With almost everything we say, the near truth, the white lie, the better-left-unsaid, it seems to me that we can steer a pretty clear course, humanely, if not always according to Kantian principles (and remember where Kant left us when the murderer knocked at the door), by following the Buddhists. Their principle is, before you say anything, ask yourself: Is it kind? Is it true? Is it useful?
I am not a Buddhist. I don't even feel comfortable asserting that. It's like saying, "I'm not a supermodel," suggesting that although you might have mistaken me for one because of some obvious points of similarity, I want you to know that I am actually not one. Certainly, I am no further from being a Buddhist than I am from being a supermodel. But I know a good idea when I hear one. Of course, the first time I heard this, I thought not "Good idea," but "My God, I will never be able to speak again." I was able to edge up on it by thinking about what good advice it would be for the people I saw in my psychotherapy practice. I thought about what good advice it was for my sister, too. And it wasn't too late to suggest it to my mother, either. And at some point—maybe when a friend asked me if I thought her husband was cheating on her (I did and he was) or when another asked me if I thought she was the best candidate for a certain job (I thought she wasn't, but she got it anyway and I was glad)—I started taking my remarks through those three arches. I do see them as these glimmering arches in a flat, desertlike landscape; I see my remarks as a rather tattered caravan: the not unkind, possibly necessary truths in front, looking good; the unkind truths next, trying to look better than they are, moral banners flying; and the kind, possibly necessary but definitely not true ("Yes, honey, I think if you practice every day, you could be the best trombonist in the sixth grade") bringing up the rear, hopeful and worthy of consideration.
The arches now save me a lot of time, and they make some sentences completely impossible. I have also decided, in the interest of continuing to be who I am and to have a life, to allow myself to shoot for two out of three. Even this helps. The merely true ("If you and I were the last man and woman on earth, the human race would die out") can't even get to first base. It means I have to take a look at the kind, to make sure that it's useful or true, too, and that I'm not just lobbing a big gumdrop ("Oh, I had no idea you were so gentle and modest, Mr. Trump!") to suck up or make myself look good. I have to keep in mind that manipulation is not a necessity, unless you choose to live your life like you're a reality-TV contestant, in which case, what the hell do you care for kind or true? Even useful turns out to require some real thought. (Useful to whom?)
Mark Twain wrote in "On the Decay of the Art of Lying": "An injurious truth has no merit over an injurious lie. Neither should ever be uttered." Let us have less of Kant, more of Twain, and put absolutely useful first, kindness second, and let truth show a respectable third.
Amy Bloom, a regular contributor to O, is the author of Where the God of Love Hangs Out (Random House).
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