Gossip is often lies and distortion dressed up as truth. Gossips crave the insider story, all the gory details, the unknown dimensions, so that the one who gossips is elevated in others’ estimation by revealing what no one else knows. Gossip is about power and guilty knowledge and exercising that power against someone else, the person you are telling the story on. It’s telling tales out of school, exaggerating whatever seems outside the norm. It is never true, even though the events may have happened, because it’s second-hand knowledge and the teller adds his own shading.
Beware the gossips in your midst, they do real damage to lives and reputations. They traffic in drama and horror, pointing the finger of shame at someone else. Gossip takes place behind one’s back, never face to face. In fact gossip doesn’t exist if the person the story is about is in on the conversation, even if someone else is telling his story. If the person is there he/she can correct the other’s statements in order to bring them into compliance with the reality.
Gossip’s destructive nature derives from the gossiper’s motivation: to highlight some action by distortion, to ridicule, to pass around stories about another person, true or not, and to elevate oneself and diminish the other. Twice this past fall I was warned about working with someone in our congregation. I was shocked that they thought I needed a warning or that their own or others’ experience with someone would be the same as mine. Mainly I was saddened that they would talk about someone else in the congregation in negative terms or pass on others’ experience as true. And then I thought, this is laughable: we’re all hard to live with or work with, each in our own ways. A secondary effect has been that I wonder if I am being gossiped about’ that’s an uneasy feeling to have.
The churches I’ve been in up to now were much smaller, so it is easier to see a gossip’s effect on the whole. In a larger church, such as ours, it is easy to hide the destructiveness behind being helpful, “I just wanted you to be aware of someone’s shortcomings” or “You may find that he/she is………” This is still gossip, telling tales when the person is not present. This is not love. One sure way to avoid gossiping is to not talk about someone unless they are present or to not say anything about someone that you wouldn’t say to their face.
It’s not that love assumes the best about someone and hopes it is true. Love sees both the best and the worst of a person and still loves him/her. My training as a spiritual director and experience as a retreat leader has been valuable in teaching me this lesson: every session, every retreat is totally confidential, nothing is to be shared with anyone else. I have found a helpful forgetfulness about my directees’ stories and in turn about the stories I hear from friends, neighbors and acquaintances and at retreats. I’m not always perfect at it, but I try to hold whatever anyone tells me as sacred trust, not to be shared with anyone. Really, why would I? If it was my story, I would want to choose the people who know, not have someone else make that determination.