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My best friend when I was small was a Friend. Her parents were birthright Quakers active in prison reform and nuclear disarmament. As a child I saw the homelier side of Quaker practice - the silent meetings, the delicious treats at the annual bazaar and an early introduction to the three-fold sieve.

THE THREE SIEVES

A LITTLE boy one day ran indoors from school and called out eagerly: "Oh, mother, what do you think of Tom Jones? I have just heard that ——"

"Wait a minute, my boy. Have you put what you have heard through the three sieves before you tell it to me?"

"Sieves, mother! What do you mean?"

"Well, the first sieve is called Truth. Is it true?"

"Well, I don't really know, but Bob Brown said that Charlie told him that Tom ——"

"That's very roundabout. What about the second sieve — Kindness. Is it kind?"

"Kind! No, I can't say it is kind."

"Now the third sieve — Necessity. Will it go through that? Must you tell this tale?"

"No, mother, I need not repeat it."

"Well, then, my boy, if it is not necessary, not kind, and perhaps not true, let the story die."

The version above is from The Children's Story Garden, stories collected by a committee of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 1920. Other versions you may encounter include  the Four Way Test "of the things we think, say or do" that Rotarians ask: "Is it truth?  Is it fair?  Will it be beneficial to all concerned?" Google turns up many links for it to the guru Sai Baba in this form, "Before you speak, ask yourself: Is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence?" It probably entered the public realm though through a poem called "Three Gates" written in 1835 by Beth Day and said to be "after the Arabian":

If you are tempted to reveal

A tale to you someone has told

About another, make it pass

Before you speak, three gates of gold.

These narrow gates: First, "is it true?"

Then, "is it needful?" In your mind

Give truthful answer.  And the next

Is last and narrowest, "Is it kind?"

And if to reach your lips at last

It passes through these gateways three,

Then you may tell the tale, nor fear,

What result of speech may be.

This three-fold filter is also attributed to the Sufis, perhaps an indirect source of the poem. A Unitarian sermon on this develops the specific applications in detail, as does this yoga meditation.(Let's Be Honest, about half-way down)

I would probably make a poor Friend. My imagination is too ready to come up with hypotheticals where it might be kind and necessary to say something untrue, or something unkind might nonetheless be both true and needful. Even with this wiggle room, though, my hunch is that if each and every one of us would at least ask ourselves these three questions before posting something, there would be multiple benefits.

Fewer pie fights! It's just hard to start or sustain a good pie fight if the posts filtered out by these questions are not on the scene.

Wider influence! I often think of sending posts from here, and then decide against it. There is more harsh language, more exaggeration than I think would be helpful to reach some folks that otherwise would be interested in our news here and our goals.

Fewer diaries. Folks often complain about the flood of diaries - if everyone would ask themselves these three questions, at the very least it would take longer to write the diaries, and likely some would not see the light of day at all.

Before you tell me that politics is hard knuckle and we can't afford to stick to what is true, kind and necessary, remember this: Gandhi, Mandela, Tutu and King would have passed this test. I would be perfectly delighted to be "only" as effective as this company!

December 2012 edition, republished by request.

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Originally posted to Wee Thoughts on Mon Dec 17, 2012 at 06:34 AM PST.

Also republished by Courtesy Kos and Street Prophets .

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