Posted by Brian MacKenzie on Mar 28, 2019

I know I am meant to inspire here, but safety requires that I begin with a warning: This Moment of Inspiration is cursed. I first wrote it for the December meeting that got canceled due to high winds. I signed up again to deliver it for the February meeting that got snowed out. Today marks my third attempt; do not be surprised if an earthquake or some other calamity strikes in the next four minutes.

Rotarians use the Four-Way Test as an ethical guide for our personal and professional relationships. In all we think, say, or do, we ask…

  1. Is it the TRUTH?

  2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?


  4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned? 


Most of us fail the Four-Way Test pretty routinely.

If Rotarians fail the Four-Way Test less often than others, it may be because we articulate this rigorous moral standard, and make some effort to hold ourselves accountable to it.

Ideally applied, the Four-Way Test is preventive medicine. For example, we may catch ourselves in an uncharitable thought, and recast our thinking more positively to ensure we do not speak out or act upon that initial malevolent impulse.

If we succeed in governing ourselves by the Four-Way Test, people rarely notice. No one needs to know the false, unfair, unkind, malign thoughts we successfully reroute into truth, fairness, goodwill, and benevolence. In the best case scenario, people may notice if we rarely say things that are untrue, unjust, callous, or cruel.

However, all of us sometimes fail the Four-Way Test, and when we do, those failures are painfully conspicuous. For example, Donald Trump is a Rotarian—a former club president, in fact—and you may recall one or two instances where his words or deeds have arguably failed the Four-Way Test.

So, what should we do when we fail the Four-Way Test? As a rookie Rotarian, I don’t pretend to know if or how we are supposed to hold one another accountable for these lapses, but as an experienced mistake-maker of Scots Calvinist stock, I feel amply qualified to bloviate about individual repentance and restitution—in strictly nonsectarian terms, of course.

When we say something untrue, we should apologize and correct the record, broadcasting the correction at least as widely, clearly, and passionately as we disseminated the initial error.

When we treat someone unfairly, we must summon the courage and decency to apologize, frankly and directly, to the person harmed—and then ask how we can rectify the injustice.

When we sow discord and division, we must work with humble and patient persistence to apologize, restore peace, and—where possible—rebuild damaged friendships.

When we harm others—or when we fail to help people in need when it is within our power to do so—then we must apologize, take responsibility, and do what we can to heal the harm we have done, or to provide the help we once withheld, and more.

As an educator, I reject the self-defeating binary logic of success or failure. I prefer to recast failures as opportunities to learn, grow, and improve. I want students to know that no failure can define you without your consent; that most failures become final only when you surrender and quit; and that few failures can endure in the face of stubborn, patient, creative perseverance.

I think the same principles apply to the Four-Way Test. Like any worthy moral code, the Four-Way Test sets a standard that imperfect people can emulate but never attain. With practice, we do improve, but those occasional guaranteed failures are really disguised gifts: opportunities to practice humility, express contrition, and clean up the messes we make.

We all fall. But as long as we keep getting up, we never truly fail.


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