Thursday, January 28, 2016

Gossip - the Straight and Narrow

   Humans have a propensity towards gossip.  We do.  We discuss what we hear.  We discuss the news.  And we talk about other people.  I think there are a lot of reasons for this.  We like sensationalism and if nothing exciting is happening in our own lives, talking about others sometimes provides the drama we crave.  We like being important and having an important story to tell about someone else can give us a sense of importance at that moment.  We like being the ones to know something before others do and have the inside scoop.  We like having something to talk about, and talking about other people is easy.   Eleanor Rosevelt is quoted as having said, "Great minds discuss ideas.  Average minds discuss events.  Small minds discuss people." And perhaps that is true.  But it is also true that we aren't bad people because we like to gossip.  We are just human people.  And while others can get truly hurt by our gossip, we don't usually set out with the intent to hurt them.
    Sometimes our gossip is more personal and attacking.  Sometimes people tell stories about their own lives that make someone else look bad.  It took a long time but I did finally realize that those who did this, who told stories about others that raise themselves up as victims and make others look bad, are usually doing that because they are afraid the other person might tell their side first and would make them look bad.  They tell their story so they appear to be innocent, the victim.  They tell their story so the other side won't be sought.  They tell their story so others will not think that they did wrong.  The ones who don't need to gossip about what has happened are usually the ones who are actually less at fault, and often more confident about that: they believe they have nothing to fear, they have accepted and come to terms with their own parts in the situation, so they have no need to gossip or badmouth someone else.  Sometimes people tell a story about someone else as a way of convincing themselves that they are not at fault.  Same thing.  If they tell their story loud enough and long enough, maybe it will be true.  If they can paint a picture in which the other is wrong, maybe in fact the other WILL be wrong.
     I learned this the hard way.  But the truth has truly "set me free" in the sense that when someone badmouths someone else to me, I have learned to listen for the pain and insecurity of the person doing the gossiping, instead of listening to condemn or judge in any way the one being gossiped about.  Sometimes it changes my feelings towards the gossiper. But I do not allow it to change my opinion or feelings about the one being badmouthed because I choose to remember there is another side, one I have not heard.  Again, that has been incredibly freeing.

    But as I reflected on all of this today it occured to me that perhaps there is a more graceful way to see gossip as well.  I was reflecting on my "story" of the last 5 years.  I told very few people about what we were going through.  It was pretty public, so most people heard about it from other sources. But there were a few trusted folk that I was able to talk to directly about what had happened, what was happening at the time.  Each one of those people I begged to not gossip about it.  I told them it was my story to tell and I pleaded with them to allow me to be the one to tell it when and if I was ever ready to do that.  They all promised to hold my confidence.  And in every single case that story was passed along to at least one other person.  Each person I told talked to at least one other, despite my eliciting promises from each of confidence.  For a long time I was really hurt by that.  In a couple cases, where the story was passed not just to one or two others but to many others there is still some hurt. In a couple cases people I trusted and cared about heard the story from other sources and instead of talking to me, passed it along as gossip to others, and that too was very painful.  If they cared about me, why didn't they talk to me instead?  Or at least, why didn't they talk to me first? Why didn't they ask for my story?  Why didn't they reach out to me?
     But there has finally been enough healing that I am beginning to be able to put myself in their better shoes and still see reasons they might have chosen to share the story.  I can imagine the pain that they felt knowing someone they loved was living through hell.  I can imagine the struggle they felt in having no one to talk to about something that was shocking, devastating, a story one hears about, not a reality someone you love lives through.  In some cases, people may not have been sure if they could ask me, or if it would make things worse to ask me my story.  Maybe they were afraid they would have come across as nosy, insensitive or "abulance chasing" if they had tried to talk to me about it.  Maybe they simply didn't know how to offer support, so talking to others, passing on the information, maybe to someone who would be better able to respond, may have felt safer, and more caring.  Maybe it felt like it was all they knew how to do.
     Whatever the reasons, I find I have moved into a place of offering more grace around this.  At the time the gossip was heaping coals on an already burning body.  It was painful.  But as I said I have moved into a place of understanding and forgiveness around this.  I can have compassion, as I grow in comprehension, for those choices that others made.
    Still, what I have learned from this is that we really do need to be careful about what we say about other people.  Gossip hurts.  It may be human.  It may be understandable.  But it hurts.  We need to strive for a better way.  When we fail, we need to find grace for ourselves and one another.  That grace can give us the strength and courage to try again, to learn, to grow, and hopefully to do better.