a different inner narrative in that way rehearses and implants the attitudes from which wise speech emerges.
From Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet: