It was time. Kosette was 18 days shy of her 18th birthday, but though her chronic health conditions (kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, high blood pressure) appeared stable, new symptoms had manifested that strongly suggested she had a brain tumor behind one of her eyes. We’d watched Kosette’s behavior, likely due to the suspected brain tumor, deteriorate over the last two days. We’d watched her suffer from anxiety–from fear of being left alone, but not wanting us to touch or pet her. We knew that, if she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, we would choose to euthanize her to end suffering. The appointment was scheduled for 5:30. At 5:10, it was time to load Kosette into a carrier and drive her to the vet, possibly for the last time.
Where before loading her into a carrier was easy and she would be relaxed the whole drive (and at the vet’s office), this time was different. She was confused and alarmed and fought us as we gently but firmly pushed her into the carrier. What used to be a calm, routine occurrence for her was now terrifying, as if this had never happened before. She was frantic and crying. Once in the car, she cried out in panic the entire drive to the vet.
Attempting to calm her, I told her repeatedly in the car, “It’s okay. It’s okay, Kosette. It’s okay.”
I don’t know if it helped at all, but I had to try. My husband, who was driving, said nothing.
Later–after she had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and we had made the decision to put her down (read more about Kosette here)–I asked my husband why he had said nothing.
“Because it wasn’t okay. We were taking her to the vet to put her down.”
Over a year later, this exchange has stuck with me, not just because of the sorrow of the moment, but because of how this exchange illustrates an apparent disagreement between my Quaker and Buddhist faiths.
Quakerism has a Testimony of Integrity; we Quakers have a reputation as truth-tellers:
“To Friends, the concept of integrity includes personal wholeness and consistency as well as honesty and fair dealings. From personal and inward integrity flow the outward signs of integrity, which include honesty and fairness. It is not only about telling the truth – it is applying ultimate truth to each situation. For example, Friends (Quakers) believe that integrity requires avoiding statements that are technically true but misleading.” from Wikipedia/Testimony of Integrity
For Quakers, telling the truth–the whole truth–is important. It is part of why I identify as a Quaker, because this act of being truthful–always–is an important part of why I am and has guided my behavior for as long as I can remember.
While Buddhism has a practice of Right Speech, this practice differences significantly from the Quaker Testimony of Integrity; in that Right Speech usually requires telling the truth, but not always:
“Sometimes we speak clumsily and create internal knots in others. Then we say, ‘I was just telling the truth.’ It may be the truth, but if our way of speaking causes unnecessary suffering, it is not Right Speech. The truth must be presented in ways that others can accept. Words that damage or destroy are not Right Speech. Before you speak, understand the person you are speaking to. Consider each word carefully before you say anything, so that your speech is ‘Right’ in both form and content.”
from “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching”, by Thich Nhat Hanh
Since becoming both a Buddhist and a Quaker, this discrepancy between my two faiths has remained a constant inner conflict. When presented with a challenging conversation in which I am forced to respond in a way that will have notable consequences depending on how much of the truth I reveal or how I choose to deflect the truth, I am pulled in two directions: do I answer always with the full truth of what I know and how I understand it, even if such an answer is likely to result in increased suffering or harm; or do I find a way to answer that may not reveal the entire truth as I understand it, but seems likely to result in a lessening of suffering or at least preventing the suffering that telling the whole truth would have resulted in?
In those words I uttered to Kosette–“It’s okay”–I knew it was not okay. I knew we were likely taking her to the vet to put her down. There is nothing that is okay about having to make that decision. But in that moment, I knew that–for me, at least–what was more important than telling the truth was saying something that could possibly relieve Kosette’s suffering and calm her down. “It’s okay” was what I would usually say to her when she was upset and I’m trying to calm her down. At that moment, I chose Right Speech over Integrity.
My husband, who is neither Quaker nor Buddhist but whose ethics usually accord with my own, chose to say nothing because he would not lie to her. And I also suspect it was easier for him at that heart-breaking moment to say nothing instead of saying something he knew in his core to be a lie.
Would I make the same choice if it had been a person I was speaking to instead of a cat? Reflecting back on that day, I believe both of us made the right decision, because both of us acted out of love for Kosette.
The longer I live, the more I pull away from the idea that speaking the entire truth all the time is always the right thing to do. In an ideal world, there would be no need to ever mince words or stretch the truth or tell a “white lie”. But this world is not an ideal one. And relationships between people are so much more complicated than the relationships I have with cats.
For example, a person may choose to tell me something in confidence that I promise not to share or let others know about. If later, someone asks me a question that I know the answer to, but answering truthfully would break my promise, what is the best way to respond? If I refuse to answer when the person knows I can answer, that often will indicate one way or another the answer I am trying to avoid revealing. And to lie outright, well, that is not an action I usually consider as an option. Telling the truth as I understand it is, and has always been, important to me. People who know me well know that I will tell you the truth if you ask for it and if I can do so in a way that’s not harmful to others or to you.
And yet, I remember what happened with Kosette that night. When it comes down to it, comforting her (as best as I could) was more important to me than sticking to my ethical rules. When it comes down to it, behaving in a way that reduces suffering as best as I can is more important to me than following a strict set of rules. When it comes down it, I care more about the being I’m interacting with–person or cat–than about notions of integrity or Right Speech.
Because ultimately, what is most important to me is not notions, but actions. How can I speak in such a way that reduces suffering? How can I respond to that of God in this person by my words and actions?
Every moment is different. Every person (or cat!) is different. All I can do is try to approach each moment mindfully and be aware of how my actions may reduce or increase suffering and try to behave in such a way that will reduce suffering instead of increasing it.
And I will fail. I will tell a dying cat that it is okay when it’s not in an almost-certainly futile attempt to relieve her suffering. I will say or write words that will harm people. I will make mistakes.
But I will keep trying.