When my daughter Rose was small, we decided to investigate pet ownership. To start, she and I visited the local pet shelter every week to clean the kitty room and walk dogs. The executive director of the shelter, always welcoming, kept a small note near his telephone that read, “Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?” I gathered that he filtered his conversations through those three questions.

Later—years later—I discovered that those three questions (sometimes written as four) provide guidance for Right Speech in Buddhism. They’re part of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path to “the extinction of suffering.”

Psychologist and teacher Jack Kornfield mentions in his dharma talks that, when we learn to cut out unnecessary statements in conversation, we might find we have nothing to say.

So yesterday morning I subjected my written words to the same filter. I planned to write poetry—was it necessary?

Quickly I concluded that poetry in general is necessary. Didn’t William Carlos Williams say so in his poem “Asphodel“? And just this month in Lion’s Roar Magazine, Noelle Oxenhandler writes:

We talked about the irony that while poetry, in our current culture, is considered the most marginal of literary genres, at critical moments—whether celebratory or catastrophic, personal or communal—people turn to poetry for illumination.

from “The Zen of Jane Hirshfield,” by Noelle Oxenhandler, Lion’s Roar, November 2023

But what about our own work? It may never be read; is it necessary? If not, maybe we can save ourselves the trouble. We can give up writing or painting or philosophizing for extra sleep in the morning. Or for more time outdoors. Or for more time listening to baseball.

I’m sure I’m not the only writer or artist or scientist or mother or any other kind of worker in the world who wonders whether our efforts are needed.

As I often do, I look to water for the answer. Isn’t a poem like an oasis in the vast desert? Coming upon a pool or river when we’re parched is not only fortunate, it’s life-saving.

So yes, of course our efforts matter. The well-chosen word, the right note, the right color—they’re like those rare oases. Fortunate. Necessary, especially in critical moments—if only to ourselves.

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Like “Necessary”? Find my 2023 International Rubery Book Prize shortlisted What I Never Told You: Stories (Wavegirl, 2022). And discover my other books and more short pieces here.

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