I stepped into a bookstore the other day, and there they were: bronze versions of the Three Wise Monkeys — hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.
I don’t know if the monkeys are making a comeback, or if I’m simply noticing them more. Time will tell. A website I check out now and then has several versions of them. In one version, the monkeys have bananas in their ears and mouths and over their eyes. In another with a “street monkey” theme see no evil wears sunglasses, hear no evil has headphones and speak no evil has a biker’s bandana over his mouth.
I’ve read that Mahatma Gandhi, the great sage of India, had no personal possessions except one: a small set of the Three Wise Monkeys.
Many people don’t realize there is actually a fourth monkey in the group (that sounds like the setup for a joke; it’s not). Just as most folks can remember the three Marx Brothers (Groucho, Harpo and Chico) but often forget the fourth (Zeppo), people have lost track of the fourth wise monkey: do no evil.
The reason he’s forgotten, I think, is his gesture is not to cover his eyes or ears, but to cover his genitals. That's not exactly an image you want perched on the family piano.
Still, it’s a shame we don’t use him more.
Hearing evil, seeing evil and speaking evil is one thing, but "doing" takes evil to a whole new level. I've heard it said that the good done by a hundred souls can be undone by one evil person.
Do no evil. The phrase calls to mind the opening lines of the physician’s creed: First, do no harm.
Of course, the flipside of do no evil is also important: That would be to do good. And that phrase calls to mind both the Nike slogan “Just do it!” and “Do it!” uttered by President Spencer W. Kimball, the late president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Yet the two thoughts are polar opposites.
Nike is saying, “Just do it. Make an effort to excel, achieve and be first."
President Kimball is saying (and I'm paraphrasing): “Do it. Serve. Take faith, hope and charity into the world.”
The same words, but from opposite ends of the spectrum.
As for the Three Wise Monkeys, I’m thinking about getting a set of them for myself. I can use a daily reminder.
Do I say things that are inappropriate?
Do I see things that are inappropriate?
Do I hear things that are inappropriate?
Someone once asked St. Anthony why he lived alone in the desert. He replied: “He who wishes to live in solitude in the desert is delivered from three conflicts: hearing, speech and sight.”
That sounds rather blissful. It’s also impractical and probably ill-advised.
No, the world doesn’t need more escape artists. It needs more good folks engaging with it.
What the world could really use, I think, is a fresh version of the Three Wise Monkeys — monkeys who remind us to see the good, hear the good and speak the good.
Along with that missing fourth monkey reminding us to do good.
He may be missing in action, but he may be the wisest monkey of all.